Creating "A Christmas Carol"

Nov. 29, 2006, midnight | By Madeline Raskulinecz | 13 years, 11 months ago

Blair Players confront the ghosts of theater past, present and yet to come

On an October afternoon, a crowd of 50 students hum "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," an old English carol, and tap their feet to keep the beat. Junior Malcolm Foley hoists 8-year-old Rachel Arbacher onto his shoulders as he utters that famous line: "God bless us, every one."

Arbacher yelps as she leans too far backwards and almost topples over. As Foley clutches her legs, she flails comically and the stage erupts in laughter.

These students are the Blair Players, the school drama group that puts on a production each fall and spring. This year, they will produce a new version of an old classic, Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," opening Dec. 1, which promises to be a challenging production.

The story follows Ebenezer Scrooge, a bitter old man who lives alone and abhors everything Christmas until the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come help him see the consequences of his misanthropic ways. Despite the countless productions of the 163-year-old story, the Players hope to use new elements, such as an original adaptation of the script and the addition of younger actors like Arbacher, to put their own spin on the tale.

The casting of five young children in several key roles, including the iconic part of Tiny Tim, is one of many additions to the traditional Blair ensemble this year. Instead of finding Blair actors who fit the physical description of the role, the Players held open auditions and chose suitably small children to fill the roles.

Foley describes his experience with the young cast members as exhausting but fun. "Little kids have that youthful vigor," he says. He and Arbacher rehearse together often, and she spends the time between run-throughs bubbling about her friends, school and daily life and asking Foley questions about his own activities. Offstage, Arbacher insists they rehearse scenes that need work, making him practice the botched lift several more times until it's perfect. "She keeps me on my toes," says Foley. "And she's a good actor, too."

Director Kelly O'Connor thinks that the addition of the "kidlets," as she calls them, will increase the energy onstage. "There's this neat bonding that happens among the families - the big kids get really protective of the little ones," she says. She's confident that the audience will respond to the cast's youngest members with laughter and applause. The presence of younger children onstage lends the production a reality that past shows have lacked, she says.

The Players meet every day after school, as well as some Saturdays, to rehearse "A Christmas Carol." Many students were first drawn to the group because of the impressive amount of work that the cast and crew put into their productions. Sophomore Russell Ottalini, an ensemble member, who acted in last year's "Twelfth Night" and "Crazy for You," says that getting involved in theater was one of his main goals when he first came to Blair. He'd seen some of the musicals in middle school and was immediately impressed by the level of professionalism. Like many other cast members, his decision to try out this year was less about the play itself than the experience of participating in a Blair show. According to Ottalini, after he learns a part, he begins to love the production, not the other way around. "Even if you come not a fan, you'll leave a fan," he says.

This year's play, adapted from the book of the same name, intrigued many first-time thespians as well. Senior Scott Wittmann, who plays the lead role of Scrooge, auditioned because the story is a childhood favorite. Every Christmas day, he says, it's a tradition for his family to watch "The Muppet Christmas Carol," and so was delighted to find out the play was coming to Blair.

The book was adapted for Blair's stage by John O'Connor, Kelly O'Connor's husband. After directing a version of the play six years ago at the Oxford Playhouse in England, he thought it would be an excellent show for Blair because of its large cast and "big visual moments," he says. Although the play has been adapted many times, John O'Connor sought to add new dimensions and characters to the mix - so he decided to create his own version. Charles Dickens narrates most adaptations, he explains, but he wanted someone new. The secret of who narrates this show won't be revealed until opening night.

Because "A Christmas Carol" has a large cast - 47 parts including the ensemble - there are many small but crucial roles. Sophomore Gerard Bradley, who plays Scrooge's hapless clerk, has to make his mark in only 25 lines out of a 62-page script. "Each character has to deliver," he says. "We each have to make our character memorable."

Whatever new challenges the Blair Players face this fall, the objective is, as always, to connect with the audience, according to Kelly O'Connor. As the Players relay the story of Scrooge, she hopes that the audience will relate to the universal themes of the play. "The opportunity for redemption that Scrooge is given speaks to all people, of all ethnicities and religions," she says, "and that's what I think the audience will take away with them."

Who's who in "A Christmas Carol"
•Ebenezer Scrooge (senior Scott Wittmann): a miserly old man who focuses his life only on making money.
•Bob Cratchit (sophomore Gerard Bradley): Scrooge's clerk. He has a large family that he struggles to provide for because of the low wages Scrooge pays him.
•Tiny Tim (8-year-old Dany Fanord): Bob Cratchit's crippled youngest son.
•Jacob Marley (senior Jason Meer): Scrooge's dead business partner who reappears as a ghost to warn him of the consequences of his selfishness and sends the Christmas ghosts to help Scrooge see his own faults.
•The Ghost of Christmas Past (junior Brittany Allen): who reveals the causes of Scrooge's current unhappiness by revisiting his lonely childhood.
•The Ghost of Christmas Present (junior Claire Kalala): who shows Scrooge the meager Christmas celebrations of the Cratchit family and teaches him the true meaning of Christmas.
•The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come will be a large puppet, controlled by members of stage crew.

Madeline Raskulinecz. Maddy is a CAP junior who enjoys soccer, ballet, the internet, and a good nap. Apart from these endeavors, she spends her limited free time watching movies or, alternately, arguing about them. Her ultimate goal in life is to cure the world of incorrect spellings … More »

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