Back from the Dead

Zombies!

No, not really. But A Christmas Carol is coming back to life this year in the form of a fundraiser for the Marin Arts Council. It took much cajoling on the part of director and friend Argo Thompson, and I eventually caved. Look for more information about a VERY limited run of just two performances in downtown San Rafael on December 18 (8pm) and December 19 (2pm).

This time around, I'm going to do a quasi-reading of the classic tale and I'm going to shorten it to somewhat like Dickens used to do in his traveling performances. He stood at a lectern with his minified version and read/acted out each part. No lectern for my version, but it will be a little different take for those that have seen the show before.

It should be a fun evening...and it's a fundraiser for the arts in Marin, so you'd better get your tickets as soon as they're available!
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A year later

It's amazing to think how quickly a year passes. It's again, December and Christmas is now over. This is the first holiday season in a few years now where I didn't perform A Christmas Carol. The Ross Valley Players weren't interested in co-producing the show this year (even though it was very successful last year) and I decided to enjoy the holidays without the pressures of mounting it again. It's a lot of work to get up to speed on the show, let alone produce and manage the technical aspects on top of it.

This year, it was my turn to see A Christmas Carol wherever I could. The biggest spectacle of the year was the Disney version starring Jim Carrey. I have to admit that I was pretty skeptical about this version when I heard about it a year or so ago (A buddy of mine, Matt Henerson, had a small role as the poulterer) so my expectations were low. I have to say that it was an impressively done film. A number of scenes were over the top like shrinking Scrooge down to 6 inches tall and the icicle scene (in typical Disney fashion), but the way the story was cut was well done. In fact, there was an amazing similarity between the things that were cut from the film and the things I cut in my adaptation. If you were to go scene by scene, things would match up pretty closely. So, maybe I'm biased, but apparently great minds think alike. ;)

I also saw CenterREP's version of Carol, which had a bunch of friends in it. I wasn't too thrilled with the adaptation itself, but there were some standout performances. Michael Ray Wisely as the Ghost of Christmas Present was probably the best thing about it, not to mention Michael Berg as Fezziwig. Jeff Draper and Michael Wiles also had some nice moments. There were some sweet musical interludes with a caroling quartet and a few of the special effects were pretty good (the ones that worked without a technical hitch).

On Christmas Eve, I did a reading of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas on KSRO radio. That was my small contribution to Christmas this year. What about next year? That remains to be seen, but I think the Modern Shakespeare Company might explore the opportunity to partner with Humbug Theatre on a few projects. More to come.

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Opening night!

Hard to believe it but it's very true. It's opening night and it's a scary thing.

No matter how many times I've done the show, there's always something unexpected thrown at me. Last night, we had a bat in the theatre. Yes, a real bat flying around bumping into lights and walls. We were a good 20 minutes or so into the show and had to stop to get it out because it was flying dangerously close to my head, swooping around the theatre. I hope we don't see a return this evening.

Working magic into the show has been a huge technical challenge. The size of the theatre, the angles, and, most importantly, the very small time we've had to get things up and going have put major constraints on us. As I said before, I didn't want to change it into a magic show, but wanted to introduce a few nice elements. As it happens, I'll have to decide while performing the show if the conditions are right for those elements because they are so precarious. So one night an effect might make it into the show and the next night it won't purely based on the conditions and timing at that specific point in the show. It's very much like walking a tightrope, balancing with each step, and reacting in the moment. As if getting a 50-page monologue right wasn't enough!

The other new element is the new curtains at RVP. The new backdrop and legs look fabulous and really make the space look professional. Ian has really pulled it together and we've gotten those pieces up in record time. It took some extra time that we really didn't have much of, but it's worth it.

Another highlight of this evening will be the mulled wine. Tinka has taken my European mother-in-law's recipe and whipped up a batch of tasty wine. It'll surely keep you warm (and might even make the show better...as if that were possible... :) ).

So, it's off to the theatre...




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All about money

The system of currency in the UK has always been a bit of a mystery for Americans. What's a pound, a farthing, or a shilling—and what do you do with 50 "quid"? These are important questions to put the references to money in perspective throughout the story of A Christmas Carol.

References to money in the story:


Scrooge: "My clerk, with fifteen shillings a week, and a wife and family, talking about a merry Christmas."

