The making of ‘A Christmas Carol’
Ryan Summerlin November 15, 2012
This season, the Backstage Theatre in Breckenridge brings a new adaptation of a holiday classic to the stage. Commissioned by the Backstage and adapted by Josh Hartwell, it’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ as we all know it, but delivered by a cast of puppets created by Cory Gilstrap of Imagined Creations. Here, artistic director Christopher Willard describes what went into the production:
We weren’t interested in presenting “yet another version” of “A Christmas Carol.” We wanted to challenge our artists and inspire our audiences with a new way of experiencing a familiar story. I like to refer to it as “putting old wine in new bottles.”We knew we wanted to create a more condensed version of the show for our smaller space. But we became excited by the possibility of using the limitations we faced to our advantage, making more demands on the performers to play a variety of parts (each actor plays about five characters) and to see where puppets could be used in the telling of the story. Having puppets represent the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future was obvious, but we loved the idea of having puppets narrate the show and then to have Tiny Tim and others represented by puppets as well. The design of the masks quickly morphed into being puppet-style as well, complementing the rest of the world we’re creating.
There are various styles of puppetry in use for this production. Most of the Ghost puppets are bunraku-style puppets that require two operators to bring them to life. We are using a rod-style (Muppet design) for the narrators. We’re utilizing full-size shadow puppets for the Fezziwig party and kite-style puppets for the phantoms that appear during the Marley scene. There is always a new and surprising puppet method being incorporated with every new section of the story being told.
It’s a very exact art – like acting itself. You have to make specific choices and work to use the puppets as an extension of yourself. You have to breathe life into an inanimate object and invest in it so completely that the audience believes that object is alive, a unique personality and full of character.
We’ve been working with a Denver Center mask instructor to learn the elements of mask work. It all comes down to specifics, specifics, specifics. Mask work focuses the actor’s energy on the physicality, and you become aware of every little nuance a gesture or turn can provide. The next step in our process is to amplify that choice to match the largeness of the mask and to communicate the emotion to the audience. Now that the actual masks are ready for us, the actors will go back to the mirrors to create the final work on solidifying their characters by making strong physical choices that convey character. It’s a fascinating process that seems limiting when you think about it (removal of most facial expression), but actually is very freeing for the performer.
Even though this is a smaller cast version of the show, the scale of the theatrical effects is immense. Set, lighting, costuming and puppet design are all more ambitious than we’ve done in our space. The process of bringing together these elements and folding them into a seamless storytelling has been really fascinating and rewarding to see. I think people will be amazed at how a traditional story takes on so much more emotion, immediacy and excitement by being told in a unique and different style.
They add a level of charm and theatricality to the storytelling – as well as populating our stage with far more people than are actually walking the boards up there. The ultimate experience is going to be transporting. You’re really going to feel like you’re in a special type of Dickensian universe when you see this show.
Our costume design is very unique in that the actors playing the myriad of characters wear a base black costume (that has a representative period line to it), but then add selective pieces on top. I gave the challenge to the designer to only select three pieces of clothing that represent the individual character. Again, this notion of specificity drives the production at every level and artistic component.
“A Christmas Carol” opens tonight and runs through Dec. 29. Visit www.backstagetheatre.org for details.