This was supposed to be the year that South Coast Repertory Founding Member Richard Doyle stepped into the role of Ebenezer Scrooge for the theatre’s annual production of A Christmas Carol, about the only role in the play he hasn’t done. And this was to be the year that longtime assistant director Hisa Takakuwa was set to take the helm as director of the show. Enter: the pandemic. Exit: plans for 2020.
So, Takakuwa and others brainstormed a different way to mark the yuletide: an audio performance of the Charles Dickens’ tale, newly adapted by John Glore, associate artistic director, with original music and a soundscape by David R. Molina.
“We really crafted this idea with Richard Doyle in mind—he’s such an amazing actor!” says Takakuwa.
For Doyle and Takakuwa, the audio performance also became a bridge that connected the past 40 consecutive years of producing A Christmas Carol to today’s unique circumstances and the future: they started their partnership around the Dickens text with an eye toward the return to a live, on-stage production of A Christmas Carol next year on the Segerstrom Stage in late 2021.
Read on to learn more about how this audio production came about.
Why is the Christmas Carol story so special?
Richard Doyle (Performer):
It was the first real play I ever saw and I was taken by the story. I had been a child entertainer but, when I was around age 9, my older brother Robert (Bobby), played Scrooge in his senior class production of A Christmas Carol
. He was, as I recall, quite good! Though I worshipped him as a brother, it annoyed me that he was so good on stage.
Hisa Takakuwa (Director)
I’m a Dickens nerd: Love the whole cannon; love the storytelling and the colorful characters! A Christmas Carol
has such heart and power in showing the possibility of transformation by anyone at any stage of life. It shows that true riches come from shared experience and human connection. I also love that Dickens keeps a child and the less fortunate as crucial focal points—as he did in all his great stories; this resonates with me. Plus, SCR’s A Christmas Carol
has been at the center of my holidays for more than half my life!
John Glore (Playwright/Adaptor)
Growing up, I enjoyed watching the many different adaptations that were available on television—personal favorites included the Alastair Sim version, the Mr. Magoo version and the Muppet version. I never saw a stage adaptation of the story until I arrived at SCR in 1984 and I think what makes it special is the obvious importance it has for the community. I'm moved by how SCR's stage version has become a holiday tradition for so many families across generations. I love watching it with high school audiences, many of whom may be encountering it for the first time. And, I particularly enjoy the screams from those young audiences when Marley pops through the door of Scrooge's bedroom!
How did this audio performance come about?
Takakuwa: We knew that Richard would be able to bring all the characters to life and be a lovely guide through and into this world. He grew up with radio and loves this format and he also has wide professional experience with audio work. This seemed perfect: a way to “nest” in SCR’s Christmas Carol tradition with a talented actor, who has a deep history with the story, and to experience it in a comfortably familiar and new way, simultaneously. In terms of process, Richard and I talked about the story: why we loved it, what we needed to tell and how, and then he took it from there. We agreed on the touchstone moments for Scrooge in his growth on his journey, those with the most emotional resonance and discovery. And, we wanted to trust our long history and connection with the story, while experiencing it fresh. Richard would record and I would provide some outside guidance, mainly to help clarify.
Doyle: I worked on the text, re-read my two or three books on Dickens and re-read the text of Dickens’ live-read version [used by Dickens during his tours] that John Glore had adapted for this audio performance. I approached this project in a way similar to how I do the live narration each year at Pageant of the Masters, where I get to play all the parts (not just one) and support the thematic arc as well. For SCR’s audio performance, I brought all of that to bear on my storytelling, plus play every character, some in scenes with each other, while using my 40 years of experience as a voice talent. I did all of the voice recording work for this project from my home studio. Normally, when I record for a video game, animation, commercials or documentary narration, I stand in a recording booth while a booth director and audio engineer guide and record my performance. For this project, because of COVID-19 restrictions, I had to record and edit my performance myself. I sent Hisa a rough-cut track of the audio, she would make notes and observations and I then would adjust my performance.
Glore: Dickens did his own abridgement of the full novella, which he performed himself all over the world including here in the U.S. It's quite good, as you might expect, but it doesn't exactly conform to the story that SCR tells in our stage version—it leaves out some moments that I think our audiences would consider important to their experience of the story. Most of my adaptation involved restoring some passages from the full novel and making some other trims here and there, so the duration would remain approximately the same. For example, Dickens cut the scene in which the Spirit of Christmas Past takes Scrooge to visit his boyhood self at school, and I couldn't imagine leaving that moment out because it's so critical to Jerry Patch's stage adaptation for SCR. I do want to emphasize that I didn't change a word of Dickens' text. My favorite line is the one that compares Marley's ghostly face to "a bad lobster in a dark cellar." I did some research and learned that dead lobsters, as they go bad, sometimes give off a bioluminescent glow.
What have been the most fun and challenging moments?
Takakuwa: The most fun has been diving into a world that I love with someone I really respect. To know that we’re doing this as a gift for our community and that it’s really needed just now is meaningful. And for me—Dickens, Dickens, Dickens and words, words, words! The most challenging: working remotely, being physically separated.
Doyle: The most fun has been the challenge of it! Could I do it? Would I learn more about a story I had help tell nearly 2,000 times? My answer was, yes, and that was the fun! Even though I had told the story so many times, I still learned more about the story and the characters in it. Also, I learned why the people who watched the story told, over and over again, kept coming back to take that journey. Reinvesting in A Christmas Carol meant I now understand why I could not forget the story I saw, all those years ago when I saw 17-year-old Bobby Doyle play Scrooge as fully invested as he could be as a high school drama student. As a lifelong storyteller, you never forget or let go of a good story.
Why is the story’s message of transformation, redemption and hope so important?
Takakuwa: Because we need it more than ever right now. I get a chance to work with students of all ages in my daily SCR life. I see daily the incredible strain of this time in the faces of our students—the loneliness, depression, lack of anchor and longing for connection. But I also get to see how resilient people are on a daily basis as well. This is a time to share our humanity, our fragility and vulnerability, but also to share the strength we gather from and offer to each other. And, stories always help get us through, yes?
What can you say to people—children, in particular—who may be feeling isolated or disconnected right now?
Takakuwa: It’s totally okay to feel whatever you’re feeling. Be willing to reach out, to ask for help and let folks know how you feel You are not alone in your experience; emotions and realizing our humanity and frailty can be really tough, but they are the parts that ultimately make us strong and give us our fullest experience of life. Find new ways to reach out and to express yourself. Let’s all try to really value and cherish each other just now.
Doyle: I suggest that you sit with your favorite person or family member (hopefully they are one and the same.) Gather round a listening device with a plate of your favorite holiday treats and a cup of grog, wassail or eggnog. Then listen to our reading of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol adapted by John Glore, directed by Hisa Takakuwa, and read by yours truly.
Pick Your Drink: Eggnog or Wassail
Glore: I've never actually drunk wassail, as far as I can recall, so I'd have to say eggnog. It's not something I'd ever find appealing the rest of the year (too sweet, too thick, too fattening), but it hits the spot at Christmastime.
Listen to the audio performance of A Christmas Carol featuring Richard Doyle, Dec. 15-31, 2020.