Narrator: "...Even the little tailor, whom he had fined five shillings on the previous Monday for being drunk and bloodthirsty in the streets, stirred up to-morrow's pudding in his garret..."

Scrooge: "If I was to stop half-a-crown for it, you'd think yourself ill-used, I'll be bound?"

Ghost of Christmas Past: "Why. Is it not. He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise."

Narrator: Then up rose Mrs Cratchit, Cratchit's wife, dressed out but poorly in a twice-turned gown, but brave in ribbons, which are cheap and make a goodly show for sixpence.

Narrator: Tiny Tim drank it last of all, but he didn't care twopence for it.

Narrator: Bob Cratchit told them how he had a situation in his eye for Master Peter, which would bring in, if obtained, full five-and-sixpence weekly.

Joe: "If you asked me for another penny, and made it an open question, I'd repent of being so liberal and knock off half-a-crown."

Joe: I wouldn't give another sixpence, if I was to be boiled for not doing it.

Fred: "If it only puts him in the vein to leave his poor clerk fifty pounds, that's something; and I think I shook him yesterday."

Scrooge: "Come back with the man, and I'll give you a shilling. Come back with him in less than five minutes and I'll give you half-a-crown."


The UK government under Queen Victoria had only begun recognizing and officially issuing bank notes in 1833—just ten years before Dickens published A Christmas Carol so mainly coins were in use (the pound is the oldest form of currency still currently in use). The basic coins of Victorian England, from highest to lowest, were:


Pound (a sovereign or pound sterling—today's slang would be a "quid" or a "nicker")
Crown (4 crowns = 1 pound)
Half-a-crown (8 half-a-crowns = 1 pound)
Shilling (2.5 shillings = 1 half-a-crown or 5 shillings = 1 crown or 20 shillings = 1 pound)
Sixpence (2 sixpence = 1 shilling)
Penny (6 pennies = 1 sixpence or 12 pennies = 1 shilling)
Half-penny (24 half-pennies = 1 shilling)
Farthing (4 farthings = 1 penny or 2 farthings = 1 half-penny)


This was pre-decimalization so things were a bit haphazard. So for a little comparison, if a British Pound was the equivalent of one U.S. dollar, the breakdown for the money used in the story would be:


Half-a-crown - 12.5 cents
Shilling - 5 cents
Sixpence - 2.5 cents
Penny - Approximately half a cent
Farthing - Approximately one-tenth of a cent


So when the story mentions Bob's salary of 15 shillings a week, you can easily see, even at that time, how measly it was. Mrs. Cratchit must have seriously splurged to buy those ribbons on her dress for sixpence. When A Christmas Carol was first published, it sold for 5 shillings a copy—cheaper than many books of the period, but still quite a luxury.

Get a look at the coins of the Victorian era here: http://www.ukcoinpics.co.uk




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Worldwide attraction

Before touring in Europe, I was not sure what to expect when it comes to how audiences would react to a primarily anglo-centric story. When in the early stages of adapting the book at The Marsh with Charlie Varon, the irony hit me that a Jewish man was giving me advice how to adapt A Christmas Carol—something that his religion didn't permit him to subscribe to. When I remarked on this, he simply said, "It's a universal story. It doesn't matter."

Nothing could be more true and when I performed in Europe, others said the same thing. Some in the context of being Jewish (like Michael Feldman, Cultural Attaché of the U.S. Embassy who brought his family to the show in Prague) and some in the context of cultural reference (like Vlado Cerny, Director of the Astorka Theatre in Bratislava). The story is universal no matter what language you speak.

With that in mind, I've added several translations of A Christmas Carol the the Study section of the Web site. Right now there's Spanish, French, German, and Italian (with a downloadable audio book). I hope to add others as well so if you have the classic tale in another language, please send it to me here: scrooge AT humbugtheatre DOT com. I hope to compile the largest collection possible.

Und so schließen wir mit Tiny Tims Worten: »Gott segne jeden von uns.«
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About a month

Yes, it's getting close to the month mark before opening night. It always amazes me how little time there is to prepare (and getting dragged into the current RVP production dominated my attention for the last few weeks) and I always say to myself "this time it'll be different". And it's always the same.

