Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, theater companies have been forced to start thinking like little film studios.
And now Kansas City Repertory Theatre has accepted the challenge of offering “virtual” theater. Case in point: “A Christmas Carol,” the Rep’s annual production this year celebrating its 40th anniversary. As a stage show, the Charles Dickens classic long ago became an annual tradition for some theatergoers. Folks who saw it as kids grow up, get married and then take their own kids to see it. And on and on.
But this year, the generation-spanning retelling of Dickens’ singular novella — about a skinflint scared into being a decent human being after visits from three ghosts on Christmas Eve — will not be a stage show. It will, however, include actors familiar to theatergoers by virtue of their long service with the annual stage production. And audiences will be able to watch from home.
Artistic director Stuart Carden has decades of experience as a stage director. Now he makes his debut as a filmmaker.
“I have directed zero films before,” Carden said. “You know, this COVID moment, this pandemic, has really disrupted performing arts in so many ways, both financially and existentially. We’re finding we’ve got to continue to serve our community in new ways.”
Carden said he and his Rep collaborators considered various scenarios before they settled on shooting a story-telling version of “A Christmas Carol” with a small group of actors at the Vaile Mansion, the 1882 three-story home and museum in Independence.
“There’s been about 12 different versions of what we might do with ‘Christmas Carol,'” Carden said. Options considered included a scaled down live production with a smaller cast, a production with a much smaller cast and even a one-actor version at the Spencer Theatre. But with infection rates in Missouri rising, all those ideas were rejected. There was no way to produce a live show and keep the actors and theatergoers safe.
But then he settled on idea of using a version of the 1842 book that Dickens himself adapted for public readings and tours.
“He toured both Europe and America with this novella that he cut for his own performance,” Carden said. “When I read about that, it sparked an idea . . . I took Dickens’ own version that he used to tour and made a few additional edits and changed some of the language. But this is Charles Dickens’ reader version of ‘A Christmas Carol.’ That’s how we ended up approaching this. It’s also about keeping this tradition alive.”
Some aspects of the production will be familiar: A trio of musicians led by music director Anthony T. Edwards with harpist Peggy Friesen and violinist Jonathan Lloyd Schriock will introduce the proceedings and reappear from time to time. Then actors familiar to theatergoers from their previous appearances in the stage show — Gary Neal Johnson, Walter Coppage, Vanessa Severo and Bri Woods — will take turns reading chapters (which Dickens called “staves”), allowing the story to unfold with Dickens’ language doing the work of transporting viewers to Victorian London.
“The concept is that you are at a really festive holiday party and the camera is standing in for you,” Carden said. “We knew it was not going to be our traditional ‘Christmas Carol’ but we knew we wanted to find a way to keep this tradition alive. Our fireside version is going to be different. There’s going to be revelations in terms of the story, but because we’re using the novella, we’re going to hear a lot more of Dickens’ voice. So we’ll get a lot more details about the setting and the landscape of London.”
History shows us that although Dickens wrote the book for money at a time when he was strapped for cash, the story is nonetheless a plea for a compassionate view of the working poor (including children) and the impoverished. Carden added that he believed the story would have added impact during a year of “loss and struggle and pain we’re all going through.”
And that, indeed, sounds quite timely.
“A Christmas Carol” will be available for streaming via smart phones, tablets, desk computers or smart TVs Nov. 23 through Dec. 31. Call the box-office at 816-235-2700 or visit www.kcrep.org.