Constructing a classic Carol The cast and crew of Royal MTC's Christmas production work like the Dickens in the weeks leading up to the play's opening
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/11/2017 (1945 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It’s the last Monday of October, but in the rehearsal hall at Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
This morning, the cast and crew of this year’s production of A Christmas Carol are meeting for their first read-through and set presentation.
VIDEOS: Backstage Pass
Click each week during the show’s run for more behind-the-scenes video peeks at the production of RMTC’s A Christmas Carol.
Week One: Building the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come
Week Four: Scrooge on Scrooges
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The vibe is that of the first day of school; actors exchange cheek kisses and “happy first days,” before settling around the table. The sketches of the costumes lining the walls look like storybook drawings, the set models like dollhouses.
Everyone involved in the show is assembling at the starting line of what is, by now, a familiar race: the cast and crew have just three-and-a-half weeks until the curtain goes up on opening night at the John Hirsch Mainstage.
There are lines to be learned and characters to be developed, but there are also props and sets to be built and costumes to be sewn and wigs to be made.
The successful execution of a production this size doesn’t just rest on the shoulders of the talent onstage. A whole crew of creative behind-the-scenes people work together to not only create Scrooge’s world, but help tell his story. Their fingerprints are all over A Christmas Carol, too.
● ● ●
Of course, it all starts with a script.
Charles Dickens’ famous story of Ebenezer Scrooge, an old miser who eschews love for money but finds redemption through the visits of three spirits, has been adapted into operas, musicals, films, plays, and, in 1983, even an animated Disney featurette starring Scrooge McDuck.
Since it was first published in 1843, Dickens’ novella has never been out of print. “Bah, humbug!” is as well-known a holiday sentiment as “Merry Christmas.”
If you ask Steven Schipper, the director of the production and Royal MTC’s artistic director, local playwright Bruce McManus’s adaptation — which the company last mounted in 2005 — is singular.
“Bruce McManus has somehow mind-melded or channelled Dickens and is, I think, the most special aspect of our production,” he says. “His version is extraordinary in that it is eloquent and spare. It’s heartfelt but unsentimental — it focuses, very appropriately, on the ghost story.”
The full title of Dickens’ novella was A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas. When Schipper and McManus first worked together on the play back in 2005, both were interested in focusing on the roles of the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet To Come.
“Everyone loves a good ghost story — whether around the campfire or late at night at the cottage or between upper and lower bunk beds,” Schipper says.
“It’s like all theatre, but a ghost story exemplifies it: there’s a level of entertainment that’s on the surface which is essential, but then there’s this really deep, profound truth inside.”
That truth, in many adaptations of A Christmas Carol, concerns the value of generosity and charity. Giving is at the heart of McManus’s adaptation, too — but his is also a reminder to slow down and evaluate what’s important.
“It reminds us that life is short,” Schipper says when he addresses his team on that first day.
“That it exists between a sleep and a sleep. That it’s to be enjoyed. We’re here to love, to laugh, to dance, to sing and to give.”
• • •
Actress Lindsay Johnson is standing in the middle of the wardrobe department, wearing the skeleton of what will be Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
Costume designer Judith Bowden is taking measurements for its costume, but the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come began its life down in the props department.
The finished product will be a terrifying, 2.7-metre puppet with the faceless void of death — but right now it’s the metal frame of a backpacking pack outfitted with hockey pads, worn by a decidedly non-terrifying actress.
Bowden suggests a more exaggerated angle of the head to better conceal the body of Johnson, who will be operating the puppet underneath its black robes — otherwise, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come will look like it either swallowed someone or is pregnant. It’s all in the details.
Kari Hagness is the head of properties at Royal MTC. She and her team create everything from giant puppets to Victorian Christmas trees. In the prop shop, which smells of sawdust and spray paint, she’s working on making the food for the party scenes — think jeweled fruit and crisp, golden turkeys.
Her laptop is open to a Google Image search for plum pudding. It’s technology she didn’t have when she started at Royal MTC in 1986.
Her department handles both props and scenic dressing. An object becomes a prop as soon as an actor touches it. She gives an example.
“If this shop was a set, the carpenters would have built the walls and the floor and the ceiling, and the scenic painters would have painted it all, and wardrobe would have provided our clothing — and we’d provide everything else: the tools, the shelves, the dust, all the junk, what you brought for lunch.”
From apples on trees to the driver’s licence in an actor’s pocket, her department handles it all. The properties department has the most overlap with other departments; it exists, as Hagness puts it, at the centre of the production Venn diagram.
And in addition to being fun, her department is also intensely innovative. “We never do the same thing twice,” she says.
Every show requires some creative problem-solving; one time, Hagness engineered a vomiting pillow — the Vomillow — that an actress squeezed when she had to appear to projectile vomit in a scene.
A Christmas Carol doesn’t require her to draw upon her recipes for barf or blood (beans for the former, tapioca starch for the latter, FYI) but it does present its own challenges.
“There’s an awful lot of scenes and things have to move quickly onstage,” she says. “The other thing, it’s a fairy-tale ghost story, so things can’t be too real — for example, the furniture: the colours and finishes are more wrapped in gauze. They’re more like the illustration out of a children’s book than out of a furniture store.”
