Pictured above: Actor Bart Hansard on the first day of rehearsals for Alliance’s A Christmas Carol. Photos by A’riel Tinter.
When Atlanta theatregoers attend the Alliance’s A Christmas Carol, they usually aren’t coming to discover this holiday piece for the first time, or to find out who in the world Ebenezer Scrooge could be. You would need no spoiler alert to tell them, as Dickens himself does to open the story, “Marley was dead to begin with.”
Audiences come to see a well-crafted story that has been told and retold for over 150 years. They set out to see a ghost story, of all things, written by one of the great Debbie Downers in British literature, as part of a celebration of the holidays. Who would have pegged Dickens to write a cornerstone of the annual season of “comfort and joy”?
“It’s interesting that they all celebrate what’s essentially a ghost story, following the British tradition of ghost stories at Christmastime,” observes actor Bart Hansard, a veteran of the Atlanta stage, who is appearing in his 19th season of A Christmas Carol.
“When I started working on this 19 years ago,” shares Hansard, “I started trying to see as many different variations of A Christmas Carol as possible. I mean, Mr. Magoo, Mickey Mouse, the Muppets, the old Reginald Owens one, George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart, Albert Finney in the musical, and then there’s the Bill Murray Scrooged.”
Along with the many film iterations, Hansard observes that locally, Atlanta’s holiday season is filled with A Christmas Carol productions ranging from the strictly-Dickens adaptation here at the Alliance to improv-based and whimsical tellings elsewhere. “It’s evidence of how popular the story itself is, because the city can support that many variations,” says Hansard. “Audiences know the ending, and yet they all come to see it. There are very few stories that audiences know the ending to that they repeatedly come back to, you know?”
Not only do audience members return year after year, but many cast members make a personal tradition of appearing in it annually.
“I’m not even the longest member! Chris Kayser played Scrooge for about 20 years, but he was in the show for about 27 years and was different characters. Neal Ghant, who’s playing Bob Cratchit, has got me beat consecutively because he’s been in the show probably at least 23 or 24 seasons.”
With recurring cast members who return year after year, Hansard says just being in the show has the familial feel of a holiday gathering.
“We all know each other. We’ve done other shows or seen each other at film and TV things too,” he says, adding that even new cast members slide right into the family. “There is this saying that there are only 50 people who work in theatre, and you’ve worked with all of them. We’re the ‘usual suspects.’ For us, it is like a family reunion, and honestly we end up spending more time with each other than with our own families over the holidays.” Hansard says on a practical level, A Christmas Carol serves the Alliance and its patrons all year round.
“In many ways, too, it’s helping to really keep the theatre going. It’s a huge chunk of the operating capital. So when they’re bringing in new productions, I feel good that we help to fund some of these like Becoming Nancy. In a way, we’re sort of giving a present throughout the year. [Director] Rosemary Newcott really feels like it’s a Christmas present to the city, which is a great way of looking at it.”
Year after year, there is something about Scrooge’s multifaceted story that audiences and actors connect with on a deep level. At the heart of it, the redemption story that Dickens created seems to hold universal appeal.
“Audiences all come because they want to see Scrooge be reborn, redeemed,” Hansard pinpoints. “You can all look at Marley and say, ‘That’s not me,’ and I think it makes us feel a bit better. Then you look at Scrooge going, ‘I can relate,’ because everyone can relate a bit to the idea of ‘being a Scrooge.’ We think, ‘I’m not that bad, and if he can be redeemed, I can be redeemed.’”
If the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, clutching, covetous old sinner” Scrooge can turn into “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew,” then anyone can change. And, year after year, that kind of hope is irresistible.