Mr. Dickens and Mr. Patch: Taking "A Christmas Carol" From Page to Stage

South Coast Repertory Staff
 | Oct 17, 2017
A Christmas Carol

The cast of A Christmas Carol.

Keeping Things Fun

“We have fun every year because of the familiarity most of us have with each other,” says Director John-David Keller.

“We have fun, but it’s up to me to make sure that we never make fun. This show represents my legacy to SCR, and my biggest responsibilities as director are to preserve its long and proud tradition and to make the show fun both for those who’ve never seen it, and for those who keep coming back.”

The Fezziwigs

John David Keller and Amelia White.

Probably the hardest part of any actor’s job is to create the illusion of performing for the first time.

More than half of A Christmas Carol audience members are returning and they’re eager to see their old friends again on the stage, from Hal Landon Jr. as Scrooge, on down the roster of familiar SCR performers.

But Keller believes the production gets an “extra spike” from all the new faces in the cast. “There are 16 children in the show and none of them have ever done it before. Sometimes we have repeats, but because we have such a huge pool of Conservatory students to draw from, we try to spread the wealth around every year. Christmas for these lucky youngsters is one they’ll never forget. I watch their faces during rehearsal and I can see them grow with every passing day. It’s an intense learning process and they have more fun than anybody . . . well, maybe not more fun than me. That would be very difficult!”

A Christmas Carol probably is to theatre what The Nutcracker is to ballet.

“This show is such an important part of who we are as a theatre company,” Keller says. “The fact is that audiences still look forward to it every year and we still have the same devotion to it now as we did back in 1980, so it really doesn’t matter how many productions we’ve got under our belts.”

Nearly 40 years ago, Jerry Patch’s summer had a routine: wake up early—around 4:30 a.m.—and ​work with Charles Dickens. Patch, South Coast Repertory’s then-resident dramaturg, was adapting Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for the stage at SCR. In the midst of a Huntington Beach summer, Patch had to envision a December in Victorian England.

“It wasn’t that hard,” Patch recalls. “Dickens overpowered life at the beach almost every morning.”

Patch’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol, debuted on SCR’s stage in December 1980 and the universal qualities that Patch brought to the play have kept the production timeless. He concentrated on how the major themes of the story could most effectively be communicated on the stage.

“I wanted families to be able to come to the theatre together and share an experience. Everyone from grandparents to grandchildren could all be touched by the significant message of this classic story," he says. "Every year I waited in the lobby after performances and listened to families talking about what they’ve gotten out of the play.”

The story’s focus on humanity and regeneration continues to move audiences of all ages as they experience Scrooge’s transformation along with the character.

A Christmas Carol dinner

“This play is a celebration of family, peace and unity,” Patch explains. “It’s not just a British play, nor is it limited in scope to the 19th century. Scrooge’s didactic understanding of generosity, charity, and mercy are ideals to be embraced by all people in all times. His story embodies the very tenets of American culture—you can change yourself, you can succeed beyond your means and. after undergoing metaphorical death, you can come back and live a better life. In other words, it’s never too late. This isn’t a complicated message, but it’s an important one nonetheless, and it’s the means by which we hope to touch our audiences.”

John-David Keller has directed SCR’s A Christmas Carol each of its 37 years. He says he tries to read the novella every year—it keeps him honest. It also helps him prepare to greet new actors to the cast, including 16 child actors.

“I ask the children in the cast to read A Christmas Carol—that’s always their first assignment. Jerry’s script is very faithful to the original, but there are some elements he chose to eliminate because they’re peripheral to our primary focus, which is Scrooge’s through-line. Things such as the engagement and the fates of his fiancée and his sister are still there, but only to stimulate Scrooge and not to tell the other characters’ stories,” Keller says.

“Another change concerns the reconciliation between Cratchit and Scrooge, which in the book occurs at Scrooge’s office, but we didn’t want to have to go back to that set, so our Scrooge goes to the Cratchit home instead,” says Keller. “This is a Jerry Patch device that works wonderfully because you get to see the whole family reacting positively to this man who, in an earlier scene, was being called names and started a family fight.

Another departure from Dickens is the exchange of gifts in that scene, which is not in the Dickens 1843 novella.

“Every theatre adapts A Christmas Carol for ​its own company, and certainly our script was written to suit the personalities and acting styles of our cast,” Keller says. “But I believe that if you compare the Dickens book and the Patch play at SCR, you’ll see how very loyal Jerry was to his source. After all, it’s hard to improve on Charles Dickens.”

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