Nov 30, 2007

Three Ghosts interview with Cheyenne Edition

A Christmas Carol: Fine Art Center Festivity
By Chelley Gardner Smith

It’s not even Thanksgiving yet, and stores all over town have decked the halls and put up the lights with glimmering price tags to boot. It’s enough to make the elves weary of Christmas if not the humans, but there may be a little spot where you can go to reconnect with the meaning of Christmas and its message of love and hope.

“A Christmas Carol,” originally written by Charles Dickens, is being performed at the Fine Arts Center Nov. 30 through Dec. 23, five times a week and twice on Saturday.

Robert Rais plays the irascible old Scrooge. If you saw him in Hamlet as the grave digger, or Fisk in Zorro, you know that Rais is someone you don’t want to miss. Ornery and clever are too subtle adjectives for him.

And the best actors don’t stop there. You’ve seen Amy Brooks in many plays in town. She plays the Ghost of Christmas Past, and much to the envy of other actors, gets to fly about the stage. Says Sheley, stage production director, “She is amazing. I realized when she was on stage I was just hanging on her every word. Then between acts she comes out (to talk) to everyone and she’s like ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ Then she returns to the stage and, she’s right there. She is amazing.”

Julian Bucknall who recently played Polonious in Theatreworks, Hamlet, has joined the crew. He will be the Ghost of Christmas Present. Before being in Colorado Springs, he was a Londoner. He will wear stilts and be an amazing 7’ tall on stage.

Halee Towne, a Wasson graduate, under the fine tutelage of Ms. Vogel, is playing the very scary Ghost of Christmas Future. She went to college, then to China, and yes, she speaks Chinese, and then people in China encouraged her to get serious about theatre, so she went to London and studied there for a year. Says Brooks, “She has an amazing singing voice. Just the other day someone asked, ‘Where’s the girl with the great voice?’ that’s how she’s referred to.”

Brooks continues, “I’ve been reading the original ‘Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens to my daughter, Tess. She is enchanted by the story. It’s a story about second chances, and who doesn’t want a second chance? In a day of war, who doesn’t want a sense of hope; not in a corny way; but in a real way. I cry when I’m on stage watching the scenes. The play is very true to the original wording by Dickens. It doesn’t go to sentimentality. There are so many modern themes; overcoming poverty, not because of money, but because of love.”

Bucknall continues,” The story is so meaningful. Through the three ghosts, Scrooge can see what he has left behind, what he is missing in the present, and what could be if he does not change. It’s really about celebrating togetherness.”

“It seems like the Christmas Season is always so busy,” adds Towne. “The play feels like Christmas. It’s a place to come from all the craziness, sit down, rest, and reflect a little with others. If I wasn’t in the play, I’d come see it.” They all laugh.

GXP: ‘Twas the night of the op’ning

Enjoy an Amy Brooks' original poem ... found only at the FAC BLOG. "A Christmas Carol" opens tonight and runs through Dec. 23.

‘Twas the night of the op’ning, and all through the house
Every creature was stirring, even SaGaJi’s mouse.
The publicity team had been cranking the word
They did not want a cluster, they wanted a herd!

The box-office beauties were prepping with care
In the hopes that an audience soon would be there.
The ushers were grouping, programs at the ready
To escort the patrons, both strong and unsteady.

The stitchers were hemming and sewing and basting:
With some sixty-five costumes, no time could be wasting.
All for them that remained were the finishing touches
Like shoes, hats, gloves, aprons, scarves, trousers, and crutches.

The techies were scurrying with last-minute chores
To shore up all problems and seal up the pores.
They had sweated and labored and worked ‘round the clock
Like the finest of troops: they were ready to rock!

The prop team had gathered or made quite a stable
Of garlands and dishes and turkeys and tables
And bundles and chalkboards and Christmas trees, too:
They re-checked and pre-set and made sure to review.

The actors were scanning their lines and their lyrics
Some calm as a Buddha, others wrought with hysterics.
They were drinking their Throat Coat and donning their layers,
Singing scales, doing stretches, and saying their prayers.

