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A Caroling We Go

Reaching for one of literature’s greatest tales, Jefferson Mays and Susan Lyons set out to transform us all.

As they began rehearsals for A Christmas Carol wherein Mays inhabits upwards of fifty characters, I sat down to speak with two of the play’s creators to see what inspired them to take on this story of redemption.

What inspired you to reimagine A Christmas Carol in this incredibly inventive way?

Jefferson Mays: It’s been an idea that’s been kicking around in our heads for quite some time, hasn’t it?

Susan Lyons: Yes.

JM: I have a very long history with A Christmas Carol, as I’m sure a lot of people do, in that it was read aloud to me by my parents. Some night during the Vietnam War, I remember flickering images of wounded soldiers being evacuated from a distant battlefield on the television. The basset hound ran out of the kitchen in pursuit of one of the cats, got hopelessly tangled up in the power cord of the television in the living room and dragged it, and it smashed on the ground, its inner workings irreparably damaged. And so we gathered that night. My siblings were home from school and we were going to watch Wild Kingdom as a family, and that plan was scotched.

So my father reached for a collection of Charles Dickens’ Christmas books, an old yellowing volume, and began reading A Christmas Carol aloud, passing it back and forth with my mother, each one taking a different stave. And I remember it being an extraordinary, seminal experience. Three hours passed and we were all just sitting there transfixed on a winter’s evening around the fire with this wonderful story of transformation and redemption being read to us by our parents. They always read aloud to us but this was sort of the dawn of a new age because the television was destroyed. We passed the book around the table after dinner every night after that. My father had this lovely, detached storyteller’s voice. My mother, however, would embody every character that she was reading. She would become Ebenezer Scrooge or the ferocious, terrifying Jacob Marley or Belle. And I remember, as a child, being rather frightened of that — seeing this woman I knew so profoundly becoming these different people.

I think in many ways, the act of being read aloud to from A Christmas Carolwas my introduction to the theater. It’s theater in its purest form. The audience of myself and my siblings, the actors my parents, and this cracking good story being told. And then, every Christmas thereafter, it became a family tradition and I grew up reading my own stave. In fact, we made a recording of it sometime in the 80’s. My father read stave one, I read stave two, my mother read stave three. My siblings had moved away by then so it was just the three of us reading the entire, unexpurgated A Christmas Carol.

My parents have died in recent years and I’ve never been able to listen to it because the sound of their voices reading this story that we had shared together… So you said initially that this is an inventive retelling, and I’m not sure that it is an inventive retelling. It’s been told so many times, adapted in so many ways. But it is a story that speaks to me on so many levels and seems to me a story that is always necessary but particularly necessary in our current climate. Because it is about charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, kindness, and the potential for change and transformation for the good. What does it mean to lead a good life? What is important in life? I think it’s always useful to be reminded of these things, but especially now.

We’ve been reading a lot about Dickens’ Christmas Carol and its critical reception. Dickens fell out of favor in the early twentieth century — there was a violent reaction against the Victorians and all they represented and it was well into the century before he experienced an academic rehabilitation. His work was just dismissed as sentimental twaddle. And people attacked A Christmas Carol in particular, saying, “Oh really? Scrooge would have the equivalent of fifteen years of Freudian analysis in just one night?” But I think we’ve moved past that unfortunate period of Dickens-phobia.

There’s so much cynicism in suggesting that a single moment can’t change a person’s life. Haven’t we all had the event that marks the “before” and the “after?”

JM: Indeed, these epiphanies — this whole project came about because we ran into Matt [Shakman, the Geffen’s artistic director] and his young daughter over at the Tar Pits. He asked if there was anything I was interested in working on and I just blurted out “A Christmas Carol!” He was the one who made it all possible.

Performer and Adaptor Jefferson Mays with Adaptor Susan Lyons

Susan, did you also have a relationship with the material?

SL: My dad was a great Dickens fan, but I grew up in Australia where Christmas happened in the middle of heat waves. So it was always fake snow on the Christmas tree and the windows and spending 110° days cooking turkeys and boiling puddings. We grew up with the idea of an English Christmas in the middle of the tropics.

JM: And you played Kate Nickleby in the nine hour production [of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, adapted from a Dickens novel of the same name] at the Sydney Theatre Company. That was a tough role, being bashed about!

SL: Bashed about and then someone comes and marries you at the end.

JM: It’s tough being a Victorian heroine.

SL: It was interesting because why were women in that situation and what was stopping her from having agency in her own fate? The society was structured in a way that in order for her to survive and not end up destitute she had to play by these rules. Dickens returns to these themes often — forbearance, as Jefferson mentioned.

JM: A Christmas Carol has always appealed to us as a story. I’ve seen a number of adaptations, as we all have. It seems to be the cash cow for most regional theater companies. So often there are productions with a cast of seeming thousands and children of board members playing really well-fed looking Cratchits. Which is not to diminish these productions but something I always feel deprived of in them is Dickens’ own narrative voice — with all of its poetry and social outrage and wit that you miss when you have it divided into scenes. So I’m hoping that we will maintain that narrative voice of Dickens throughout.

SL: Which I think provides a real drive through the story, because it does get out of his control. Scrooge starts out a very controlling, settled man and extraordinary, horrific, ghostly things happen to him that spin him into places where he needs to keep up with them. And he does, but it dictates the hurried rhythm of the piece. It does have that sort of roller coaster effect. One thing that always bothered me about the story is what is it that actually changes Scrooge? He is set in cement and suddenly he’s leaping around and enjoying Christmas and I wonder what makes that change. I think it is to do with the speed with which his senses are being assailed. He doesn’t have time for cynical explanations. It’s been a fascinating exercise to pick it apart and put it back together.

JM: Susan has done such amazing editorial work.

SL: We’ve done it together.

In terms of the dramaturgy, where did you pull from what Dickens created and when did you diverge from it?

SL: It’s all Dickens. There’s the odd sentence that might be added because we’ve cut something out and we need to complete an idea. Jefferson will recite it for me, and I’ll make adjustments when I hear it aloud. And we’re still cutting.

JM: Dickens actually did his own brutal cut for his readings. We are sort of in awe of it because he really went in and slaughtered his darlings. The first time he did it, it ran about three hours and then he got it down to about an hour and a half. So we’ve honored his cuts, we’ve made some further cuts and we’ve also made some restorations.

SL: But there’s a difference between the author standing at a podium and telling you the story and one person on stage with the world created around him. We can’t wait to see what Michael Arden [director] and Dane Laffrey [scenic and costume designer] have in mind for the world.

JM: All the most magical experiences for me in the theater have been those in which the audience has to lean forward and supply, with their own imagination, elements of the performance. You don’t want to ever give everything to the audience, so I’m hoping we can achieve that.

By Amy Levinson

For tickets and showtimes, please visit geffenplayhouse.org/carol or call our Box Office at 310.208.5454 (open daily, 7:00 a.m. — 6:00 p.m.).

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