Do not ask for whom the Belles toil (a tale of two actors, two theatres, two cities, and a show): A Christmas Carol

Emma Houghton and Devin MacKinnon, A Christmas Carol, Theatre Calgary. Photo by Trudie Lee.

Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Ted Dykstra, Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks in A Christmas Carol. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

They met 17 years ago as kids in the single-digit age bracket, in a show that would be a life-changer for both of them. They each landed a high-impact role in the two-year-old production, big and beautiful, of A Christmas Carol at the Citadel. And nothing was the same after that.

In 2002 Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks was the eerie Ghost of Christmas Past, a fairy with a woman’s voice and a child’s body, who unlocks the kaleidoscopic world of memory and lost love in a man with a frozen soul. Her new friend Emma Houghton, who’d played Tiny Tim (the Cratchit with the crutch and the showstopper rejoinder to Bah! Humbug!) the year before, had graduated to play Jenny Cratchit.

Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks and Emma Houghton in 2002, backstage at A Christmas Carol. Photo supplied.

Both are professional actors now, theatre school grads in their mid-20s with burgeoning stage careers. By the kind of magical coincidence in which theatre specializes, the two friends find themselves playing the same role, Belle (the young Scrooge’s first love), in two new productions of A Christmas Carol, in the two largest theatres in Alberta.

Do not ask for whom the Belles toil. (Hey, it’s theatre; they toil for thee, fair audiences).

Jimenez-Hicks is Belle in David van Belle’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol, set in 1949 and premiering tonight on the Citadel’s Maclab stage. Houghton is Belle in Geoffrey Simon Brown’s Victorian period adaptation for Theatre Calgary, which premiered last week.

“Except for a Christmas concert skit at school, it was only my second role,” says Houghton of Tiny Tim. “My dad drove me to the audition.” She’d landed the role of Jenny Cratchit and fallen in love with the costume, and the wig with the red ringlets. So her eight-year-old self was “crushed,” initially when director Bob Baker re-assigned her to Tiny Tim: “O no! A boy!”

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“It was my first real theatre experience!” And Houghton was hooked. “Getting to be around adult actors who treat you like them, like a little adult….” The whole experience was “like being at camp.”

She loved her “child-minder” Nancy. And she remembers the fun of the Maclab green room, “a total (kid) hang-out room … playing cards, board games,  games, reading, kid things, snacks, lunch….” She was on- and backstage with some of the country’s most impressive theatre artists, “actors I’ve always admired” — Julien Arnold, Kate Ryan, Ashley Wright, Patrick Howarth, Beth Graham, Kevin Corey among them. “We all had a ‘secret Santa’ and Kevin Corey was mine!”

And the U of A theatre school grad remembers thinking “this is my dream…. By 11 I was, like, this is what I want to do.”

Jimenez-Hicks, who went to the National Theatre School in Montreal and is Toronto-based these days, echoes the thought. “Some of my fondest, most vivid memories of childhood came from that show.…” Not least because her two sisters, neither an actor now, spent time in A Christmas Carol, too — one as the Ghost of Christmas Past, one as half a pair of rich privileged twins who are a visual reminder of the gap between the have’s and the have-nots. “My parents got very used to driving us to the Citadel and picking us up,” 

“Such a rare opportunity,” muses Jimenez-Hicks. Like Houghton she remembers thinking “these are my people!”

Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks

“Pure joy and excitement!” Jimenez-Hicks says declares emphatically of the fun of being in a big, lavish, professional production of A Christmas Carol. “An appreciation for the craft and history of theatre” came out of that, later. “We grew up with the show!” she says. On closing night “I was devastated…. My mom gave me a talking-to. If you’re going to be that upset every time a show ends, maybe you shouldn’t be doing theatre.” Just as if there was any choice by then.

Jimenez-Hicks is bemused to find herself in a new Christmas Carol, onstage once more amongst old friends, like Ben Stevens (Fred) and Braydon Dowler-Coltman (Young Scrooge), that she met 17 years ago when they were all kids together in the Citadel’s Tom Wood adaptation. “I took a 15-year break,” she laughs.

Emma Houghton

Houghton, who like Jimenez-Hicks has been part of Citadel Young Companies, has been working in Calgary since late September, venturing into directing the old-school way, by assisting the director of Alberta Theatre Projects’ Disgraced. “I’m trying to expand my (theatre) skill set,” she says. After the holidays she’ll be back in Edmonton assisting director John Hudson with Nick Green’s new comedy Happy Birthday Baby J at Shadow Theatre, then back to Calgary, to act in Anna Ziegler’s Actually at ATP.

As adapted by playwright Brown of the indie collective Major Matt Mason, Theatre Calgary’s new Christmas Carol keeps the story in 1843. But Houghton thinks it’s “a lot more socio-political” than the version in which she played various members of the Cratchit family at the Citadel. The playwright “has done a really wonderful job of bringing the story and the characters to life.… He’s given Belle a life outside Scrooge. She has a back story, her work to support those who have less.”

In this new version Scrooge (Stephen Hair, in his 25th year of playing the frosty Ebenezer) “is an everyman, not an anomaly.” The playwright, thinks Houghton, “has played up his fear — of being vulnerable, of being hurt, of poverty.”

At the Citadel, where van Belle’s new version of A Christmas Carol opens after 19 seasons of the Tom Wood adaptation, “it’s the same story we know and love. But you’re in a different world,” says Jimenez-Hicks, who will star as Wendy in the Stratford Festival’s Wendy and Peter Pan (rehearsals start in February). “It’s post-World War II and the feminist movement has influenced the world,” which sheds light on Belle’s sense of independence. And “there’s a little bit more of the beginning of their relationship,”  she says of Belle’s history with young Scrooge.

And speaking of beginnings, here’s a Dickensian story: two kids land in the world of mainstage theatre, age eight, in A Christmas Carol. They grow up, in love with theatre. And look what happens. Both make their “adult” Citadel debuts last season, Jimenez-Hicks in an intersecting pair of Kat Sandler plays, The Party and The Candidate, and Houghton in Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. And now they’re back, in brand new versions of the show where it all began.

A Christmas Carol runs at the Citadel through Dec. 23 (tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com). A Christmas Carol runs at Theatre Calgary through Dec. 28 (403-294-7440, theatrecalgary.com).

 

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