Ghosts of Christmas Carols Past
- By gentleguide
- On Sun 10 dec 2017
A tradition of the holiday season is A Christmas Carol. While no less than 5 different area groups are doing variations of the classic tale of Scrooge and his late night visitors this season, the real legacy version is being presented by Iowa Stage. Carrying on the tradition of years past from Repertory Theatre of Iowa, A Christmas Carol has more than its share of continuity and history.
Performed numerous times by this group over the last couple decades, A Christmas Carol is a well-loved and anticipated part of the holiday theatre schedule. And that anticipation isn’t just on the part of the audience. Many of the performers in the show have been part of previous productions over the years, and A Christmas Carol is like an old friend.
One of the veterans is the gentleman playing the Ghost of Christmas Present, Shawn Wilson. “The wonderful thing about our production,” says Shawn, “is that while the base stays pretty much intact, we have this wonderful influx of new actors every year. It’s what keeps it really fresh. Different actors bring different energies and gives the scenes small tweaks that keep it fresh for me.”
Those small tweaks must add up to quite a show, as both Shawn and his fellow castmate Richard Maynard (who plays Scrooge) won Cloris Awards for their performances this past year. But that doesn’t mean that either of them are willing to rest on their laurels.
“Another amazing thing is that no matter how many times I do A Christmas Carol, there is always something I am discovering or trying. We were very honored, Richard and I, to be recognized for our performances. But we’re still striving to try new things, settle into the roles more, and be better.”
“I love this show. I get to play so many different people and I love that challenging versatility. I don’t want any of my characters to sound the same or walk the same, yet still be believable, and that’s a challenge I love to explore every year.”
One of those newer elements is actor Thomas Gill. Tom came into the cast for the first time in last year’s production, and is returning for just his second time in the roles of nephew Fred and, in flashback, young Scrooge. Even with only a year under his belt, he can see how things develop over time.
“Having performed it once and having a year with the characters somewhere in your subconscious really helped me see my characters again from a different, and I think more genuine, perspective. You’ve gotten past learning the lines, and making the initial discoveries, and getting the accent down, so you can really start learning about the characters and taking different approaches without trying too hard. It’s when you stop trying too hard that you can really hear the character’s voice come through. There’s authenticity in the simplicity of approaching a role, and having the comfort of doing this before helps find those authentic moments.”
Tom knows what he’s talking about, and has learned to truly develop a love of the kind of classic theatre that Iowa Stage provides. In addition to A Christmas Carol, he’s been involved in a number of their other shows, including their annual summer “Shakespeare on the Lawn” show at the Salisbury House.
“My directors at Lincoln High School and Central College in Pella seemed to favor the classics, so I grew to really appreciate the different approach you have to take toward a classic play, be it Shakespeare or Moliere or Dickens. You have to learn why characters would act a certain way in that time.”
“Classic scripts require you to learn more about peoples’ hopes and fears in that time, and the thing that’s really remarkable - and why I especially like the process - is that realization that throughout human history we’ve always had the same desires and wants and fears on some level. So even when the language is dated and the circumstances are ancient, you can still feel a true connection with the characters, which is a remarkable epiphany.”
“I’m also a fan of language and lyricism, and I feel like those are more predominant aspects of older scripts, and especially with A Christmas Carol. I think that’s a huge part of why this play doesn’t get tired with audiences, or the performers. There’s something magical about the story, and Dickens’ lyrical prose helps elevate that magic year after year.”
Christmas Yet to Come
Of course, there are new performers every season, and new elements at play. And there’s a balancing act that has to be performed between those things that are expected and those that can used to surprise the audience. Shawn describes his own idea of this balance.
“There are certainly structures in this show that cannot change. Certain production elements, blocking, etc. But that actually works in our favor. All of that exploration is done. New players can feel a little intimidated at first... I certainly did, but because a lot of that is figured out already, you can concentrate on the actual characters and not all the small stuff. Basically, the playground is already built. So all you have to worry about is how you want to play.”
“And the new influx of people and kids every year gives you so much new energy. It’s pretty great. One of the new actors this year is my son, Luke. He’s seen it every year I’ve done it and wanted to try out. It’s been such a cool experience with him and being there together. This has been a very special experience.”
I asked both Shawn and Tom why Iowa Stage and their audiences keep coming back to A Christmas Carol year after year. Whether it’s for the viewers or the performers, it’s all about the material, and how it consistently has an effect on all those around it.
“I think it’s so many things,” says Shawn. “It’s a great story about redemption and thinking of others first, which this year we seem to be quite in need of. It’s all the great things you want Christmas to be about. Family, friends, songs, and spending time together. This has grown into a holiday tradition for a lot of families. Something they can all do together and leave the theatre feeling great.”
Tom adds, “Just seeing this play performed and rehearsed every night and still being engaged in the action and dialogue every night says a lot about why Iowa Stage should have no problem performing this year after year. Even tonight at rehearsal there was a scene that I almost got choked up at, because of the tenderness of it. The talent on display at Iowa Stage performances is really wonderful, and it’s a feeling you can only get with the magic of live theatre.”
Go experience the tenderness, tradition, and all A Christmas Carol has to offer when Iowa Stage begins their performances at the Kum & Go Theatre at the Des Moines Social Club. The show runs from December 14th through December 23rd, and tickets are available on the Iowa Stage website.