I'm also organizing the Solo Players Festival at RVP, where we'll host five great performers doing their solo shows in a first for RVP. Most of the early stages of preparation are complete, but I'll jump back into that after opening night. It'll be interesting to see how that progresses and how RVP audiences take to these shows. Luckily, the word has been getting out and early tickets sales are in good shape.

In addition to getting A Christmas Carol together, I'm also producing the show. I'm not thrilled about it but there's a dearth of production managers at the theatre so I've been taking on the organizational tasks like advertising and staffing.

A few weeks ago, I had a consultation session with Joe over at the Misdirections Magic Shop about the kinds of magic I can integrate into the show. We came up with a few nice and simple ideas and some complex ones. I'd like to incorporate them all, but it'll depend on time. That brings me to the idea of more magic into the show. As I rehearse the show and integrate things, there's a certain disruption to the flow of the story if it doesn't completely integrate into the narrative. I can't change the narrative much (preferably not at all) so if the illusion doesn't flow perfectly, it's just not working for me. I don't want to turn A Christmas Carol into a magic show because it'll lose the simplicity of the story and I've been preaching since day one. While the bigger productions have some value, I think there are stories that just belong to a simple presentation style. This is one of them. So it's a bit of a Catch-22 and a very detailed process to find the right balance of storytelling "enhancements." So while there will be some magic, I'm just not sure how much or little. The next few weeks of rehearsal will tell.

So, my espresso machine has recently come into the ranks of a best friend—keeping me up those long days and nights while I recite the "ghostly little book" over and over and over....






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Back in the saddle again

Here we are, many months later, and the time is rapidly drawing nearer to another Christmas. From plenty of experience, I know that it tends to creep up on you rather quickly and suddenly you're only a few days from opening night. There are too many things to take care of and not enough time to do them. I'm determined this year to get ahead of the game.

Around mid-July, I pulled out the old scripts and materials to get a state of the union on what needed to be done this year. There are a bunch of new magic illusions and stage effects that I'm hoping to work into the show. I intentionally don't want to go overboard (especially after I've railed against the gratuitous use of special effects in other productions) but just want to enhance the story a bit.

July was the time to get some new publicity photos done too. Publications usually have long leads for Christmas time (and the ones doing season previews in late August) so I got in touch with Alessandra Mello of Mellopix and she did some lovely shots, which will eventually go online in the press section.

On the technology end of things, I had to update this blog and the Web site with new information (including that cute little widget on the right side that counts down to opening night...just to keep me on my toes).

My script came out and I tried to go through it, refreshing my memory with a fresh eye on the story, the flow and the places where the script was shortened for the European tour. There were a few typos in the script that I didn't fix last year so I decided to go through more meticulously and really clean things up. I like to have a clean script with all the necessary details included. I incorporated some of the major blocking elements into the script itself so the tech guys could follow along easier. So after a few weeks of that process (basically the month of September), I now have a solid foundation from which to prepare for this run.

I was hoping to have a producer this year, but it looks more and more like I'm going to do it myself. It's a co-production with the Ross Valley Players this year (in recent years, it has been my own production) and there's a shortage of producers there. The benefit is good on both sides. There are certain producer tasks that I don't have to deal with (like arranging insurance, getting a liquor license, etc.) and RVP gets a holiday show, which many patrons have been asking for. The show is part of the RVP season so that mitigates most of the financial risk in that the subscriber base is guaranteed to attend. The show is minimal on cost (most of the investment was made by me the first year) but advertising is expensive and eats up most of the budget.

Another thing I'm working on is getting a local sponsor to give out free copies of A Christmas Carol at the Christmas Eve performance. Cheap copies of the book are .99 from Borders or other booksellers and since there are around 150 seats, that's around a $200 donation. Since there are only 8 performances, it would be great to get a $1500 or so donation to give out free copies at every show. It would be a very nice Christmas gift for audiences so we'll see how that goes. (Hint, hint...contact me if you're interested in being a book sponsor- scrooge AT humbugtheatre DOT com).

So I'm back in the saddle and getting things going again. The script is out and I'm working diligently ... kinda ...sorta.... :) Stay tuned for more...
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Looking forward...

Here we are... April 25, 2008. Time flies so fast it's amazing.

