Jerry Patch, Richard Doyle, Hal Landon Jr., John-David Keller and Art Koustik
Forty 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.
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. 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. We recently caught up with Patch to ask him about Orange County’s most beloved holiday tradition 40 years on.
Did you ever imagine that four decades later we would still be here with this production and it would be so wildly popular?
I’m not surprised, but no, I didn’t imagine it. We were just trying to find something we could do at Christmas that would appeal to the community that we were serving.
The idea is okay, how do you put this on a stage? How do you play it to the best dramatic effect? He actually had done a pretty good job of it anyway. You don’t want to stray too far from what Dickens did if you have the resources that SCR has to have sufficient sets, be able to change them rapidly, to get a cast of size, including children, and we were able to do all that. I should say I was writing this thing in the summer of ’79 and I would get up at like 4:30 a.m. We lived close to the beach, and so the sun would be coming up, it would be July in Huntington Beach and I would be trying to think about this frozen London in December. It worked, it was okay, and you can imagine it.
There is a large number of characters that Dickens gave you; were there challenges you found in adapting this?
I don’t really think so. I think he gave you so much, in terms of the story that it was more deciding what to do without than what you had to bring in, so it was almost more editing and, you know, some of the speeches you could just use as Dickens wrote them. Others you had to write a scene for because it was narrative, and so you wrote dialogue for it. But still what that dialogue would be or the character of that dialogue was almost always implicit in the scene.
What about any surprises while you were writing it?
The surprising thing is how powerful the thing stays, year after year, decade after decade. You don’t particularly know that, even though as I was sitting in Huntington Beach writing this thing, it would cheer me up. As you know, as Dickens was writing it, he was just weeping all over the pages, but he was a pretty emotional guy, apparently, a little more than I might be and yet it works—this idea of redemption that you can start over, that whatever you’ve failed to accomplish, to realize you can make up for is a real American quality and I think very much appeals to our audiences here in Orange County. I think the surprise you were talking about was just the fact that this thing was so potent and I’m not sure we realized when we began, how powerful this thing would be and how much it would command an audience’s attention over a period of time.
What about workshopping and developing it, as you finished the draft, then where did it go from there in late 1979?
We read it with some of the company actors and the resident company here had all major roles in the show and we would read it. Again, the first time we did it was different from the second time, it was different from the third time. The thing about a play like A Christmas Carol, which is a perennial, is that you get to do it again, and so you are not worried about nailing it all the first time.
One of the things that the workshops led us to was the monologues that Hal would do in his bedroom and as he would change clothes, and as he came out of the discovery on Christmas day, a lot of that was improvised by Hal. I would be there and I would be watching it and writing stuff down. It was largely Hal going through it and finding the ways to go through that, and so he contributed a great deal to that preparation of the text, and it changes a little bit. He has room to maneuver in it and he takes it.
We love to hear Hal say he doesn’t need to spend as much time putting the make-up on these days as when he first started.
Yeah, it’s true. Well, the thing about Hal, and, of course, he does the somersault with the hat and we were all terrified of the years to come when he can’t do that, but he is now a septuagenarian and he’s still doing it. The reason is, first of all, Hal was always a very good athlete from college on, and he and I used to backpack through the Sierras and other stuff. He was always a very physical guy, and he has always taken very good care of himself. He’s good with diet, he’s good with taking care of himself, so that’s worked to our advantage. There aren’t a lot of guys his age who can do what he can physically.
How do you think Dickens would react to seeing our production of A Christmas Carol?
Oh, I’m sure he’d have notes. First of all, he was not a playwright. Playwrights tend to delight in seeing how different people do their stuff and I think novelists are not that way, by and large, they meant something in a particular way and they want to see it that way. Now, who am I to speak for Charles Dickens, but if we’re talking categorically about different kinds of writers, playwrights really do delight in seeing different versions of their stuff, and maybe Dickens would have to, but he would be the exception, rather than the rule as novelists go, if that were the case.
A Christmas Carol runs Nov. 30-Dec. 24, 2019, on the Segerstrom Stage. To inquire about standby tickets, call the Box Office at (714) 708-5555. Learn more.