By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Some day soon we all will be together/ If the fates allow/ Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow….
If there ever was a Christmas carol for 2020, it’s got to be Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. Eighty years old and sounding freshly minted, it weaves its way through the Citadel’s A Christmas Carol, speaking to our isolating moment.
Of the dozen Christmas songs in David van Belle’s adaptation — which propels Dickens’ evergreen 1843 ghost story out of the Victorian period forward a century into the late 1940s — “it’s the most poignant to us right now,” says artistic director Daryl Cloran. The playwright echoes the thought. “It’s the carol for now,” says van Belle. A close second? I’ll Be Home For Christmas.
The lavish 30-plus performer production, a $1 million affair which premiered on the Citadel’s Maclab stage last year after 19 seasons of the Tom Wood adaptation, is back. And this time there’s home delivery: it comes to you, Dec. 15 to 31, in a 90-minute $250,000 film version of the two-hour production, made possible by indispensable infusions from EPCOR’s Heart and Soul fund ($100,000) and the Edmonton Community Foundation ($50,000).
Even last March, at the moment live theatre shut down, with devastating abruptness for a whole industry, the Citadel knew in its heart that Edmonton couldn’t be denied its annual Christmas tradition. Not this year of all years. “When we started postponing and cancelling shows, from the beginning it was the show we knew we had to find a way to save,” says Cloran of A Christmas Carol, a venerable civic institution.
“The ever-evolving pandemic restrictions” meant continual reassessment of possibilities. An audio version perhaps? “At one point last summer we thought we might be able to re-stage the whole play (onstage) and film it,” Cloran says. But among all the logistical mind-benders of such a large gathering of artists in these COVID-ian times, 34 onstage and a crew of 20 in the crowded backstage, there was the biggest obstacle of all: live singing.
The Christmas Carol we’ll see from home is “a re-imagining for film … a sort of hybrid of theatre production and live TV shoot,” as Cloran puts it. The Rice, the smallest of the Citadel’s theatres, became a TV studio, with a film team of five (local cinematographer Raoul Bhatt, video and sound editing by Alpacalypse Productions).
The band pre-recorded their tracks. The actors lip-synched. Rehearsals happened over a few days in in five or six different rooms at the theatre — “in one people re-learned the music, in another the choreography…” — according to “a giant complicated daily schedule,” says Cloran. And in a crazily short eight-day shoot, with three cameras, “we did it scene by scene, four a day, so we were bringing in people in small groups.”
“A bit of a sprint,” laughs van Belle, who had a scant two weeks to write his adaptation of his adaptation. Condensing a two-hour play to 90 minutes has its share of heartbreak for a playwright, of course, “and I can’t wait to get some of the stuff back next year.” But the time constraints were “kind of a good thing; I didn’t have a chance to get too wistful.”
In the songbook of Christmas classics largely culled from the indelible World War II and postwar repertoire, there might be a chorus or two less in, say, White Christmas or It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. But, don’t fret: Scrooge doesn’t meet up with two ghosts instead of the full complement. Jacob Marley (Julien Arnold) et al are present and accounted for. And so is Cory Sincennes’ handsome design for a 1949 department store, Marley’s, along with his costumes of that post-war period and the decades before, when Scrooge travels back through his blighted past in the company of his ossifying younger selves and the Ghost of Christmas Past.
“We’ve cut a few numbers, Christmas candy that don’t move the plot forward,” van Belle says cheerfully. “We’ve tightened some scenes and eliminated a few peripheral characters (in some of the smaller scenes),” he says. “But the main story is absolutely there! If people were going to see it as some form of replacement for their holiday tradition, it couldn’t be a greatest hits version!”
What made the tight schedule possible, both Cloran and van Belle think, is that the cast is, save only two exceptions, exactly the same as last year, again led by the fine Canadian actor Ted Dykstra (originally from these parts) as the frozen-hearted old skinflint whose journey toward human connectedness is at the heart of the enterprise. Corie Ryan, who played Martha, the oldest Cratchit kid, is away at university, so that character isn’t in the show. And the bass player Jeff Gladstone recorded his tracks from Vancouver. Luckily, the dozen or so young performers in the cast didn’t grow too much in 2020; they still fit their costumes. But “one young man showed up for rehearsal and his voice had dropped an octave,” says Cloran.
The “big group scenes” are assisted materially by theatre’s increasing dexterity with Zoom-box multiple screen technology, says van Belle. “Instead of trying to fight the form, we found a way to embrace some of those video conventions…. I think you’ll see that.” And sometimes, it’s a matter of optics. “Instead of 30 people, the Fezziwig Christmas party scene is 10 people in a smaller space,” says Cloran.
The sense of liveness, that special lustre of live theatre, is rare and hard-won in film. But a plus is that acting for film, with its zooms and angles and close-ups, affords a “different kind of intimacy” than you experience sitting in Row R in the Maclab. “I’m really appreciating it,” says van Belle. “And we’re lucky that so many of the actors have film and television experience.” Dykstra is one. Says Cloran, “a great actor like Ted, who has a lot of film experience, has a sense of how to scale his emotion with a look, how to let us in on the the character’s thought with the kind of intimate detail that wouldn’t translate as well in a 680-seat house….”
“We’ve included a narrator and some surprises for people familiar with the show,” says van Belle. And the setting will speak eloquently, he thinks, to audiences in this strangest of years. “In the post-war period there was optimism for sure, but it was also a time of spiritual reckoning, of (grief for) that had been lost…. It’s during the war years that so many of the songs in the show were written.” Van Belle reports that one of the Citadel lighting techs was convinced that he’d re-written the lyrics for Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas especially for 2020: “some day soon we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”
“I love the way meanings get shaped by the context in which the play is presented,” van Belle says. The uncertainties of this fraught year with its enforced solitude “adds so many layers.”
“There’s a real, palpable hope for change now. And A Christmas Carol is all about change,” says van Belle of “the call for all of us this year to ask ourselves to change, to move away from selfishness and turn toward each other, toward human values.… We are all Scrooge this year.”
“My hope is that we can all hold ourselves accountable and treat with each other with more kindness and compassion….. One of the beauties of the theatre is what an audience brings to the art work that’s a vital part of the work itself.”
“There’s a lot of grief in the theatre community; it’s been hit so hard by this,” Van Belle sighs. “A very big part of this project for me is putting all these people to work for a time. A big percentage of the money went into the pockets of artists and theatre workers. I feel really good about that.”
A Christmas Carol
Adapted by: David van Belle from the Charles Dickens novella
Directed by: Daryl Cloran
Starring: Ted Dykstra and a cast of 32
Running: online, available at citadeltheatre.com Dec. 15 to 31.
Tickets: $40 per household, good for 48 hours.