• • •
It’s been two weeks since the first table read, and the cast is doing what’s called a stumble-through of the script.
They’re half-costumed — think Victorian petticoats over yoga tights and top hats paired with jeans — and coat racks are standing in for bedposts. But already, the story as we’ll see it onstage is taking shape.
Paterson and Arne MacPherson, who plays Scrooge’s former partner and current ghost Jacob Marley, are rehearsing a scene. It’s true what they say: real actors spit. But even uncostumed under the fluorescent lights of the rehearsal hall, they’re fully in character.
Elsewhere, things are moving at an impressive hum. The sets are being constructed and painted; the wall between the shop and the backstage area is soundproof, since onstage productions often overlap with pre-production work. Shakespeare in Love, for example, was onstage until Nov. 11.
Gillian Gallow is the set designer for this show. She’s worked with Royal MTC on several shows — including God of Carnage, which featured the aforementioned Vomillow — and she’s bringing fresh eyes to A Christmas Carol.
“I actually didn’t even look at any of the material (from 2005) because I wanted to approach it with my own perspective,” she says with a laugh. “I find it hard to look at other design work and forget it. To this day, I think I’ve seen one picture of the set.
“I wanted to create an environment that depicts London in — I don’t want to say bleak, but in the Victorian era it wasn’t quite how we picture it in the little Christmas villages we create,” she says. “I wanted to get into the greyness and the cold that happens in the wintertime. I wanted to create this world that allows for transformation to happen.”
While the sets are rooted in the sooty realism of Victorian-era London, there’s also a dreamlike quality to Gallow’s scenery.
Because Scrooge is taken to sites from his past, present and future by the ghosts, there’s a lot of travelling in this show.
“There’s so many great theatre tricks you can use — they have a fly house, which means you can bring in scenery from above, and a revolve, but the biggest issue with these kinds of shows is the time it takes to get to each location,” she says. Set changes can suck momentum from a play if they’re too long.
Going from model to construction to theatre is “an exciting but terrifying” process, Gallow says.
“It’s always a little scary to make the transition to the stage, especially for a show like this. How it all works together is so precise, that if one thing is off in the drawings or one thing is off in the construction, it doesn’t work anymore.
“But it’s extremely satisfying when the things you were scared of actually do work.
“It’s always remarkable to me how they look at the model very closely at RMTC and they take the time to try to make what’s in the model on stage. Sometimes you can take a picture of the model and take a picture of the set and not know which one is which.”
• • •
Costume designer Judith Bowden found inspiration in her own Christmases past when developing the wardrobe for A Christmas Carol.
Bowden, who was born in London, used the pastel-coloured, sugar-coated almonds that her grandmother kept in little bowls to inform the palette of Mr. Fezziwig’s party, one of the last joyous Christmases in Scrooge’s past.
For the partygoers at Scrooge’s nephew’s house, in Christmas present, she paid homage to the esthetic of Quality Street chocolates. “The jewel tones and the crinkly paper and all of that,” she says.
Of course, she did plenty of period research as well.
“I looked at a lot of original etches that were published when Dickens first wrote the story,” she says.
“In the book — because it’s Dickens — he does pretty intense descriptions of the people. What they wore, who they are. If your name is Fezziwig, it automatically gives you a sense of what that person is like and you can use that as a jumping-off point, visually.
“If it’s Mr. Fezziwig, for example, the first thing I’d draw is a kind of fuzzy wig. They’re very essential, condensed characters. Even though onstage we don’t live with them for very long, they’re very full of personality — and I’m riffing off that.”
She was also interested in playing up the contrast between the warm and cold, light and dark. The ghosts, in particular, are a reflection of that; the Ghost of Christmas Past represents light and love. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come represents the dark unknown.
“That’s a big part of any celebration of any kind that comes around in the winter,” she says. “This striving for light.”
• • •
It’s the third Sunday in November, and you can count down to opening night the way children count down to Christmas — in sleeps.
By now, winter has been in Winnipeg for a while; there’s snow on the ground and the days are short. Inside the theatre at Royal MTC, the mainstage has been transformed into Scrooge’s London and the cast is getting ready for its first technical rehearsal.
Schipper jokes that they’re a long way from ready, but Sunday is also a long way from Thursday.
Backstage, actors are getting into wigs and costumes. Others are waiting in their dressing rooms, the kids’ Victorian dress incongruous with the devices in their hands.
Robyn Pooley, who plays a caroller in the opening of the show, is doing vocal exercises onstage.
Isaac Vint, 7, one of the kids playing Tiny Tim, calls out to her from the audience. “You’re really pulling that off, Robyn,” he says of her bonnet.
They all have the easy shorthand of people who have been working together intensely over a concentrated period of time.
Eventually, the actors take their places. Bowden, Gallow and Hagness sit in the audience, notebooks at the ready. They know there will be tweaks and changes and fixes.
The lights go down, the show begins.
And it’s magic.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.
Updated on Wednesday, November 29, 2017 4:19 PM CST: Adds second Backstage Pass video.