Volume 91, Issue 54

Wednesday, December 3, 1997

Jack Frosh


Working hard to put on a Grand show beneath the stage of A Christmas Carol

By Brad Lister
Gazette Staff

Curtain up, the actors enter and the drama begins.

But what a long time it took to get there. With a little over a week left until opening night, deep under the stage in a number of workshops, an eclectic crew of actors, technicians, seamstresses and one harried publicist work to make sure the show will be ready to go on.

On a wet and cold Tuesday afternoon, there is palpable excitement in the air of The Grand Theatre as everyone is under the gun in order to prepare for this year's holiday show, A Christmas Carol.

The show, an adaptation of the classic story by Charles Dickens, is written and directed by Grand artistic director Michael Shamata. The show stars Douglas Campbell as Ebenezer Scrooge and John Jarvis as the Christmas ghosts.

Though A Christmas Carol has been adapted and performed many times for the stage, there is a definite appeal that keeps drawing people back. Shamata says, "The appeal of the story is its redemptive quality. Someone who is selfish learns that it is better to give and reach out to humanity is satisfying to watch." The lessons for Scrooge in the story are both universal and timeless. "Dickens was writing at a time of great poverty – a time that is, unfortunately, not very dissimilar to our own."

This particular adaptation was first written by Shamata in 1989 and performed in New Brunswick twice and now in London. "I have tried to remain as faithful to both the story as Dickens wrote it and the tone and the emotional journey Dickens created," says Shamata.

Douglas Campbell whose starring as Scrooge calls it "a great story." Publicist Rob Wellan says Campbell definitely has the mischief to keep his performance fresh.

Those who are hard at work below the stage are a bit like the ghosts of the story themselves. They are seen by hardly anyone, but nonetheless play integral roles in the performance.

Surrounded by colourful scraps and rolls of materials, costume designer Julie Fox is hard at work at her sewing machine, still putting together the sometimes intricate costumes that will clothe the 14 actors in the production.

"It's largely a straight period production, with a few fantastic elements for the ghosts," she says.

Fox and a dedicated team of 10 to 12 seamstresses and cutters have been working hard for the last few weeks to prepare the 40-50 costumes required for the varying costume changes of the actors. "They're all crafts-persons. Very skilled professionals," Wellan says.

Sam Pane/Gazette
THAT'S A BIG COLLAR. Seamstresses work feverishly on the alterations to the Ghost of Christmas Present's costume. Actor John Jarvis is playing all three ghosts in The Grand Theatre's production of A Christmas Carol.

Fox will first read the script of any play and then decide if she'd like to do the show. From there she'll speak to the production designer and the director to conceptualize the ideas for the show and do research which usually takes a month and a half.

The work on the costumes is actually continued right up until the actors begin dress rehearsal. Fox and her crew have been working feverishly so far. "There are deadlines and they have to be met," she said. "There's going to be an audience."

Fox has been fortunate because donations of old clothing and other materials to The Grand have kept costs low. "I've borrowed a lot as well," she says, like the Ghost of Christmas Present's costume which was actually brought in from Theatre New Brunswick. Left-over fabric from old costumes can also be transformed into something fresh. She adds if everything was made from scratch the costs would be far too high.

One member of the costume team, Paulette Laporte, has been working on productions at The Grand since 1973 and A Christmas Carol is among the many hundreds she has worked on. Laporte says the costumes for the show are very period-accurate. The corset she works on for the Mrs. Fezziwig character is made with whale bone to give its rigid stiffness. "The actress will actually be laced up into the corset," says Laporte. Just like she would if she lived 200 years ago.

Over in the prop building workshop, Irene Fretz and Laurie Blackley are hard at work building Scrooge's long desk. "It will be quite big and will roll in on casters," says Fretz. The two have been working a little longer than normal on this show because the last show at The Grand, Vigil, came from Ottawa with props and set already done.

That was fine with them because Fretz and Blackley have been making tons of items for the show. "We've made a lot of turkeys," says Fretz. The two are also responsible for any trick items on stage. Some of the more interesting items they've been working on include an inanimate parrot that springs to life from a book and flies across the stage, a 7.2 metre pastel skyline of London that will be wheeled across the stage and a two-sided ladder the ghosts and Scrooge spend a lot of their time on.

Before every show, the two work with the designer to decide on what props are needed. John Ferguson, who designed this set and the production, comes up with schematic sketches of what's needed.

The two have finished a 1.35-metre by 1.8-metre clock, made of Styrofoam, burlap and Christmas garland, spray painted grey to look like stone.

Similar to the costumes, not everything is built from scratch. "We have a large warehouse out by the airport," says Fretz. There, everything from furniture to costumes and other items are kept.

Fretz and Blackley are also responsible for replenishing items that are used on a regular basis. "In Sleuth there was a porcelain vase that was shot every night so we had to keep supplying them with new vases," says Fretz.

While all the work was still being done down below the stage, up above the final touches are being put on the set. Wellan says Ferguson conceived a set that is painted similar to The Grand's interior design. The 12 columns on stage hold up thick molding that looks similar to The Grand's walls where the audience sits. Snow on stage will extend into the actual seating area. "That way the audience will feel like they are right into the show."

Sam Pane/Gazette
I CAN'T FIND MY PARROT SKETCHES. Prop builder Irene Fretz takes a look through the many schematics of the props that are required for A Christmas Carol.

Last Thursday, two days after our visit, the cast moved onto the stage to begin rehearsing. Wellan says even though the rehearsal area is well marked out it still is not the same as being on the stage. "They need to to get used to being on the stage," says Wellan.

Preparing A Christmas Carol for opening night has taken the work of a number of collaborators. When it arrives on stage the audience will be enthralled again. Wellan wouldn't hazard to guess what keeps people coming back again and again to see the show. "It's just a story that appeals to people."

A Christmas Carol opened yesterday and runs until Jan. 3 at The Grand Theatre on Richmond Street.

To Contact The Focus Department: gazfocus@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright The Gazette 1997