BY CORY FRYE
“It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.”
— Charles Dickens,
A Christmas Carol (1843)
We claim it every Christmas, but it seems particularly apt in 2020: We desperately need the holiday spirit.
DESIGN BY SANTIAGO UCEDA
It's a testament to the lasting power of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, still warming souls nearly two centuries after its initial publication, a perennial salve. We’ve beheld it in every form of media — from the written to spoken word — yet we heartily welcome its menagerie into our homes, old friends in a familiar story. Today it informs our expectations of the holiday, the triumph of love over anger and regret. Quite an achievement for a 66-page novella issued in 1843, when Christmas wasn’t Christmas as we understand it today.
The pandemic shutdowns declared this spring (and lasting forever) effectively shuttered the Oregon State University Theatre, forcing the company to rethink its productions. Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” abandoned its manor house drawing rooms for the smaller audio theater of the mind. In August it moved its “Macbeth” from the grand, traditional Bard in the Quad event to podcast form in the just-as-creative Bard in Your Yard. Finally, beginning Dec. 11, comes the culmination of a crazy year with the one holiday play guaranteed to end the year on a high note. And, according to director Elizabeth Helman, the choice was simple — a duty, almost.
“This is exactly the kind of story that people would like to hear right now,” she said. “There are so many Christmas and holiday traditions that people aren’t going to be able to do this year, whether it’s travel or gathering in different ways. But 'A Christmas Carol’ itself has been a holiday tradition for so many people that this can be a new way of experiencing something that is very comforting.”
What’s great about theater is that its best work requires no spectacle. The Dickens classic certainly qualifies; it’s a simple tale of redemption whose environs are easily replicated aurally — and they have been, since long before image met sound to become film and television. So OSU Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol” will be available as an audio drama (home, heart, family radio) beginning at 7:30 Friday, Dec. 11, through the “Dam the Distance” podcast feed via Apple Spotify, and other platforms. For more information, visit https://bit.ly/2LedcCC.
Since in-person auditions weren't possible, hopefuls responded to an online theater notice by recording themselves delivering offered “Carol” sides and uploading the results to a provided Google folder. From them Helman selected her cast using the usual criteria with emphasis on speaking voices.
“I evaluate from there,” she said. “Do they make me imagine this character when I hear their voice? … These characters are so iconic. You have some idea in your head of what a ghost might sound like or what Tiny Tim might sound like. Of course, you want Tiny Tim [Alyssa Mueller] to have that sense of optimism and full energy. You want your Bob Cratchit [Alex Johnston] to have a warm sound. You listen through and hope you hear what you want. But anytime I’m auditioning for a play I leave myself open to be surprised at what somebody does in the audition but wasn’t necessarily expecting. It makes you think about the character in a different way."
PROVIDED BY ELIZABETH HELMAN
Part of the 'Christmas Carol' cast rehearses in by-now familiar environments.
Some of the process was easy. Scrooge was a cinch; Helman didn’t even have to leave campus to find him. Marion Rossi, associate dean for the College of Liberal Arts, weathered no auditions; his reputation as an actor and Scrooge in multiple productions preceded him. The role was his if he wanted it. (Rossi discusses the character in the story below.)
"I’ve seen him onstage before; he’s very good,” Helman said. “So I’ve been trying to get him to come audition for a play for the past few years: ‘Don’t you want to do this again sometime?’ He’d always say, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know.’ I think there’s a part of him that misses it a little bit.
“I thought it’d be fun since he’d been in the role before. This might be a good opportunity for us to collaborate on a project that wouldn’t be as demanding and time-consuming as a regular rehearsal process. The rehearsals are only two hours a night as opposed to four hours a night. Everything’s a little more condensed in that way, so I thought this might be a good way for us to work together.”
Other aspects of the production were a little more difficult. Initially, Helman began with a “Carol” adaptation she developed for Eugene’s Oregon Contemporary Theatre in 2014. But she’d written it for the stage. This script had to be modified for sound. Entrances and exits had to be audible. Also, how do you signify Bob Cratchit’s presence in a scene when he’s not delivering lines? (Answer: pen across paper.) How do you differentiate the ghosts of Jacob Marley and Christmases Past, Present, and Yet to Come from their more sentient companions? (Answer: vocal filters.) And how do you represent that last apparition, since it’s a daunting, ominous presence — a visual horror — and does not speak at all?
