As the beloved Atlanta tradition of A Christmas Carol kicks off this season, it’s a much-needed glint of normalcy. But nothing’s normal at all, is it? As the self-aware performers point out, this whole situation is just weird- fitting for a weird year.
Creators in an art form centered entirely around closeness, intimacy, and person-to-person connection have been tasked with generating all of that without physical closeness. Tonight is not a poor man’s version of a classic, but a new opportunity that could only come about as a result of some exceptionally weird times. A Christmas Carol adaptors Ben Coleman and Leora Morris have accepted the challenge and are connecting audiences to Ebenezer Scrooge in a more poignant way than ever before.
“I feel like the whole theatre is having to pivot,” shares Coleman. “But it’s really cool. What we’ve pulled out of Dickens’ original work is that A Christmas Carol is really about someone who’s become separated from other people and gets reconnected. So we’re trying to really center that because we’re all experiencing that right now. So it’s an exciting piece of work to be rediscovering in such a strange time.”
On their journey to rediscovering A Christmas Carol for a 2020 audience, Coleman and Morris built their concept around honest connection, starting by not pretending that this is your everyday play.
“We decided from the outset that we wanted to not hide that we’re in a parking lot in Atlanta in 2020,” says Coleman. “It’s such a strange setup that we wanted to embrace that and tell the story from this time and place with a contemporary voice.” Did that mean throwing out Dickensian language entirely? Almost.
“We went all the way to one side, getting rid of all the Dickens and writing in a very contemporary way, and then reading it back to ourselves and saying, ‘Oh, we really miss Dickens! He’s a great writer,’ and putting that back in,” Coleman shares, adding that they were sure not to sacrifice “those delicious bits of Dickens,” in the end. “So we’ve had this great time and have, I think, a new-found appreciation for his writing, too. He is such a fantastic writer.”
In crafting this contemporary Dickens hybrid, the creators prioritized connecting the audience to both each other and the performers in an intimate way: a bedtime story motif.
“When you aren’t able to get close to human beings, you’re going to struggle to generate any sense of intimacy or liveness,” Coleman observes, sharing that the radio play medium creates a closeness unlike regular theatre. “It’s a lot more intimate when you hear a voice in your ear, you know? So that’s something we’re really leaning into as well.”
Coleman says he considers himself really lucky to get to be so involved in this piece, limitations and all.
“The particular challenges and restrictions of this are giving us license to experiment in a way that you might not have done on the typical annual A Christmas Carol. So that’s really exciting for me,” Coleman says. “We’ve been pushed to make the show as interactive as we can within the very strict limits that we have with the pandemic. So we are trying to reconnect people and give them a sense of being in an audience, with the impression of the audience being a collective. So we’re trying to use every opportunity that we have, every tool that we have to make that happen.”
Getting to dive into the “weird cul-de-sac of the theatre world” that is radio theatre has allowed Coleman, who is also sound designer, to transport audience members vividly using only audio elements and imagination.
“Without spending a lot of money like if we were making a film or even doing the traditional stage performance, we can make Scrooge fly over London. And it doesn’t cost us a penny, which has been really liberating! The fact that you can just rub a few pieces of wood together, or one creaky chair with a good microphone could sound like an entire pirate ship at sea creaking, that kind of thing is really exciting! So we definitely get the chance to send people on an imaginative journey with some very simple ingredients.”
Coleman’s hope for this performance is that the audience will leave having experienced more than escapism, but instead a deeper connection.
“Everything seems so changeable and unpredictable right now, but again, I think one of the strengths of this show is we get to present something that really speaks to the moment and brings people together. I hope in a way that it’s going to be- it’s not going to be escapism, but it’s going to be healing. I think that’s something I’m really interested in with this work.”
In a tumultuous year, a story about the hope of personal transformation and reconciliation has never been more apropos.
“It is a redemptive tale. And there’s so much acrimony right now, that I think it’s going to be really exciting to have a story in which someone realizes their mistakes that they’ve made, owns up to them, gets forgiven, and gets to return to the fold in some way. I think that’s pretty powerful.”