A Christmas Carol - Notes from the Director
THIS IS NOT A DARK RIDE
We’ve performed Carol each holiday season since we opened the Blackfriars Playhouse in September of 2001.
As the Artistic Director of an internationally-renowned SHAKESPEARE company whose home is the world’s only re-creation of SHAKESPEARE’s indoor theatre, I always have to seek a delicate balance when making final decisions about which NON-Shakespeare titles we will produce. When it was time to make selections for our 2003 season (after doing Carol in 2001 and 2002), I knew that if we chose to do Carol three years in a row that we might be creating an expectation of doing it every year. I had plenty of people whispering and shouting different things in my ear:
“ Let’s not do that play AGAIN!”
“ It’s now a Blackfriars tradition, you can’t NOT do it!”
“ People are tired of seeing that play.”
“ People never tire of seeing that play.”
As I carefully considered all of our options and read every holiday show ever written, it really wasn’t very hard…simply put: I really LIKE the story Dickens wrote and I think it is a perfect match for our one-of-a-kind Playhouse where we are uniquely determined to keep Theatre of the Imagination alive and thriving in the twenty-first century.
We don’t do smoke machines, recorded sound effects, and special spooky lights. Rather than using modern technology to build a world of illusion (the way a film would do), we’re committed to using Renaissance staging conditions, this building, and great language to create theatre of the imagination. Shakespeare wrote plays that ask the audience to “make believe” they are in Egypt in one scene, and in Italy in the next. Cleopatra exiting followed by Caesar greeting Antony with “Welcome to Rome” immediately whisks that audience from one part of the world another with a just a simple phrase. Shakespeare’s plays don’t need big sets and fancy lights to tell their stories; all they need are great actors, those great words, and an audience willing to “make believe.” After this many years of doing A Christmas Carol, I’m absolutely convinced that Dickens’s story about Scrooge, the three ghosts, and getting a second chance works in the Blackfriars as wonderfully as our Shakespeare plays do.
“ You’re crazy, dude! Dickens ain’t Shakespeare!”
Well, ya…you’re right.
Shakespeare wrote words for actors to deliver aloud to an audience. Sure, some of his plays were printed during his lifetime, but not many; Shakespeare wrote his words to be heard in live performance by hundreds of audience members at a pop. Dickens, on the other hand, wrote a short story to be read in solitude by individuals. But here’s the great equalizer: they both used words to ignite the fires of imagination.
Adapting Dickens for the Blackfriars stage requires putting his wonderful words into the mouths of actors wearing costumes, just like we do with Shakespeare. Making Dickens come alive on our stage requires us to use live music, live sound effects, and live voices to create the right mood for a scene, just like we do with Shakespeare. Dickens and Shakespeare both use language to transport the audience easily from one location to another without requiring long, boring set changes. And one actor performing Dickens or Shakespeare can play a bunch of different characters by merely switching hats or putting on a cloak. Using Renaissance staging conditions to help tell Dickens’ s story, we think we can take you on a ride into your imagination that’s far more engaging, exciting, and FUN than if we used a bunch of modern techno tricks to try and fool you into thinking you were watching a movie. And the best part of this ride is that you take it with the lights on. Because you and your fellow audience members are sharing the same light as the actors and you’re surrounding the stage (rather than sitting in the dark, all in front, staring at the stage as if it were a movie screen), you can see one another, the actors can see you, the actors can speak directly to you, and you become an actual part of the world of the play as everyone in the Playhouse transforms into one community taking the ride together.
In the Blackfriars we need an audience to create the special effects in their imaginations, just like Shakespeare’s original audiences did and just as we do for ourselves when we’re reading a book. At two o’clock in the afternoon in Shakespeare’s original Globe theatre, which was completely lit by the sun, actors in Hamlet delivered lines that helped three thousand people imagine the darkness of the castle grounds and see a ghost appear at 1am. The special effects you use in your mind to create the supernatural entrance of the dead King are infinitely more effective and scary than anything Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, or CGI effects could create. Those special effects of the mind are what we use to create the spirits in A Christmas Carol, the witches in Macbeth, and the magic spells in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We believe that doing Dickens’s classic tale of redemption in this environment and milking Shakespeare’s staging conditions to tell that timeless story is a perfect pairing.
And even though we want Carol at the Blackfriars to be a holiday tradition for the whole family, we also want to use this tradition as an introduction for those of you visiting the Playhouse for the first time and we invite you to come back and see us do some Shakespeare. Now that you’ve seen this beautiful theatre and know our style, we hope that you’ll take a chance and see us apply these staging ideas to the plays of greatest playwright ever. Some folks think that Shakespeare is boring, stuffy “Culture”; we think Shakespeare is FUN. Come on back and we’ll prove it to you and show you why students, scholars, and “regular” people of all ages think our performances of Shakespeare are “cooler than a Velcro wall.”
We are very happy to have you in our house for this holiday show. Enjoy the ride.
ASC Co-Founder and Artistic Director