Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Christmas Carol

I haven't done a lot of acting. Not in any real sense anyway. Not compared to many of my friends who are professional actors. I had the lead in my third grade production of Boots and his Brothers. In fourth grade I played a vulture in an adaptation of Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears a Who. I was Will Scarlet in a sixth grade musical version of Robin Hood. I did a little improv as part of a college program I worked with, but then in 1990 I moved to Pittsburgh and met a bunch of people who took improv and theater very seriously. I was so impressed and intimidated by them I never participated (though I stage-managed one show and have had a couple of small parts in locally produced movies since then).

My one real experience on the stage came my senior year of college when some friends and I staged A Christmas Carol.

It was something of a guerrilla production. It was December, 1982 at Waynesburg College (now University). At the time there was not a drama department at Waynesburg. The details are a little fuzzy but I believe the previous Drama professor had left and the administration was not sure there was enough interest on campus to justify hiring a new one. It was a small college, around 600 full time students at the time (there are a lot more now), so they may have had a point. Nevertheless, a lot of us were not pleased at this direction.

So we decided to put on a play.

I'm not sure why I got so involved. I had not been part of the drama department prior to this. I guess some of it was just a belief that the Arts are an important part of education. It was a creative process, so that intrigued me. I'm pretty sure that at least part of my motivation was just standing up to the administration.

The primary movers in this production were my friends David Ealy, Julie Smith, and myself. It was the end of the Fall semester, so we were all up to our ears in papers and finals. Because of the time of year we chose A Christmas Carol. We didn't actually find a version of the play. We wrote an adaptation of it based on the original story. It was a public domain property so we didn't have to worry about licensing fees or any of those types of financial matters. It was relatively short and hit the primary moments of the story without a lot of filler.

We went to the administration, told them our plan and asked for support. Their response was mixed. They said we could do it, but there was no faculty advisor to help us out, or any money available for a budget. There was an old playhouse on campus, but it was closed down and all of the heat and electricity had been turned off, so we couldn't use it. They did give us a key and said we could make use of any of the props, costumes or anything else we could find in there.

So we spent a lot of time wandering through a cold, dark building searching for things we could use. We did pretty well for ourselves, and the sense of adventure was worth every minute (even the moment when a stack of old flats fell over on David).

David, Julie and I began the process of looking for actors through flyers and word of mouth. Luckily, due to the small size of the campus this was not that difficult. We managed to pull in a lot of support in a fairly short period of time. We scheduled auditions and cast the roles. We all worked on props and backdrops, painting and hammering in the same dark, abandoned playhouse. We rehearsed in spare classrooms and dorm rooms.

Since we couldn't use the Playhouse we had to come up with another solution. The third floor of Miller Hall, the college's administration building, has a large open chapel with beautiful stained glass windows and a cathedral ceiling. There is not a stage, so we decided to build one. We scrounged every three-foot riser on campus, carried them up three flights of stairs, arranged them in a large rectangular pattern in the front of the hall and covered the cracks between them with masking tape. The painted backdrops and props were installed in a frenzied time crunch.

We weren't allowed to do this until the day before opening. This meant we didn't get a chance to block out the play in it's actual location until the stage was complete. Our first dress performance of the entire show was in front of our opening night audience.

We didn't sell tickets. The performance was free. We put up flyers and told everyone we knew. We ended up doing two standing room only performances.

We enlisted the Lamplighters, the college's choral group, to sing Christmas Carols as people came in. It added to the festive ambiance, but it served another purpose as well by covering up the sounds from backstage.

Except there was no real backstage area, just a narrow space between the backdrops and the wall. The actors all got into costume and makeup before the doors opened and then hid back there for the whole show, quiet as mice.

David took the lead role of Ebeneezer Scrooge and spent the entire performance on stage. Julie had no desire to be on stage so took on the roles of director and stage manager, and probably worked harder than any of us. I forget who played most of the other roles simply because I have lost track of and forgotten many of my collegs friends in the last thirty years.

I played the role of the Ghost of Christmas Present. I wore a long, green robe edged with white fur and carried a staff that was probably seven feet tall. There was a holly bush growing outside of one of the women's dorms and both nights someone went out and clipped fresh sprigs of it to fashion a wreath around my head.

I would like to say that the performances went without a hitch but that's not exactly true. There were no major glitches, but a couple of moments stand out. Tiny Tim, the five or six year old son of a friend of mine, said his one line wrong the first night. He realized it right away and looked mortified but it was sufficiently adorable enough that the audience forgave him. Ralph, the guy who played Marley's Ghost, simply could not remember his lines. Ever. The first night I noticed that when he was on stage he was holding his arm out in front of him, gesturing menacingly the entire time. Turns out he had written his script on the white cloth sleeve of his costume. On one of the nights the chains he wore got caught in the cracks between the risers, so Ralph recited his entire line from the edge of the stage, shaking the entire set every time he tried to move forward.

In the end we were successful. The hall was filled with people from the community, not just the college, all of whom seemed to really enjoy it. One of the Deans congratulated us and said that we had managed to bring the Christmas spirit to campus in a way that had been lacking.

And most importantly it convinced the administration that a Drama department was worth having. They hired a Drama professor and reopened the Playhouse. Since then the old Playhouse has been torn down (it was in pretty bad repair), and a new performance space was built. It's probably arrogant to believe that Waynesburg University would have never had a Drama department again if not for us. But in the winter of 1982, with the help of Charles Dickens, we pulled off a little Christmas miracle.