Pit & Balcony Channels Tim Burton for an Innovative Twist on a Holiday Classic

    icon Nov 25, 2016
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Few would argue the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and his mystical change of heart upon experiencing the human condition through the spiritual conduit of Tiny Tim as rendered in Charles Dickens’ classic ‘A Christmas Carol’  stands today as one of the most beloved and well-known tales in the lexicon of Christmas lore; and as part of their 2016-17 season, Pit & Balcony Theatre is presenting some innovative new twists on this timeless classic in a series of holiday performances running December 2-4 and 9-11th.

Dickens novella, which first appeared on December 19, 1843, tells the story of bitter old miser Ebenezer Scrooge and his transformation resulting from supernatural visits by Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future.   The novella met with instant success and critical acclaim at a time in early Victorian era Britain; and while Dickens sources for the tale appear to be many and varied, scholars agree they primarily stem from the humiliating experiences of Dickens’ childhood, his sympathy for the plight of the poor, and many critics at the time initially viewed the tale as an indictment of 19th century industrial capitalism and an effort to restore the season to one of merriment, festivity and hopefulness after a historical period distinguished by sobriety and somberness.

Indeed, Dickens' Carol was one of the greatest influences in rejuvenating the old Christmas traditions of England but, while it brings to the reader images of light, joy, warmth and life, it also brings strong and unforgettable images of darkness, despair, coldness, sadness and death. Scrooge himself is the embodiment of winter, with his heart restored to the goodwill and innocence he had known in his youth.

While Dickens' humiliating childhood experiences are not directly described in A Christmas Carol, his conflicting feelings for his father as a result of those experiences are principally responsible for the dual personality of the tale's protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge.

To lend a greater appreciation towards the creation of A Christmas Carol, a brief history lesson is useful at this juncture.  In 1824, Dickens’ father, John, was imprisoned and 12-year-old Charles was forced to take lodgings elsewhere, pawn his collection of books, leave school and accept employment in a blacking factory. The boy had a deep sense of class and intellectual superiority and was entirely uncomfortable in the presence of factory workers who referred to him as "the young gentleman".

As a result of this, Dickens developed nervous fits. When his father was released at the end of a three-month stint, young Dickens was forced to continue working in the factory, which only grieved and humiliated him further. The devastating impact of the period wounded him psychologically, colored his work, and haunted his entire life with disturbing memories. It was also during this terrible period in his childhood that he observed the lives of the men, women and children in the most impoverished areas of London and witnessed the social injustices they suffered.

It was during a fundraising speech in October, 1843 in Manchester that Dickens urged workers and employers to join together to combat ignorance with educational reform; and realized in the days following that the most effective way to reach the broadest segment of the population with his concerns about poverty and injustice was to write a deeply felt Christmas narrative, rather than polemical pamphlets and essays. It was during his three days in Manchester that he conceived the plot of A Christmas Carol.

Given the fact that A Christmas Carol is such a well-known and beloved holiday classic, the challenge for presenting it on stage is to discern a fresh approach and translation for the work, which is one of the key reasons that young first time P&B director Isaac Wood was selected to direct this new production.

“The Board of Directors at Pit talked for a long time about fresh ways they could approach ‘A Christmas Carol’ before they hired me, as this is the fourth time they’ve staged it,” explains Isaac. “They saw some of my design concepts and strongly encouraged me to make it into something different, since its so well-known and every theatre group in the area has performed it; so I think the way you have to approach it is by adopting a very specific lens to look through.  For me it amounted to looking at it through the lens of a director like Tim Burton, and create unique stylizations and a specific focus.” 

“Once I had that sort of handle on it, then it comes down to not being afraid of taking your own spin and using your own influence to make your own show,” he continues. “Apart from incorporating sight gags, I’m hoping to get puppets into the show – all the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future are going to be puppets. Plus, I don’t want to shy away from the darkness that exist both in the script and the story. That’s what I find so compelling about it.”

“Most Christmas shows are so saccharine, which I don’t say as a detriment at all; it’s just the way it is,” continues Isaac. “But I think that in many ways A Christmas Carol poses us with the ultimate soul searching and in a lot of ways it functions as a psychoanalysis of Scrooge. With this particular version the Cratchit Family themselves are more on display, as opposed to focusing singularly on Scrooge; and this adaptation shines a lot of light in many places to offset the darkness.”

With a cast of 18-actors including Spencer Beyerlein as Bob Cratchit, Chloe Krueger as Tiny Tim, and Dave Lewis as Scrooge, Isaac points out how a majority of the cast members are only 22 years of age or younger, while Lewis is the oldest cast member. “We had about 30 actors show up for auditions and the cast turned out to be younger than I anticipated, which made for some interesting rehearsal processes because I had to take on more of a ‘teaching role’ then I normally would as a director, but everything is turning out great.”

A Christmas Carol will be Isaac’s first play that he’s directed for Pit and he just graduated from Saginaw Valley State University, where he came from Grand Blanc to study on a theatre scholarship. He directed shows all four years while in the theatre program and also directed and founded a comedy sketch group on campus, which he also wrote for and directed.  “I try to approach directing more from an actor’s perspective,” he notes.

“Working with such a young cast has been challenging because everybody is so busy this time of year, so getting them acclimated to the production schedule has been the most difficult part; and trying to communicate with the cast in a way they will understand, because a lot of them are very new, and for many it’s their first time out on stage, so bridging that communication gap and making the play relevant to them is very important, insofar as a lot of the actors are playing older roles. The Cratchit parents are ages 17 and 20, so trying to get them to understand what a mother or father would ‘feel’ in a particular situation presents its own kind of challenge.”

When asked what themes contained within A Christmas Carol he is striving to elevate with this P&B production, he references that palpable ‘spirit that Christmas generates within people.

“To me I think that the themes in A Christmas Carol speak to why Christmas feels the way it does for people,’ he reflects. “What’s interesting to me about this story isn’t simply that Christmas feels like Christmas because of the people and family who love you. It’s a time to be forgiven and to renew, so I think that’s what we’re dealing with, especially with this script – that familial aspect of Christmas is what comes through the most to me”

When asked to state the most compelling reason why people familiar with this timeless holiday classic should experience this latest P&B translation, Wood points to the unique vision he is striving to infuse into the production. “It’s unlike any version you’ve seen in this area and at the same time, it’s appealing to know that we are going for that quirky and dark Tim Burton feel.  We’re towing a fine-line, but trying to not make the darkness scary – it is a family show and it is the holidays and everybody knows the plot line; but inherently by staging it differently, I believe that’s going to be biggest draw for audiences.”

“There is something for everybody to enjoy because older people will inherently enjoy the story, while younger audiences might not get the story but will love the visuals. Plus, by incorporating the use of puppets into the production is a fairly rare treat. You don’t see a lot of people practicing the art of puppetry nowadays; and overcoming the challenges of presenting it is simultaneously the appeal of staging it this way.”

Pit & Balcony Community Theatre’s production of Charles Dickens ‘A Christmas Carol’ will run from Dec. 2-4 and 9-11th. Tickets are available by phoning 989.754.6587 for visiting PitandBalconyTheatre.com. Pit & Balcony is located at 805 N. Hamilton in Saginaw.

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