A Christmas Carol - A Ghost Story of Christmas
- By gentleguide
- On Thu 05 dec 2019
That’s a bit more of a title than you might be used to seeing for the yearly Iowa Stage production of A Christmas Carol. But even for a classic story of Ebenezer Scrooge, things sometimes change, and that’s what’s happening with this year’s presentation. Opening next weekend at the Stoner Studio Theatre inside the Civic Center, A Christmas Carol - A Ghost Story of Christmas is an entirely new production of the traditional story for Iowa Stage.
For a decade, Iowa Stage (and their legacy organization, Repertory Theatre of Iowa) has presented an adaptation of A Christmas Carol at the Des Moines Social Club. But with the move to the Stoner as their new permanent home, it became time for some updating, as ISTC Artistic Director Matt McIver explains. “Although the Larry Carpenter adaptation that RTI and ISTC had done since 2009 is wonderful, and popular with audiences, we wanted to explore something new, something that still felt like the classic Dickens, but had new elements. We put together a task force and reviewed a number of the adaptations out there. We settled on three, and then talked with [scenic designer] Jay Jagim (not part of the committee) to get his thoughts.”
“The Michael Wilson version was unanimously judged by the group to be a great adaptation that would never fit in the Stoner. Jay thought he could make it fit... at which point it was the obvious choice. It's faithful to the Dickens original but has some wonderful theatrical elements [such as the addition of Ghostly Apparition dancers as seen in the rehearsal photo here] and a hint of The Wizard of Oz magic to make the show really come alive onstage.”
Right Up Their Alley
Jay Jagim certainly thought this version of A Christmas Carol - A Ghost Story of Christmas could fit the Stoner, and he’s about as good an authority on this Wilson adaptation as there is... since he was there at its creation. “This version was first created at the Alley Theater in Houston, one of America's great regional theaters, some 30 years ago,” continues McIver. “Jay was the resident scenic designer at the Alley at the time, the youngest they had ever had. He and Michael Wilson (who was I believe a young associate) met regularly to talk about the adaptation, sharing ideas, inspirations, thoughts. The 80's were a very individualistic, materialistic time, and the team wanted to foreground the idea of community, compassion, and empathy, ideas at the heart of the story and still hugely relevant today.”
“The doubling of the ghosts and vendors adds a Wizard of Oz flair to the proceedings, and works very nicely thematically with the ideas of community and compassion. The original version had a giant robot as the ghost of Christmas Future! (We have Ethan Seiser, a great presence in and of himself, so no robot in the Stoner.)”
Thirty years later, the Alley Theatre still has a production of the show running from Thanksgiving until New Year’s each holiday season. McIver admires that kind of decades-staying power, and hopes to start a new tradition with the show here in Des Moines. “It's been playing at Hartford Stage for some 20 years, and I believe also runs at Ford's Theater in DC. So there is a track record of this adaptation having longevity, which was something we wanted. The longevity of the script at multiple theaters attest to the charm, emotion and appeal that Iowa audiences will find as well.”
The More Things Change
Regular patrons who know the traditional Iowa Stage tale of Scrooge, Marley, and the various ghosts shouldn’t worry that this version is too far afield from what they've seen previously. Actor Richard Maynard is returning once again as Scrooge, and many of the Iowa Stage Resident Company is part of this production. “For those who are used to our previous adaptation, they will recognize 95% of the story,” reassures McIver. “Some scenes are streamlined, but in rehearsals I mostly felt that these served to create a dynamic flow in the show, and the edits are judicious and, I believe, very effective. I hope audiences will feel as I do that the magic and excitement are all there, with some elements of spectacle we weren't able to achieve before.”
“This script, with its connection to Jay, shared with our previous version a faithfulness to Dickens' wonderful writing. But it also has a reworked community, a different sense of spectacle, and some exciting new opportunities for our resident artist company and our guest artists. This version’s cast doubles the ghosts with three vendors who owe debts to Scrooge: A Doll Vendor (Christmas Past), a Fruit and Cider Vendor (Christmas Present) and a Watchmaker (Christmas Future). This connects the story even more to Scrooge's current life and world, and creates a community. The addition of the Ghostly Apparitions is coming with new opportunities to create different kinds of moments.”
The biggest change for A Christmas Carol is really making the presentation work in the Stoner, which has a traditionally wider, more shallow stage area than the Social Club space. “The space has a tremendous impact on any piece of theater, and the transition to the Stoner was the opportunity to explore a new version of the holiday classic. One of the most exciting things is the new set that Jay is designing, which gives us new opportunities we were unable to achieve before. There are more levels, more entrances, more transformation, more surprises. And the design artistry of Jay, and of Susanna Douthit on costumes and Josh Jepson on sound, is amazing.”
“For this show, Jay's deep familiarity with the script lead to him coming up with some wonderfully creative solutions to the challenges of doing a show of this scale in the Stoner theater. There's a sleigh called for, and in the shallow thrust of the Stoner that was a head-scratcher, but Jay has scaled his solutions wonderfully. Given the tight limitations, Jay and I actually sat down this summer and talked through the blocking of the show, to make sure the contemplated design could accommodate all the moments we needed to achieve. This is certainly a highlight in what has been for me probably my most important artistic collaborative relationship, and I'm hoping that audiences will get the same sense of wonder from the production that I get from Jay's design.”
You can experience that design, and the production of A Christmas Carol - A Ghost Story for Christmas yourself when it opens next Friday, December 13 and running through Sunday, December 22. Tickets are available through the Iowa Stage website, or through the Civic Center box office and website as well. Enjoy this new (to Iowa) version of the traditional heartwarming story, and ring in Christmas anew!!