A Christmas Carol - Shakespeare's Staging Conditions and A Christmas Carol

Shakespeare's Staging Conditions and A Christmas Carol

Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions – minimal sets, beautiful costumes, doubling, cross gender casting, live music before and during the show, and universal lighting - on a thrust stage in front of a visible audience. It’s what we do. It’s something for which we’re known. But, what happens when we apply those staging conditions (and, of course, the spatial requirements of the Blackfriars Playhouse space) to a performance of a show not by the Bard.

Well, in the cases of Marlowe, Beaumont, Fletcher, Webster, Ford, and Jonson, we have the benefit of knowing that they wrote during the same time period and under the same constraints that Shakespeare did. We could just as easily call them Marlowe’s, Beaumont’s, Fletcher’s, Webster’s, Ford’s, or Jonson’s (or Mareautchsterdson’s, as I like to think of them as a unit) Staging Conditions – they used them just as much as Shakespeare did.  But, we’re the American Shakespeare Center, so we call them Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions.

But what happens when we use them for Goldman or Stoppard or Wilde or Wycherley or some other, non-early modern playwright?

Last Fall, ASC actors Blythe Coons, Allison Glenzer, James Keegan, and René Thornton, Jr. discuss their work on Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest with ASC Co-founder and Director of Mission, and Mary Baldwin College Professor, Ralph Alan Cohen.  In this podcast, they talk about taking a work written for a proscenium stage in a darkened theatre and performing it at the Blackfriars Playhouse.

And, every holiday season, the ASC presents another Victorian favorite, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.  So, how do we do it? How do we take a magazine serial written in the 19th-century and craft it into a play that works at the Blackfriars Playhouse? And does it work when we do?

The answer to that last question is easy – Yes. It works very well.

The answers to the first and second are a little more complicated. So, let’s approach each staging condition one at a time:

Sets – Scrooge’s journey takes him all over the English countryside as well as backward and forward in time; but, besides his stately bed, a few stools, and the occasional opening trapdoor, the Blackfriars Playhouse stage remains in its usual, gloriously bare state.  This allows audience members to conjure Scrooge’s counting house, his schoolroom, Fezziwig’s party, and the Cratchits’ home for themselves.  Each of our journeys through A Christmas Carol is unique even as we experience the play together.

Costumes – During our regular seasons, we use contemporary costumes, Elizabethan costumes, and everything in-between. But during the holidays, we embrace Dickens’s original setting and our actors wear 19th-century clothes. We see wealthy Scrooge in his top hat or his nightcap, Bob Cratchit in his long white scarf, and the rich and poor of Victorian England in their finery and rags.  Audience members from three to ninety-three can easily see which characters to love, which characters to pity, and which characters to fear.

Doubling – The ASC version of A Christmas Carol has thirty-six characters and the 2012/13 Tempt Me Further Tour has eleven actors. Even after adding René Thornton, Jr. as Ebenezer Scrooge, Jake Mahler as Bob Cratchit, and Allison Glenzer as The Ghost of Christmas Past, we have eleven people playing thirty-three parts.  But, that’s part of the fun.  We get the see the frightening Jacob Marley become a jovial partygoer and the downtrodden Beggar Boy become a beautiful, young lady.  The actors’ faces become familiar and we eagerly wait to see where they’ll pop up next.

Cross Gender Casting – A man plays the Plump Sister and a full-grown woman plays Tiny Tim.  Why?  Because at the American Shakespeare Center, we don’t care if the character is male or female, we just want the right man or woman for the role.  We believe A Christmas Carol and all our plays are an opportunity for the audience to see themselves in a character, any character.  A high-school boy can align himself with Lady Macbeth, a lady of a certain age can see herself in Henry V, and we can all see ourselves in the holiday joys and woes of Dickens’s characters.

Live Music - The holidays are one of the few times of the year that people sing with abandon. Start a rendition of “Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer” and, before you know it, those around you will be shouting “like a light bulb!” and “like Monopoly!”  Try to get through “The 12 Days of Christmas” without someone joining in on “Fiiiiiiiiive Golden Rings.”  At the ASC, music is a huge part of what we do. It’s something our audiences expect before and during the shows.  During the Holiday Season, we up the ante.  We perform holiday favorites and we invite you to sing along with us.

Universal Lighting – The lights are on the actors and the lights are on the audience.  You can see us, we can see you, and you can see one another.  And, when the staging conditions above combine with universal lighting, we get to the crux of it all.  We are all here, taking Scrooge’s journey, together.  You, as the audience, are a living, breathing, singing, clapping, gasping, and laughing character in A Christmas Carol.  Without you, Scrooge would never take the trip and experience his holiday redemption.

And - as is usually case with things Shakespearean, Mareautchsterdsonian (I knew I could slip that in again), and Dickensian – the writer himself said it best.  When you join us at the Blackfriars Playhouse for A Christmas Carol, staged using Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions, we believe your experience will be best summed up by Dickens's own words -

“Wonderful party, wonderful games, wonderful unanimity, won-der-ful happiness!”