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How experimental artists fell for Scrooge
It might seem like my experimental physical theatre ensemble would never do A Christmas Carol. Blessed Unrest actors playing Scrooge, Cratchit, Tiny Tim, and funny ghosts? No way. We do devised theatre based on dark mythology, Russian plays where the protagonists kill themselves, and movement pieces where the whole cast is naked. We do not do heartwarming shows that kids can see, and certainly not for Christmas. That's going way too far.
Back in 2012, however, I was harboring a secret from my ensemble, and in particular from our director Jessica Burr, who also happens to be my life partner. I have always loved A Christmas Carol.
Growing up I would watch every stage and film version I could find, and when I realized our daughter was old enough, I ran out and bought a DVD of the Muppets' version. But every time I saw it, I would walk away dissatisfied. I felt that there was something missing, that the end was too easy, and that the characters were too thin. I wanted to know what made Scrooge the way he is, why he's choosing to isolate himself, and what would inspire him to change. So I decided to write my own version of the story.
When my first draft was ready, I called the ensemble to a surprise reading. The script was met with laughter and disbelief, and when they started reading, the actors were putting on thick accents and playing the stereotypes they all had in their heads. After a few minutes I stopped them and said something like, "Hey, these are real people. Cratchit can't afford health care for his son who is dying from a curable disease. Fred's mother Fan, Scrooge's sister, died mysteriously and now Fred is desperate for a connection with his uncle who is shunning him. Why? This is a dysfunctional society, and these characters are fighting battles." Then Jessica said, "Take away the accents, pull it in closer, breathe, and start again."
That initial reading led to a full production, and now, four years later, we are ready to remount what became a big hit.
This year's version opens at the New Ohio on December 21, and as we approach opening night, I sat down with Jessica to discuss our experience with this show.
Matt Opatrny, Managing Director of Blessed Unrest: What did you think when I first told you I was adapting A Christmas Carol?
Jessica Burr, Artistic Director of Blessed Unrest: I wondered who you thought would direct it. I don't like Christmas.
MO: I know.
JB: And while I love Dickens's other work, this story has never appealed to me. But when you told me what you were finding hidden in the original novel, and where those clues were leading you, I started getting interested.
MO: Were you convinced at that first read through?
BJ: No. I didn't not like it, but I certainly was not on board.
MO: When did it get you?
JB: After reading it a few more times I started seeing the potential for [Scrooge's] arc. Your adaptation is deeper, darker, and more complex than it's usually allowed to be, while retaining the story's inherent hopefulness and optimism that radical change is possible. And there's room for glorious dance numbers, my guilty pleasure. Scrooge's self-inflicted isolation intrigued me, and the pain and fear that are underlying that. He is cut off from and not acknowledged by others, and as a result he loses compassion.
MO: Right. If we build walls around ourselves, shut the world out, and focus entirely on self-interest and profit, dark days are ahead.
JB: Approaching this play again, post-election, I'm astonished by how prescient Dickens's message is and how little has changed in 150 years. When the system is failing, personal responsibility has to kick in. Scrooge isn't breaking any laws, he doesn't have to pay Cratchit more or provide health care for his son, but he could, and when the ghosts make him stop working for long enough to see what's going on around him, he can't ignore it any more.
MO: So I won you over.
JB: It took a while, but yes. And the challenge of staging it with only six actors and virtually no set terrified me, so I had to take it on. Especially with stage directions like "Scrooge walks through the bustling streets of London, arrives at his house, and ascends five flights of stairs".
MO: Sorry about that.
JB: It's great, but when we do the Broadway transfer I want hydraulics, a rotating stage, a massive backstage crew, and a personal masseuse.
MO: Any day now I'm sure.
JB: I've grown to love this story. And having the focus of rehearsal and running a show makes Christmas a bit more tolerable.
MO: Your inner Scrooge is showing.
JB: Bah humbug. To the potential audience I say: If you already love the story, you'll see it told in a way you've never imagined. If it is not one of your favorites, I think we'll change your mind.
MO: If I can win her over, anything is possible.
TDF Members: At press time, discount tickets were available for Blessed Unrest's 'A Christmas Carol.' Go here to browse our latest offers.
Photos feature Blessed Unrest's original production of 'A Christmas Carol.' Photo credit: Alan Roche.