Christmastime is officially upon us, heralded by the copious variants of Charles Dickens’ Yuletide classic A Christmas Carol springing up around the Washington, D.C. metro area. Offerings include the “must-see holiday tradition” at Ford’s Theatre, a musical version at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, Md., and an intimate solo rendition of the classic at Olney Theatre Center.
Not to be outdone, Creative Cauldron on the other side of the river in Falls Church, Va., is presenting a brand new adaptation of the popular work, called A Christmas Carol Memory, re-enacted within a frame story and featuring large-scale puppets and live caroling.
DC Theatre Scene caught up with the show’s busy playwright Jennifer Clements at a local theater landmark as she prepared for another of her duties as a Helen Hayes Award judge.
DCTS: What is A Christmas Carol Memory about?
Clements: It follows the first Christmas of a young girl who’s recently been orphaned. Her father passed away in a tragic accident and she has come to live with an eccentric aunt. In looking for Christmas ornaments in the attic, which used to be her grandfather’s puppetry studio, she discovers a bunch of the artifacts, puppets and props the family once used to enact A Christmas Carol every year, a tradition that has since died. Buried within that frame story, is a nearly full retelling of A Christmas Carol. The manner of that retelling includes large-scale puppets and other artful elements. People who come assuming they are going to see a presentation of A Christmas Carol will not be disappointed. The frame story also has echoes of the themes from the original classic layered into it.
DCTS: Where did the idea for the show come from?
Clements: The idea was in [director and Creative Cauldron founder] Laura Hull’s head for a long time before she approached me. She is a huge fan of Dickens. They just did a production based on Oliver Twist. She loves the language and the cadence of his words. And she wanted to do something that paid homage to the traditions of A Christmas Carol but breathed new life into the story.
DCTS: How much of it is personal to you?
Clements: Every family has some messy and complicated truths that they either bring out and deal with or they bury in an attic. None of the messy truths uncovered in this play are reflective of my family, but I think that every family can relate.
DCTS: Was writing an adaptation fun?
Clements: Yes! Writing about Ebenezer Scrooge and Christmas in one hundred degree temperatures in Washington D.C., in July is difficult though. I leaned that the hard way. I may have parked myself in a coffee shop where I knew there is fantastic air conditioning and listened to Christmas music in my earphones. But especially with a writer like Dickens, there are so many delicious turns of phrase and canonical characters that are ripe for reimagining.
There are a lot of choices you can make with something that everybody knows. It was fun looking at the many Christmas Carols done in D.C. in the past and finding ways to make this one interesting and unique while still referencing things people want to see by virtue of its being a classic.
DCTS: Have you worked on adaptations before?
Clements: I’ve worked with Creative Cauldron in developing scripts for a few of their shows, including an adaptation of Aesop’s Fables for their learning theater several years ago. Before that, I worked with Laura on a play called Tinner Hill: Portraits in Black and White. That was not an adaptation of literary text, but actually an adaptation of local history, specifically civil rights narratives of Falls Church that are not often discussed. A fantastic thing about working with Creative Cauldron is that everything is very dynamic and creative and it’s not a process where you’ve met your deadline, turn in a script and your work is done. The input comes from all sides and that’s part of the beauty of that process.
DCTS: Tell me about the puppets.
Clements: The puppets are a huge part of the concept for this, and certainly one of the unique aspects of this retelling. Margie Jervis, scenic designer and puppet creator for Creative Cauldron, played a sizable role in working on this project with Laura and me.
Some of the puppets are 7-8 feet tall. They mostly represent the ghosts—Marley, and the three ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. They are as stylistically diverse as those characters. For example, Marley is creepy and laden in chains, while the Ghost of Christmas Past is elfin, and voiced and worked by a child puppeteer.
A Christmas Carol Memory
closes December 20, 2016
Details and tickets
DCTS: What has the cast been like to work with?
Clements: The cast has been fantastic. It’s split about half and half between child performers and older actors. It’s always neat to see the mentorship between older performers and the ones coming up. The retelling of A Christmas Carol is very much an ensemble work, but then the frame story focuses on the young girl and two of her aunts.
There’s a strong musical component as well. A majority of the cast are trained singers and we felt that was something we could use to our advantage. Signature Theatre’s Matt Conner created an original song for the show using one of Dickens’ own poems.
DCTS: Is the play primarily for children?
Clements: Creative Cauldron’s ethos is that the theater they make is for everyone. There are certain things you can expect of most their productions: young performers in the cast and a musical element. They want the theater they produce to lift the standards for children who come see it, but also have something for parents or adults. Intergenerational theater making and theater going is a huge part of who they are. We have very young people in the cast, and more mature people in the cast and we expect the audience to look a lot like that as well.
In addition to all of her immersions in theatre, Jennifer Clements occasionally reviews for DC Theatre Scene