The sound guys were checking all microphone switches
Reviewing their sound cues to head off all hitches.
The set-design team had hung flats from great heights
Every scrim, fly, and set piece just had to be right.

The lighting-design team was checking their cues
Would the spotlights be working? Had some lights blown a fuse?
From the wings all the fog machines stood at the ready
To be switched on on cue with hands sure-fire and steady.

The music director, with her baton in hand,
Was tuning and practicing songs with the band.
Whether tenor or alto or base or soprano
Roberta was hoping we’d hear the piano.

Choreographer goddess, our empress of movement,
Ms. Mary was hoping for signs of improvement.
We’d worked all the dances innumerable times
It was too late for fudging or falling or mimes.

Stage Manager Brantley, our resident deity
Had busted his back to mix order with gaiety.
He was tired and worn out and just a bit dazed
But he’d kept things together, and so BRANTLEY BE PRAISED.

The Artistic Director, with notebooks in hand
Was prepared for the worst but always in command:
With the firm hand of order, efficiency, reason
Alan helped lead the way to this Show of the Season.

And last but not least, Susan Dawn, the director
Our herder and helper, and tireless corrector
Was ready to sit back and watch this great beast
And with luck it would be for her eyes a great feast.

We have one common goal: to create local history
And when asked how it works we respond, “It’s a mystery!”
Mystery it may be but there’s one thing I know:
Happy season to all, and to all, a GREAT SHOW!

GoXMasPresent: This is going to be a great show

Ever wondered what it's like to use one of those truck runaway ramps you see on major roads over the mountains? The ones with about 100 yards of gravel designed to stop a speeding semi whose brakes have failed in, well, less than 100 yards?

Well, become an actor and you can get the same effect. Many statistical analyses -- well, OK, it's happened to me and it's happened to several actors I've spoken to -- have shown that there will always be at least one dress rehearsal where everything goes wrong and you run out of time before you run out of play. It’s as if you were purring along nicely when, Wham!, you’re all of a sudden brought to an abrupt stop, seatbelts straining.

Ours was Tuesday evening. Oh boy, oh boy. It seemed that if it could go wrong it would. It was also the evening when we started using a special effect, one that I'd rather let you see than describe. Of course, since it was the first time it had been used properly, it goes without saying that didn't work very well (it was much better last night though). Props got left on stage during a scene change. Scrooge's bed, which is on some mega-castors, acquired a mind of its own and went wherever it wanted to, rather than where it was being pushed. Flies came in too fast and thudded to the ground. Some flies seemed to have lost the markers on the ropes and just kept on coming in. Someone moved the Christmas tree from where I'd checked it earlier, meaning I came off stage to get it and... where the heck was it now? I also nearly managed to trip over the power cable to one of the foggers in my stilts, which might have brought a rapid end to my dreams of being a Ghost of Christmas Present, to put it mildly.

Murphy was truly alive and kicking on the stage that evening.

Yesterday's rehearsal, on the other hand, was much, much better. For the first time, I felt almost comfortable in my role, which augurs very well for opening night tomorrow. It may sound weird, but for me the putting on of a costume means the putting on of the character as well. It's as if the character is there in the fibers somehow. Prior to last night, the Ghost wasn't quite there yet for me, but last night, he seemed to have woven himself in the green robe. I/he was fairly prancing around the stage on those stilts and there was no time when I felt uncomfortable or unsafe.

Tonight is preview night for an invited audience; tomorrow night, opening. This is going to be one great show.

Cheers, Julian
Ghost of Christmas Present

Nov 29, 2007

GXP: Almost to the finish line ...

Do ghosts ever need naps? Do they have day jobs? This one (the Ghost of Xmas Past, a.k.a. GXP) sure does! It's been a long week of late nights and hard work. The feet are sore and the eyes are bleary, and I've lost the plot to my life several times today and all week. But the excitement is building: the Preview performance (invited friends and family, staff of the Fine Arts Center, sponsors) is tonight and I think we're ready. Not because the show is perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. But as they say, "There's nothing like the threat of death at dawn to focus the mind." And with that extra dose of excitement, mixed with a pinch of terror, we should be better able to focus and "bring home" the performance tonight on a Guinea-pig audience!

