Scrooge on the fly Outside Joke casts ghosts of past, present and in-the-moment for improvised A Christmas Carol

‘There is no doubt that Marley was dead,” a verbose Englishman wrote almost 180 years ago. “This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”

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‘There is no doubt that Marley was dead,” a verbose Englishman wrote almost 180 years ago. “This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”

The Englishman was Charles Dickens, and the story was A Christmas Carol, a novella that begins with an ending and ends with a new beginning.

Since the Chapman & Hall publishing house sold the first copies in 1843, Dickens’ book has been shared in thousands of different ways by millions of different people, including the iconic actors Alastair Sim, George C. Scott, Michael Caine and his eminence, Kermit the Frog.

Theatre preview

Outside Joke’s A Christmas Carol: Big Dickens Energy

● Dec. 13-23
● Prairie Theatre Exchange
● Tickets: $42-$55, with discounts for students, seniors and arts workers
● Accessible performances (relaxed, audio-described, ASL-interpreted) are planned
● Tickets purchased for additional shows after seeing one will be available at a reduced price

“Even if you don’t think you know the story, you do,” says RobYn Slade, one sixth of the Winnipeg theatre troupe Outside Joke: a miser hates Christmas, and then becomes wiser, after visits from ghosts in the night make him nicer.

But Slade could say with confidence that none of the existing interpretations — in film, in theatre, in art — will be quite the same as the versions Outside Joke will perform at Prairie Theatre Exchange this week and next.

In fact, Slade could guarantee that, if she preferred. Because each performance of the cheekily titled Big Dickens Energy will be unlike the one that preceded it and unlike the ones that ensue. Each night, Outside Joke will improvise the show from start to finish.

It’s a huge challenge for the troupe, formed in 2002 and featuring Slade, Andrea del Campo, Paul De Gurse, Chadd Henderson, Jane Testar and Toby Hughes. Improv always is difficult, but normally, this troupe creates its scenes and stories according to a genre or a location, or both. An example would be a musical in the style of a film noir, performed in the heart of cottage country, which they did perform, off-the-cuff, last May.

With performances like that, almost anything goes, but with A Christmas Carol, there is a known and rigid structure, says Slade. The troupe must form a holy union by marrying spontaneity with expectations. “We collectively have to hold the story in our heads,” Slade says.

Key to the action is the music, which emerges like smoke from a London chimney through the fingers of De Gurse, a composer and pianist who uses his keen ear to help his co-stars create songs on the spot.

“This show has been an interesting challenge,” says De Gurse. “Typically for us, the goal is to have as many sounds available as possible, so no matter what the audience suggests, the soundscape (we build) can adapt accordingly.

“But there are things we know for sure in A Christmas Carol,” he says. “We know there is going to be a ghost who will have chains, so I have a chain hanging on a pipe by the keyboard. I have a firebell that I use as the sound of a clock going off.”

The Scrooges reading this might be wondering: if the performers prepare, can it really be improv?

“We use the sports analogy,” Slade says. “It’s the same as a football match. The players practise how to play, but they don’t know what the game will look like until it starts.”

Before the big game, there’s training camp: each member of the troupe read Dickens’ book and watched adaptations, paying less attention to the details than to the way the story was structured and presented.

“When we as a company are workshopping,” says Slade, “we’re looking for structure, not for content. We focus on the scaffolding of the show and ask ourselves questions based on what we see.”

It’s a hyperactive, and hyper-reactive, process, Slade says; doing improv is essentially to practise absolute trust.

“You have to listen to the things said, pick up on all the details and file them away just in case they’re needed later in the show,” says Slade, who joined Outside Joke in 2004.

“It’s almost like the time on stage was spent in a fugue state, and when it’s done, we take a bow, and all of the stuff that happened spills out of our heads and it’s gone.”

That’s how it is for the performers, but for the audience, some decisions made during Outside Joke’s performances really stick. At a show earlier this year, for example, there was a pack of killer beavers and a femme fatale wearing a child-sized Little Mermaid bikini.

Slade says the troupe has a few Christmas wishes: for their performances to stick with those who get to see them, and for their industry to continue to climb out from the looming shadow of the pandemic.

“Our collective wish is for theatre to come back, and for it to come back strong,” Slade says.

God bless us, every one!

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Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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