Back in November, we went to Europe to perform A Christmas Carol. It was a smashing success, sold out, and even the crowned heads of Europe were impressed. I received invitations and strong coercion to return this year, but it was a long, cold trip. And, despite having lived in Europe for almost 7 years, am still a California guy at heart.

This year, I'll be reprising my award-winning show at the Ross Valley Players Barn Theatre. This time it's a different show. Before going to Europe, I tightened up the show, shortening it by about 15 minutes. There were some extra bits that I just didn't feel added to the show and maintained the flow.

I'm also introduction some more magic into the show. I'd really hoped to have more before, but time constraints as well as wearing many hats to produce the show, things were either left out or cut at the last minute. I hope to introduce more into the show this time around.

As in previous years, I'll be blogging the process...our successes and failures. It's a different show, different crew, different schedule...and I feel so much older. :)
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Incredibly remiss

Well, I've neglected this blog for too long and now it's performance day in Bratislava. The International Theatre Festival opened on Monday and there was a big ceremony as one of the big theatres from Prague came down to perform. The Minister of Culture and a tons of what they call "smotana" here (the famous of the famous) all dressed in their best, showed up to participate in the exciting event.

I've been making preparations for the show over the last few days, with Josh's help, of course. We've been to the theatre and organized everything we might need and too a look through their prop storage to find something that would be at least a little similar to what we used last year, but it was hard. One would think that being geographically closer to the UK would be some kind of advantage in finding Victorian-style furniture, but that's not the case. We're just going to have to make do with what we've got. It isn't the end of the world because the audience is naturally there to see me and not going to be so detail-oriented as far as the props are concerned.

On Monday afternoon, I went to RadioFM to visit my friend Vera's radio show and promote my show. On Monday evening, I did a short interview on STV. There have been lots of other bits of advertising out there as well...one we even discovered by accident while sitting in a cafe near a pile of pile of day-old newspapers!

It's early morning now and the adjustment to European time has been a drag. For the last week, I've been falling asleep at 4pm in the afternoon and waking up at 2-3am. But the last day or two has been a bit better and I think I'll stay awake for tonight's performance (with plenty of espresso!!!).

We're off to the theatre this morning set lights & sound and run through the show all day up until the 7pm performance time. For the locals, I hope to see you there!
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Embarking on a European Tour!

I'm back! I must admit that I was a bit skeptical last year I'd return for another year. But I guess it was fate. I'm taking the show on the road to Europe for three weeks (in case you missed the info on the home page) and it should be fun.

Taking off on Tuesday and I'm spending every minute of my refreshing my memory of this 60+ page script that I struggled with last year. I went through and refined some things based on last year's performances as well as now having a fresher perspective on the adaptation. More on this and other bits & bobs in the coming weeks. Come back!
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Post mortem

Well, a week has passed since the wrap of the show and it's been a refreshing week to see that other things exist in the world beside Dickens! :)

This is my last post on this blog. I'm grateful to eveyrone who contributed to the show and it's success. I learned tons along the way (I think everyone did) and enjoyed it. I'm not sure I'll repeat this show next year, but maybe in a few years (adding the long list of things I'd liked to have done but didn't have time). I have a few other "performance-related interests" over the coming year (some shows I'd really like to be in and roles I'd like to play/reprise). That's a cryptic expression in order to avoid saying anything and possibly jinxing my chances. :)

Have a Happy New Year!
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The Final Countdown

Here we are on the eve of the final performance. It's been a rough week, ranging in thoughts & emotions like "What the hell am I doing???" to "Hey, this might work out, or be cool..."

The words of many have been very encouraging. I feel like I'm getting more praise than I actually deserve. I guess it's mainly because I know I can do even better. I guess I have tomorrow's performance to accomplish that...

I wish I had a few more weeks of performances to really refine some points I'd like to further explore but, alas, "this is the end, my friend..." I have been invitied to perform at an International Theatre Festival in Bratislava, Slovakia next year and perform (in English) the show. I don't know if I'll actually do it or not, but we'll see in another year.
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One more down...

Another one down, three more to go.

Tonight's performance fell into the category of the "Friday Night Lull" for me. People said they enjoyed it, but the energy was off for me personally...not to mention a phlegm attack during the first act which had me choking on my words and random intervals. Where's that glass of agua when you need it?