Tomorrow is opening night.

Last night went better than the night before; the kinks in the machine are getting fixed, one by one, bit by bit. There was some hilarity: Scrooge stripped off his night shirt at one point and stood, fearless, in his long-johns, when a needed blanket prop was not in place. That began a cascade of mischief, which you really had to be there for to appreciate, but suffice to say, I "lost it" on stage, and had to cover my face to conceal laughter. (With luck, Julian will at some point describe his shenanigans with poultry, but that may have to remain a backstage secret.) Out-of-character laughter is, of course, a no-no in performances. We must keep our character and our decorum no matter what is happening on stage and no matter how funny.

On another subject, I am reading the original Dickens "A Christmas Carol" to my 9-year-old daughter, Tess. Much of the text you will hear spoken on stage is taken verbatim from the book. I would recommend, as a delightful complement to seeing the play, that those with kids, or without, read the story first. It's a delight. Dickens' descriptions are so rich and vivid!!

That's all from the Ghost of Christmas Past for the day. Onward and upward! (With luck, not downward and backward!)

Happy days to all,
GXP (Amy Brooks)

Nov 28, 2007

GXP: It's beginning to look a lot like ... well, you know.

It's beginning to look a lot like ... well, you know. And it's beginning to feel a lot like Dickensian London at the Fine Arts Center. Sometimes dark and dank. Sometimes cheery and festive. Sometimes energized, sometimes downtrodden by heavy skies. And I'm just talking about the cast and crew of "A Christmas Carol." Weeks of work, rehearsing, building and perfecting set pieces, gathering props, sewing and altering costumes, creating sound and physical effects, are all coming together in a wonderful confluence of ... well, creative energies. The show feels BIG,
bigger than any I have ever been a part of.

It must be said that last night's rehearsal, which was halted at an early 11:15, was a difficult one, and there are still a good number of kinks to be worked out. (Hell Week, the final week before opening, is aptly named.) Things need to run like a well-oiled machine --- for reasons of safety and quality --- and the machine is a bit more of an industrial-era behemoth at the moment. Ah! But not for long. The only way to get things right is for them to go wrong at first, and then we try it again.
And again. And then again. And then -- aha! -- it works. This can apply to choreography, songs, stage machinery and set pieces, set changes... It is, indeed, a mystery how it all comes together.

We three ghosts were on the radio this morning plugging the show. Appropriately, it was a legendary / classic rock station. Classics set me thinking about traditions, and how they provide security for us, an underpinning in times of uncertainty. We come back to our long-established traditions, familiar patterns, to remind us what counts, and that there are, indeed, things in life that remain constant, reliable, steady. And that bring us real joy. Like an old Beatles song you've heard hundreds, even thousands, of times, that never loses its appeal.

Who knows, maybe the FAC's "A Christmas Carol" will become part of your yearly holiday tradition! An old familiar like you've never seen it!

So, we plunge headlong back into Hell Week tonight, with one more rehearsal to go until Preview. With luck and a lot of sweat, maybe we will get some of the kinks out of the machine.

Regards from GXP*
*Ghost of Xmas Past
Amy Brooks

GhostXMasPresent: I, for one, slept like a log

The first dress rehearsal - Eeek!

The other big event over this past weekend was the infamous first dress rehearsal. Yes, yes, we'd all been measured in all dimensions and we'd all had the experience of standing there like window dummies while the costumers tried out various items of clothing on us, but Sunday was the Real Thing. We all got dressed up in what we had been given and did a run through in the evening.

Sounds so simple, doesn't it? In reality of course it was nothing but. First of all there was the Costume Parade where we acted like catwalk models. We'd quickly put on one outfit, dash into the Green Room to have the Costume Designer tut over us, and stick safety pins in appropriate places, and then dash back to do the same for the next one. It was quite mad and all of a sudden backstage at the FAC turned remarkably Dickensian as we all milled about showing off our costumes to each other.