For that last question, Helman turned to another story.
“I was inspired by the creepy breathing noises of the wraiths in the Lord of the Rings movies,” she said. So we cast somebody, AJ Glessner, as the Ghost of the Future [he also voices Peter Cratchit, so he actually has dialogue]. We recorded these creepy responses of breathing and aspirating and put filters on top of it to make it sound really haunting.”
The cast rehearsed individual acts nightly over Zoom, taking notes and finessing beats. When they nailed an act to an optimal rhythm, Helman recorded it and the actors used the audio as templates for their performances. Since they couldn’t gather in the campus studio much less banter in the same room, each cast member recorded his or her dialogue line-by-line alone — Helman jokes that they were in closets with towels over their heads — in multiple takes. From those Helman would select the best bits and technicians would clean and streamline the audio (you don’t want to have Scrooge and Bob Cratchit allegedly in the same space with one sounding like he’s on an airport runway) into a cohesive whole, adding sound effects and altering the air slightly to mark such locations as Scrooge’s office, Scrooge’s house, and the outdoors.
To further complement the story’s spirit, Helman enlisted OSU voice instructor Nicholas Larson and a quartet of music students as Christmas carolers, “so we do have original a capella songs woven in and out to create that sense of familiarity and holiday joy,” she said. Helman also ensured that now-famous additions absent from Dickens’ original novella landed in her revised script, many representing the era in which individual retellings were adapted. However, the description of Jacob Marley being “dead as a doornail" and Tiny Tim’s “God bless us, every one!” have always been with us; Dickens was one heck of a wordsmith. And “A Christmas Carol” remains the pinnacle of his legacy, its message impervious to troubled times.
“The story is not going away,” Helman said. “People love it. They come back to it year after year. We have our new version this year, and I know there are going to be hundreds of thousands of new adaptations of this on screen and stage and in podcasts in the Christmases yet to come [I see what you did there]. It’s an enduring story because the writing is so good, and the imagery is rich. It’s a story about hope. No matter when you’re living, it’s a valuable story to hear."
'A CHRISTMAS CAROL' (AUDIO DRAMA)
CAST: Marion Rossi (Scrooge), Noah Fox (Fred), Alex Johnston (Bob Cratchit), Kane Sweeney (Ebenezer/Gentleman 3), AJ Glessner (Peter Cratchit), Rue Dickey (Old Joe), Brandon Uray (Gentleman 1), Xavier LaFlame (Thomas), Rick Wallace (Fezziwig/Jacob Marley), Ben Delzer (Gentleman 2), Srimanyu Ganapathineedi (Second Spirit/Dick Wilkins), Alyssa Mueller (Tiny Tim/Boy Caroler), Leah Kahn (Young Scrooge/Turkey Boy), Natalie Harris (First Spirit), Harriet Owen-Nixon (Mrs. Fezziwig), Hannah Schwartz (Mrs. Cratchit), Lorna Baxter (Belle), Nikki Richardson (Kate), Zoey Knorr (Belinda Cratchit/Fanny), Brittany Dorris (Mrs. Dilber), Abby Oliver (Ruth), Kathryn Vincent (Caroline), Brittany Greener (Martha Cratchit/Charwoman), and Libby Brennan (Maggie/Violet).
ADAPTED & DIRECTED BY Elizabeth Helman
PRESENTED BY Oregon State University Theatre
AVAILABLE FOR DOWNLOAD: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 11
By Cory Frye
When Elizabeth Helman cast “A Christmas Carol,” she had a specific Scrooge in mind.
Not in temperament, mind you. Marion Rossi Jr. shares no similarities with Charle Dickens’ prickly protagonist. The associate dean at Oregon State University’s College of Liberal Arts (and current interim director) is an associate professor of theater and certainly no stranger to the iconic role. He’s essayed Scrooge four times for Hillsboro’s Bag & Baggage Theatre Group: thrice in straight Scott Palmer adaptations and once in a memorable sequel, Mark Brown’s “The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge,” which takes place a year after the events of “Carol” and finds Scrooge apparently back to his old ways, hauling his phantom tormentors to court. (We won’t spoil the ending other than to suggest a yuletide-worthy twist). So Rossi’s as much of a tradition as the holiday tale itself, as far as the state of Oregon’s concerned.
As a learned interpreter of the storied miser, Rossi sat down to offer his take on bringing Ebenezer Scrooge to life. (No humbugs were harmed in the following exchange.)
