Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Revisiting the Past, Reanimating the Present

By Lesley Gibson, Publications Coordinator

The Goodman’s 34th annual production of A Christmas Carol opens this Friday, November 18. This year marks the return of director Steve Scott to the holiday classic after an almost 20-year hiatus at the helm—he last directed the 1989 – 1992 productions. Shortly before rehearsals began, he talked to us about his plans for the production, the ghosts, and the process of tucking surprises into a holiday tradition.

Tickets to A Christmas Carol always sell out quickly—don't miss out!

Photo: Steve Scott in rehearsal for A Christmas Carol. Photo by Eric Y. Exit.

Lesley Gibson: What is your history with A Christmas Carol at the Goodman?

Steve Scott: I began working with A Christmas Carol while I was still the director of education. I used to go out and lecture to a lot of groups about A Christmas Carol. I would tell them the background of the story and the history of story on stage and off stage, so I was thoroughly indoctrinated into A Christmas Carol before I took over as director, which I did in 1989. I directed four productions of A Christmas Carol from 1989 to 1992. Since then I have been involved each year as the producer of the show. I think I have seen it more than any person on earth, actually [laughs], but it’s always been one of my favorite events at Goodman. I think it is one of the best things we do and it’s certainly has become a tradition for the whole city. It was really wonderful when I got the chance to direct it once more this year.

LG: How is your perspective different with this 20 year break?

SS: My perspective now has changed, certainly since I’m older and in some ways perhaps more cynical and perhaps more Scrooge-like, I think. I am even more affected now than I was before by the transformation that Scrooge makes and the kinds of things he learns, which, I think, is really at the heart of the show. I would hate to identify myself as Scrooge incarnate, but in some ways I think as you get older you do become a little inured to the holiday season. I think it’s even more important as you get older to come back to this story and see how you are reflected in what Scrooge is and how maybe that isn’t so good.

LG: How will this production be different from recent past productions?

SS: Even though it’s the same story, I think different directors bring different emphases to various facets of the story. One of the things that I really enjoyed doing before and want to do again now is to heighten the emotional journey through the story. To me, A Christmas Carol is like an emotional rollercoaster. It’s joyous and happy at one moment, very sad and tragic at another moment, then at another it gets really, really scary. I think the audience gets on at the beginning, and it’s like a ride through a theme park almost where you see lots of different things coming at you very quickly and you respond really viscerally to it. Really, it’s trying to get back to that visceral response that we’ve had with the production in the past.

LG: How do you plan on using some of the more fantastical production elements to achieve that effect?

SS: Certainly something we are always reinvestigating is how to the ghosts appear and how to make those sequences scary and more impactful. We have a couple of tricks we are going to try this year on how to establish the ghosts and making them truly terrifying creatures [laughs]. We’re also renovating some elements of the set so that there is a greater disparity between the feeling of Scrooge and his counting house and all the other places that he visits—especially the Fezziwig scene, which is the site of the happiest moments of his youth. Interestingly, his counting house is in the same building that Fezziwig’s offices were, but we are trying to go for a larger contrast there to see what has happened, what’s decayed through the years, and to see where Scrooge ended up. Also, we are looking at a couple of other elements to make the story a little warmer, the family sequences a little richer, just generally broadening all the emotional context of the show.

LG: I’ve heard this is one of the most diverse Christmas Carol casts we’ve compiled?

SS: It is; A Christmas Carol is a staple of the Goodman’s season and a tradition for many Chicago area families. As a director, I hope to not only present Dickens’ beautiful story, but to show the timelessness of its message by having the production reflect the world we live in today; the community on stage should reflect our community. A diverse cast is paramount in achieving this, and it adds a beautiful authenticity to the play. This is true for all Goodman productions, and any play I direct outside of the Goodman, as well. Theater is all about telling stories—and those stories are made rich by finding a wide variety of voices to tell them. As the American theater progresses, inclusiveness—both for artists and audiences—is essential to make it thrive.

LG: Are there any big surprises?

SS: There are some big surprises, but I’m not going to tell you what they are [laughs]. You are going to have to come and see that.

LG: Why do you think it is important for us to continue to do this year after year?

SS: I think it’s an important story to revisit. It has become a tradition, I think, in a city where almost all of the holiday traditions that we’ve seen have kind of gone away, A Christmas Carol still remains. I think it is one of those events that one loves to experience with one’s loved ones. It has become a hallmark of the whole season of rebirth and reinvestigation and kind of beginning anew. And I think it is an important kind of social message, too, that we are bringing audiences, and I think that’s important to go back and revisit every year for the people who come but also for the artist involved in the show. I think a lot of the people certainly at the Goodman feel the same way about the production and view the coming of A Christmas Carol as a major event in their lives, not just in their professional lives.

LG: Is directing this play different than directing any other show?

SS: Oh, very much so. There are certain elements in the production that always need to be preserved, things that audiences have come to expect over some 30 odd years. So as a director I have to preserve those elements but refresh them so they don’t just become set pieces. When you are directing other shows, you are usually starting from scratch and building from the ground floor. Here you are kind of taking something that has already been established and trying to put your own imprint on it in whatever ways you can, which is an interesting challenge. And in some ways it’s more fulfilling than directing other shows because you have such a rich tradition of things to draw upon. There have been so many wonderful directors attached to this production that have put their imprint on it, and so many actors that have been involved with it; it has such a rich history that it’s wonderful to be able to pull from all of that. It really is a great deal of fun, although it is a different kind of challenge for a director.

LG: What is most fun about it?

SS: I think certainly in the past the thing that I’ve enjoyed the most about directing A Christmas Carol, aside from the audience response which is always very gratifying, is if you do the show the right way, I think there is a real family feeling that builds up with the cast and the crew and the people who are working on the show. It’s a much closer bond than you get with any other production so that through the rehearsal and the performance period—you really grow together. It makes the Christmas celebration really mean a lot more when you have all of these people who are really part of your family that year to celebrate with.

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