Thursday, December 15, 2011

Original Practice...Dickens?

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has to be the most-performed drama in the U.S. It’s everywhere this time of year—at least six productions going on in Atlanta alone right now.

I’ve loved the Tavern’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol since I first saw it in 2008. And I’m not the only one: tickets sell out quickly every time to audience members who come back to see it year after year. It might seem at first that we bring this one back every Christmas because it's always nice to produce a sold-out show…but I prefer to think of it as an integral part of our theatrical mission. Even though it’s not a Shakespeare play, I think this particular production strikes a chord with Shakespeare Tavern fans because it highlights the very best of what our company brings to Shakespeare’s plays:

1) Focus on the author’s words.

Just as the Chorus in Shakespeare’s Henry V begs us to enhance the production before us with our imaginations, the Tavern’s Shakespeare productions allow audiences to view scenery, great battles and more through the lens of Shakespeare’s words rather than the eyes of a modern designer. Here the playwright’s words and the audience members’ imaginations join to create great theater—no elaborate sets, no major special effects, just costumes and the occasional prop to help your imagination along. We bring this approach to Christmas Carol as well, to great effect. For me at least, hearing Dickens’ original description of Marley, or the Ghost of Christmas Past, or Old Joe’s lair in a seedy part of London, felt like encountering the story for the first time.

2) Live music and sound effects.

Rather than recorded sound effects, we use actor-created ‘sound sculpture,’ one of my favorite parts of Tavern stagecraft. Shakespeare’s company didn’t have the benefit of recorded sound effects, after all. Peeking backstage for a particularly sound-heavy show like Macbeth reveals a bizarre collection of ‘instruments’: everything from the guts of a piano, to Whirly children’s toys, to a bowed psaltery, to a wooden pole with five pairs of Converse shoes tied to it (used to make the sound of marching feet during army scenes. That one’s my favorite.)

Same thing for Christmas Carol. Every sound you hear, from the clanking of Marley’s chains to the church bells pealing, is created live each night by the actors offstage. We even have strings of bells hanging in three different places backstage, both upstairs and down, to create a ‘surround sound’ effect. And of course, as in our Shakespeare shows, this show treats the audience to beautiful live music (call me a purist, but I believe a live soundtrack is always the best.)

3) A sense of humor.

Three years working here and I still believe that productions at the Tavern create energy throughout the room that’s unlike any other theater experience…and the best word I can think of to accurately describe that energy is ‘celebratory.’ Our shows celebrate not only how brilliant Shakespeare’s work can be but also how enjoyable it can be. And so much of that celebratory feeling comes from audiences realizing that Shakespeare can actually be funny. Shakespeare is full of humor, and if there’s humor to be found in a moment we will play it—not just because our company employs, in my opinion, the best comedians in the city, but also because we want you to have a good time.

The same goes for Dickens. People tell us year after year how surprised they felt to find themselves laughing so much while watching Christmas Carol. If you keep a lot of Dickens’ original narration intact, rather than cutting most of it as many productions do, it turns out that the old guy had a (delightfully British) dry wit.

4) Talking to the audience.

The most important part of our ‘original practice’ approach to Shakespeare? Acknowledging the audience’s presence in the room. We’re here to tell you a story, no matter what play is on stage…and the storytellers of old kept their listeners engaged by talking directly to them. Since we bill our production as a ‘storyteller’s version’ of Christmas Carol, I guess the connection is pretty obvious. I can certainly confirm, being part of the production myself this year, that I spend far more time talking to you guys than I spend talking to the other actors on stage.

Since Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol as a novella rather than a dramatic script, it’s hard to call our production ‘original practice’ Dickens. But I think our original practice approach brings out the best in a story that people love to hear told again and again. Hopefully you’ll agree with me.

Merry Christmas!

~Kristin H.