I have the strong feeling that the last three shows are going to be better and better, culminating in the best show being the Christmas Eve matinee (which is sold out!). At this point, I wish I had the time (and energy!) to incorporate more ideas I have for the show, but with the tight schedule there just isn't time to really work out the details. Maybe if I were playing just ONE character instead of 40+, I could do it.

"Behind the complicated details of the world stand the simplicities..."—Graham Greene
(From a card Julian gave me just before the performance)
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Whew...

Well, here we are, the day after opening night, and still alive—barely.

It has been a rough ride these last few days. Tons of technical considerations, tons of lines, and tons of production-related issues to resolve (being the guy who's wearing many hats). It all came down to last night and apparently we pulled it off.

There were a few minor technical glitches in the show last night (not to mention my jumping around a bit on the text, which made the folks in the booth a bit nervous, yet acutely aware of the performance throughout...). We made some last minute changes yesterday to the dances and magic to simplify them. But that was technically our "preview" and tonight is opening night (no difference in the performance...just semantics). There's so much more I would have to liked to add to the show, but that's for next year (???).

Now, it's back to studying lines again. Did you think that because we'd just had opening night, we can rest on our laurels??? Heck no.
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Down to the wire...

The last show at the Barn closed on Sunday and strike occurred immediately afterwards. The plan was to begin our Q-2-Q run-thru at that time (running thru the show and setting the timing of light/sound cues), but we got a late start and only got through a few pages. We came back again yesterday and only got almost to intermission. Way behind schedule, we're hoping to get back on track today, and then do a run-thru in the afternoon or tomorrow.

There's so much crap to sort out and thankfully there are a few great people helping out while I try and concentrate on the massive amount of lines I need to learn. They're mostly down (with a few rough spots here and there), but I really need to spend more time...which is a luxury that doesn't exist right now...
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This is the time where we "dah-nce"...

Having not danced for a while, I was a bit rusty for years. But last year's production of Mame put me back into the swing of things (I was only in one musical number so it was fairly painless). I don't consider myself a dancer because I'm just not so interested in doing musicals anymore (though I've been really thinking that I might want to do Sondheim's Assassins some time in the future). But now that we have this great dance scene at Fezziwig's ball, I MUST do something with it, so we gave MaryBeth Cavanaugh over at Berkeley Rep a ring to help out. She's come up with some great snazzy-stepping for the ball scene at Fezziwig's. I don't want to give too much away, but I think the audience will enjoy it...it's quite clever.

I've been talking with other people who have done one man shows for advice on various things. I'm mainly interested in actors who have done solo shows that they didn't write themselves because they can't really improvise if they "go up" on their lines (an actor's term for getting lost or forgetting one's lines during a performance). I rarely go up during a performance, and when it's happened (I can't even remember the last time it did) I've always been able to improvise my way out of it since I always know where my character is going. Not the case with Dickens.

Dickens has a particular style of prose that's similar to Shakespeare, which is VERY difficult to improvise and sound right. There are still 8 days until opening night and that's barely enough time to get it all right! I think I'll end up feeling like I'm doing a tightrope act and could fall at any moment!
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Grrrrrr....

Nice article in the Marin IJ today (Thank you, Mark) which focuses mainly on the the process of getting this "Dickensian-Beast-of-a-Christmas-Show" up on stage. I look a bit stupid in the photo (I was really focused.. :) ) but that's OK (There's only so much you can do with by big ol' lantern-jaw, Meghan Roberts). Because of a weird shadow, it also looks like I have an alien growing out of the left side of my rib cage, but enough analysis for now...

Aside from my role in King Lear being misspelled ("Perillus"...soooooo close..... ), I think it captures well the difficulty of the process. There's an intensive "back and forth" between Julian & myself that doesn't normally occur when doing full-cast shows because there are so many details. The article almost made it sound a little like we were at each other's throats ("There appears to be an uneasy rapport between this actor and director - but a rapport still..."), but that's not the case at all. I know that when Julian's directing, he's used to the director overseeing and having final "say" on every little detail (like most shows!). But since this project is my "baby," we share in those details. Sometimes I catch things he doesn't see and sometimes vice-versa (actually, more often the latter). But when we disagree on how something should be presented, we always discuss it and come to an amiable conclusion.

