TOP: David de Vries returns as the miserable Ebenezer Scrooge in the Alliance Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol.” Photo: Greg Mooney.
Rosemary Newcott, directing her last Dickens
as an Alliance staff member, reflects on her life
in the theater — and she’s not done yet.
ONE OF ROSEMARY NEWCOTT’S first life-changing theater experiences came as a New Jersey fourth-grader when her dad took her to Manhattan to see the Lerner & Loewe musical Brigadoon. From that day on, she says, he often reminded her “how she glued her eyes to the stage and didn’t take them off the players for a moment.”
Her first time onstage came in eighth grade. She played The King and I’s Anna Leonowens in a school revue, singing in a lyric soprano voice and getting to know the royal Siamese children.
Then there were the Christmas stories. From about third grade on, Rosemary would lead — she says “instigate” — her siblings (one sister, three brothers) into doing a Christmas play for their parents. “Sometimes it would be from different perspectives,” she says, “like from the shepherds’ perspective or the innkeeper’s. One time it was from the donkey’s perspective. I realized years later that these were early ‘devising/directing’ experiences. Crazy, huh?”
Not so much. And it’s a great backstory. Little surprise then that Newcott has spent the bulk of her Alliance Theatre career focusing on shows that speak to families and younger audiences — including the company’s annual A Christmas Carol. This season, the show’s 29th, is different. It’s the last time Newcott directs as a full-time member of the Alliance staff.
End of a run
On May 31, 2019, she ends her 20-plus-year tenure there, largely as the Sally G. Tomlinson Artistic Director of Theatre for Youth and Families. She has plenty of Christmas Carols on her Alliance résumé — as an actor (Scrooge’s sister Fan, Mrs. Cratchit, Scrooge’s lost love Belle), assistant director and director.
Charles Dickens’ Victorian ghost story, which she faithfully rereads every season, has never lost its wonder for her.
“It’s a story that does not die,” she says. “You see the effects of it year after year after year. In the direction of it you have to pay attention to what is real, because it can easily become a machine. It just churns itself out in terms of how many scenes are in it, how much movement is in it, how much singing is in it.”
Directing it, she says, “is really about making sure that you hit those marks of ‘real’ when they happen and make sure that they’re solid. And you’ve got to love it or you can’t do it.”
Newcott moved to Atlanta after finishing graduate school at Northwestern University. She did her undergraduate work at Jersey City State College and, as somewhat of an overachiever, earned bachelor’s degrees in theater, education and English in four years.
Just after grad school, some Atlanta friends from Northwestern hooked her up to teach with the Georgia Governor’s Honors Program. She didn’t plan to stay, thinking she’d return to Chicago, where she’d made professional contacts. Then she ran across Frank Wittow and his Academy Theatre.
It was 1979 or 1980, she says. Wittow (1930-2006) was an Atlanta legend. The Academy was a proving ground for young artists, with a repertory company that included future Horizon Theatre co-founders Lisa and Jeff Adler, Out of Hand Theater’s Adam Fristoe, director Mira Hirsch, Tony Award-winning actor Dana Ivey, actor-director Kenny Leon, actor Carol Mitchell-Leon and stage/film actor Bill Nunn, among others.
“When I got in the door, Frank Wittow said, ‘What I’m interested in is people who want to act and direct and teach. And do all three.’ And I was like, ‘Ding! Ding! Ding! You pushed all my buttons. That’s exactly what I want to do.’”
Atlanta has been her home ever since. Newcott did her first Christmas Carols at the Academy, joining the Alliance family in 1988 on a two-year contract to understudy the great Mary Nell Santacroce in Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy. Santacroce was box-office gold. Newcott was an unknown in her 20s. When she went on, which happened only rarely, she’d cover her ears so as not to hear theatergoers groan when they learned that Santacroce would not perform.
Leon, who understudied Hoke in that production, became the Alliance’s artistic director in ’88. Some 11 years later, he hired Newcott as the company’s director of theater for youth and families. She has steered dozens and dozens of shows since then — for families, for middle-schoolers, for the very young (ages 0-5) and for adults. Her acting career became a back-burner item.
She hasn’t ruled out acting but thinks she’ll focus on directing and working with other companies that want to create theater-for-the-very-young programs. And she may do some university work. “I just like to keep myself open to whatever projects come my way,” she says.
The fourth-grader who thought she was too shy to chase a career in theater has done all right.
Newcott recently received a Suzi Bass Lifetime Achievement Award, given to individuals whose “body of work has had a significant and long-term effect on the Atlanta theater community.” She was previously been named an Atlanta Lexus Leader of the Arts and best director of 2002 (by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution), received a Princess Grace Foundation Fellowship and a Princess Grace Special Projects Award, and earned a 2010 Spirit of Suzi Bass Award, which recognizes a person/organization dedicated to bettering the arts and Atlanta’s artistic community.
For now, Newcott’s immersed in bah-humbugs, Cratchits, holiday carols and the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet to Come.
Directing A Christmas Carol is different from doing other shows, she says. The cast features a lot of returnees, some repeating their roles, some doing new roles. “You have to honor where they are because everybody comes back in a slightly different space,” she says.
“Some people completely forget the lines and have to re-remember them. Some people pick up right where they left off. And some people bring something very new to the experience, some very new element to their character that you didn’t expect to see.”
In that way, it’s a bit like opening a shiny, new gift while spending the holiday with dear, old friends.
Newcott expresses it simply: “A Christmas Carol,” she says, “is part of my life.”