A Christmas Carol: A Cultural Heirloom
adapted by p. m. strain

Zona Gale Theatre
Portage Center for the Arts
Portage, WI
December 2007
Costume Design by Barb Church
Directed by Patrick M. Strain
Music Direction by Valerie Walth

as a collaborative production with the Portage High School and performed at the Portage High School Auditorium. The production team stayed the same, with the addition of Amanda MacLeish-Maier as my Assistant Director, several of the actors reprised roles they had in 2007 and some took on new roles, and there were completely new actors as well. This show gives you (as it gave me) the unique opportunity to see, essentially the same show in two different spaces within the same location, with the same audience and give or take an issue du jour, the same time. See the Production notes for further comments abou the staging difference.

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The family discovers the Scrooge and Marley sign.
You can see right away we had more real estate to deal with in 2009.
Cratchit and Scrooge in the office.
2009 production - "Freida" with Scrooge. Also, you can start
to see th availability of more lighting.
Scrooge and young Scrooge listen to Fan, while the ghosts of Christmas Past (played by twins Leah and Emma Harvey in 2007) look on.
Here, I actually like the look and
feel of the 2007 photo - more a memory attic attained, but the movement in 2009 was able to be more fluid, I think.
Ignorance and Want
Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present. Mostly here as a thank you to my costume designer - aren't these simply lovely?
Same costumes, but different part in the script - just too nice a photo to pass up.
Also, you get to see that we had access for a good trap door, the lack of which in 2007 made this moment less magical.
The Cratchit family. Same mom and dad - different kids.
The party at Fred's (or due to casting choices in 2009, Freida's) house.
The churchyard and the Ghosts of Christmas Yet to Come, portrayed by numerous (and ever changing) actors.
In the 2009 production, we abandoned the tabletop tombstone for a glowing Scrooge face - more appropriate to the convention of the people as gravestones, eerier, and better seen from a distance.


Production Notes:

OK, so let me get it out on the table - I adapted (see my Playwrighting Page for more on the script), directed (see more on the dircting approach on the Directing Page) and did scenery and lighting for this classic. Having worked on A Christmas Carol at the Commonweal Theatre Company the previous year, I got the bug to do the show in Portage, which had not seen it for years and years. Although I share a lot of aesthetics with the Commonweal crew and liked their homegrown adaptation, I knew I couldn't get it to work for the younger cast I wanted to work with, so I had to go back to the Dickens and start over. After all, I don't think enough people have adapted A Christmas Carol. The premise for this show is that the Cratchit family, generations later and having migrated to the US, unearth the heirlooms of their ancestor's story, and begin the tale as a family story. I was, however, a bit circumspect with the namesake, and in the end, perhaps too coy, as not many audience caught that it was the Cratchit family who told the tale. What the audience really did like was that the frame helped set up that the same actors were playing multiple roles - since they knew from the start that Grandpa was tasking his family to help tell the story, their disbelief was very willingly suspended.

For the scenery, I wanted to keep it simple and set the story within "Grandpa's" attic - a well-worn Victorian affair. I also wanted to make the audience feel like they never left the attic, while feeling like they were being transported effortlessly from location to location. The platforming arrangement established the attic, and apart from some crossovers and narration, the entire story stayed on the platforms. There were elements hung all around the stage that were pulled down and used - a shelf is pulled down to become the top of Scrooge's desk. A wooden high chair is pulled down to be Tiny Tim's chair. There were a couple pieces we pulled from backstage, but with the amount of set dressing on and around the stage, the audience really didn't notice if we slipped in something extra. Another example - the curtains that are open in the top photo and closed in the office and Fred scene (above) also served as bed curtains when pulled perpendicular to the back "wall." This approach also allowed for two small desks to serve as virtually all the furniture in the show. The narration between scenes (spoken as by the adults to the kids of the family) allowed time to quickly adjust the locale.

The same approach was true for costuming - we began in modern dress, added bits and pieces in front of the audience (a jacket, cravat and top hat for Scrooge, for example) and then later on when cast members slipped off backstage to change during a scene and came back in full (or at least fuller) costumes, they went with the flow.

Lighting was used very subtly at first - simply adjusting slightly as "Grandpa" lit the candles to begin the show proper, then once the show was under way, I was able to make more theatrical use without pulling the audience out of the show. The key was the use of narration between scenes that allowed simple, quick adjustments in scenery and then a reestablishment of scene lighting before the audience knew what happened. The only blackout occurred between the end of Present and the beginning of Future, when in the blackout the Ghosts were quickly substituted to a chant of "Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?"

This production was admittedly very "low budget" - miming dinner for the Cratchits, no spectacular revelation of huge amounts of food for the Ghost of Present, even a Marley without chains (an effect of having actors around the stage provide the chain work, which I gleefully stole from the Commonweal production.) The success hinged on a very honest, transparent and unadulterated presentation of this great story.

Addendum for the 2009 Production:

I'll address the directing differences on that page...scenically, I approached the show the same way as in 2009, just with more space to fill and more distance to convey it over. We added actual rafters and our small window became a series of windows. The shape of the house remained the same. We added an actual fireplace, and though we did have a fair amount of stuff sitting and hanging around the space, I think we could have hung more. I had also planned to hang oversized photos above the rafters (behind and off stage), but they ended up messing with the silhouette of the house and were more distracting, so I cut them. People who saw both productions thought I was successful in translating the design and the show. Some enjoyed the larger stage and some said they missed the intimacy of the 2007 production, even though the production values were a little more space (or because of that). In 2007 they felt they were IN the attic with the family, not so on the larger stage, which I would agree with.

Similar notes for the lighting, with the exception that given I had more stage space outside the house unit, I was able to use more ambient lighitng in this area. I still tried to introduce "theatrical" lighting slowly so that it felt like a natural extension of the story, but (as is visible throughout) I did use more lighting accents on the architecture, simply because it needed the 3-D modeling in the larger space.


Portage Daily Register, December 2007
MAILBAG: Portage Center for the Arts events stellar

As part of a visit with a relative last weekend, I attended two events at the Portage Center for the Arts: the Drury Gallery reception for the Local Artists' Show and the production of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" in the Zona Gale Theater. Both were more than extraordinary...

The unique performance of "A Christmas Carol" will unquestionably hold a fond place in my memory. As stated in the director's note, "may it haunt your houses ... and your hearts ... pleasantly." It most certainly does and will. The professionalism and talent of those involved in all aspects of the play was amazing. Even Dickens could be delighted with this adaptation and its presentation.

As a result of this experience, I have become a member of the Friends of Portage Center for the Arts and look forward to attending future events. The city of Portage and surrounding communities must be very proud of the high caliber of talent and the support of the arts provided by the PCA.

Harriet Carlson, Chicago