Charlie Varon was really good at this. Sometimes when I'd do a section for him he'd sit there quietly for quite a while, absorbing what I'd just done, and formulate a question or comment which drove to the heart of the problem at hand. Though he had some suggestions for developing the adaptation which I think were in a different direction than I wanted to go, they were great exploratory exercises which almost always revealed something useful. There's definitely a faint "Charlie Stamp" on the way I've been going about things.

But the biggest stamp is Julian's...followed by my own. I enjoy productions where the director's vision is crystal clear. The production can fail or succeed, but it almost doesn't matter to me. I think it can almost entirely overcome a poorly written play if the director makes something out of it. But when you start from something as well-written as A Christmas Carol, how can it fail?
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Mindless

I'd hoped that I'd have something more interesting to write lately, but I'm so entrenched in rehearsing that I barely come up for air. There are 15 more days until opening night and I'm already feeling that pressure most actors feel when it's only a few days before opening night. Everything is magnified, heightened, and intensifying. More to come...
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Sponge Theory in haiku

My head, it is full
Soaking Dickens up like ice
Must swig more caffeine
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Blocked

Last week, we blocked Stave 1 all in one rehearsal and thought, "Wow..that was a lot of work for one long rehearsal...Four more like that and we'll have the other four staves blocked as well!" But we decided at that time it was probably just too much to cram all into five rehearsals and we should slow down a little. It didn't exactly work out that way. The the following THREE rehearsals (and a marathon session until late last night) we blocked the rest of the show. So, in our plan to extend the blocking time, we actually shortened it by a day, blocking it in only FOUR days. I don't think either one of us thought about it until after we were already totally done.

I met with Steve Coleman yesterday to discuss more of his ideas for the set & set pieces. He's got some great ideas and will be a little more hands-on after his art exhibit opens at the Throckmorton next Tuesday. Check it out here!

I also went over all the sound design with Julian and our sound designer Josh Hittleman. He's also enlisted the one and only Jeremy Fortes (is that a good thing or a bad thing??? :) ) to help out in creating some of the ghostly effects. Believe it or not the name "Hunter S. Thompson" came up several times in the discussion of sound for the show...

I'm slowly remembering what it's like to produce a show that I'm also in. It sucks. I'd really rather focus on the performance, but I find myself being distracted by the minutae of organization. Thankfully, I started early enough on this project that I was able to take care of most of the things that would have monopolized my attention during a period I should be focusing on learning lines.

David Templeton wrote a nice article in TBA magazine (known to the old skool folks as "Callboard") and there should be a few other articles coming out in the month of December. I don't care too much for the interviews and press aspects (though most journalists & critics are nice people just doing their job) as much as other actors do, but it's necessary to get out the word on a great show like this one.

Which brings to the around to the point of "Why another A Christmas Carol ?"--a question people keep asking me. There are a few reasons, the biggest of which is my personal connection to the story. My family wasn't well off growing up but my parents tried to make Christmas special to my brothers and I. I think there are many individual elements (as well as the story as a whole) that embody true Christmas Spirit. I think that it extends beyond Christmas to any religion or culture, even if you don't celebrate Christmas per se. Whatever you celebrate, let it come from the goodness of your heart and for the betterment of the world.

"Are you going to hug a tree now??" I hear you say.... OK OK OK. It's mushy, etc. but there's something in it.

Another reason I tell people is that Dickens used to do public readings of Carol where he'd stand at a podium, book in hand, and play all the characters (he used a shortened "Public Reading Edition" and is about half the length of the full story, which would likely be close to a three-hour reading!). This was the classic and most authentic way of "performing" the story that Dickens preferred. Nowadays, the only productions you see are these large stage productions with special effects, ghosts, smoke and so on, which are so over the top (and often very hokey--like A.C.T's Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come in last-year's production) that they are overlooking the heart of the story. It's become about the spectacle and not about the story itself. This is where my production comes in, landing firmly BETWEEN these two examples. It's not a reading and there aren't any lasers and flying-bedsheet ghosts. Besides, who can compete with the power of the imagination? Using the imaginations of the audience members is the most powerful tool of all.

Oh... for those of you that don't know...the title of the story is "A Christmas Carol"...not "Christmas Carol".. Don't forget the "A"...it's important. If you've ever seen the show and understood what you saw, you'd know why. :)
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