Scrooge, like everyone in “A Christmas Carol,” is by now just as much an archetype or a symbol as he is a person. What's the centuries-old appeal of such a man?
Redemption. I think everyone likes to think that no matter how far one's gone down a particular path, if that path is less than ideal, painful or terrible — as Scrooge’s is, indeed, at times throughout much of the play — they can, in fact, be redeemed and rediscover what was good in themselves. I think that’s really the appeal of the character: that he is saved, that he is redeemed, and that he manages to turn around his otherwise horrible adult life into something more meaningful.
What attracts you to him?
I’m always interested in finding out what the various realities are in any script, especially one that’s been done so many times. It’s easy to fall into some traps when you play an iconic or archetypal character. To me, the appeal is trying to rediscover, or discover for myself and the audience, what the truth of the character is and to craft something that is meaningful as well as unique.
What’s it like to play the miser without the benefit of his period costume or makeup? At what point in the mirror reflection are you able to say, “Ah, there he is!”?
It Is a challenge, no doubt, but no more, I think, than the other roles in the play in the sense that [this time] you don’t have all the visual elements working for you. Again, I think the text becomes more important, and, of course, as one would expect, what one does with the voice to bring some of those traits to the audio pallet that normally you would be able to express either physically or through costume, makeup, or things of that nature.
Specifically, for me, I think the role of nonverbals, vocal nonverbals, becomes that much more important: the grunts, the groans, the sighs, and noises that one makes, just as we do in life. But I think in an audio production, they become more important and a way of expressing those thoughts that you might have otherwise expressed physically. That’s a large part of it. I think that, again, the text becomes more important. Attention to the words and what they suggest. The ways in which they suggest them. And the onomatopoeic qualities of certain words or, indeed, many words, especially in Dickens, who is very aware of how sounds sound, if you will.
So those are a few of the challenges. I also think seeing in your mind’s eye what it is that other actors are doing in response to what you are saying and doing. Yes, we rehearse over Zoom. Yes, we have a master video copy that we use. But ultimately, what you do is you go off and in your own space on your own time record all of your lines. And that’s joyous in many ways because you can record it as many times as you want. I have a tendency to record every line at least a half-dozen if not more times so that there are options for the sound engineer and for the director. Of course, when you make a mistake, you get to do it over, make it right. But always having in mind what you’ve done throughout rehearsals and what you’ve seen the other actors do certainly feeds into what it is that I choose to do.
Could you talk about the process of finding his voice, because I’m sure it‘s easy to succumb to caricature.
I don’t know that it’s so much about finding a voice as finding the voice that expresses what’s inside, as opposed to, what you say, the caricature or some elements of the archetype. Whether it’s an audio drama — and I’ve done this a couple of times — or a fully staged production. I always try to focus on what it is the character’s trying to do, what his objective is, and what it is he’s trying to overcome. I also try to focus, again, on the tactics the character uses.
It’s very easy, particularly in an archetype or stock character like Scrooge that lends itself to stock choices, to always go back to the same tactic or the same choice over and over and over and over, whether it be meanness or yelling or whatever it is. When, in fact, I think the character becomes more interesting the more you can broaden the range of tactics that you choose. So, yes, of course, there are those moments when Scrooge yells at his clerk or reacts negatively to his nephew. But there are also times when he jokes around a little bit, mocks or teases and plays, even as he’s trying to achieve the same objective of denying Christmas, saving money, or whatever it might be.
So finding ways in which you can bring those various tactics alive, vocally, I think, is an important aspect of it.
What can we expect from this production?
You can expect a solid and entertaining show. Here in the midst of a pandemic, people need something to hold on to, to connect with, to remind them of better and finer days when the holidays weren’t shrouded by all the difficulties we currently face. I think this production is and will be a really good rendition of those Christmas traditions, those sounds of Christmas, the feel of Christmas. The joy of Christmas, essentially.
Finally, speaking as a Scrooge veteran, who's the gold standard?
(laughs) There are so many, it’s hard to pick. You know, since we’re talking about sound and voiceover,
I wlll harken back to the cartoon version with Jim Backus as Mr. Magoo from the early 1960s [Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol, 1962]. His voicework is really, really fine. Like many people, I like George C. Scott . There are almost too many, though, to pick out beyond that. I think I’ll leave those two out there, and I encourage folks to watch them both.