At last the Costume Designer considered herself happy, all costume notes had been written down ("Get So-and-so an Ascot", "Let out whatsisname's collar"), and we launched into a full dress rehearsal. With the band no less, so instead of just hearing the rehearsal piano, we were getting the full effect of the music. Considering by this time we had been working nearly 48 hours, apart from going to bed to sleep at night, it was pretty good.

But of course, being the first dress rehearsal, we became intimately aware that certain costume changes were extremely quick, a little too tight for comfort. For example, while the audience are imbibing their intermission cocktails, I'll be struggling to get into the full costume for the Ghost of Christmas Present, with the help of two dressers. The first time we did this in anger, as it were, it took all 15 minutes of intermission. Certainly habit will make this easier (pun intended!), but it's still pretty intense and doesn't allow for mistakes.

Other cast members had such a quick change that we have to rethink when and how they'll appear. For example, Steve Emily, who's playing Scrooge's dead partner Marley, had a change from Marley to a partygoer, and then back to Marley in Act I. He couldn't make the final change in time, and that was without worrying about applying makeup. Unfortunately, there was nothing for it but to remove him as the partygoer (it was a non-speaking role anyway.) Other tweaks like that were identified and put into place.

By the end of Sunday evening we were to a man, woman, or child, exhausted. But happy. There was a palpable air of having achieved something momentous by the end of that first dress rehearsal. I, for one, slept like a log that night.

Cheers, Julian
Ghost of Christmas Present

Nov 27, 2007

A 12-hour rehearsal marathon with pumpkin pie

Hello, this is your friendly Ghost of Christmas Past. The Ghost of Christmas Present has been very faithful about keeping you informed about our back- and on-stage shenanigans, so I will add a very short two-cents (or shillings) worth! We are having a chaotic blast. Sunday, Nov. 25, we added some more layers (as Artistic Director Alan Osburn is fond of calling them) to the mix: more props, costumes, sound effects, and a little make-up. During a 12-hour rehearsal marathon that took place while most folks were still digesting their pumpkin pie and watching the Broncos, we sang and danced and acted our little hearts out, trying to perfect and hone and streamline and get on top of things. The crew is working pretty much around the clock to practice moving set pieces and to get complex and multi-layered set changes down to a science. Our Stage Manager, Brantley Haines, also known as "God," is performing seemingly superhuman feats of endurance to keep us and the production and crew together and on track.

The sound effects are haunting, scary, wonderful. The costumes are sumptuous (I think some were rented from the Missouri Rep, and these are beautifully constructed Victorian-style costumes). The set pieces (most of them moving) are works of art unto themselves.

The dressing rooms are packed to the gills with people and costumes. The noise level backstage is earplug-worthy. It's sweaty and smelly and noisy and jovial. Each of has some 3 or 4 costume changes, not to mention make-up changes and microphone trade-offs (there aren't enough mikes for the full cast), so putting all the sequences together is challenging, to say the least. But that's why we rehearse, and we definitely need the coming days before opening to get it all in sync.

We are all working hard to get this production ready for you, our beloved public. If you enjoy it as much as I have --- on stage and watching from off stage --- you will definitely get your money's worth, and leave the SaGaJi Theatre with a warm holiday glow about you.

Happy days to all,

Amy Brooks
A.K.A. The Ghost of Christmas Past, and a number of other roles yet to be revealed!

Everyone on stage is alight with a new energy

This is my favorite time in the rehearsal process... the week leading up to the show. Something happens to me as I put on my costume for the first time and begin to step in to the character I have been discovering for the last few weeks. I walk just a little bit different. In my charity woman costume, I smile just a little bit more. As one of Fred's relatives, I stand more erect and speak with a higher pitch to my voice. In the ghost of Christmas Future cloak and in my stilts, I don't speak at all and I have to put forth effort to be nice to the sweet dresser who helps me change. Its not really a conscious decision, it is just what happens. After the show has run a few weeks, I can divorce myself from my attire much easier and be in the present, but not the first week.

I like that. The lines I have had memorized for a month become new and fresh. Everyone on stage is alight with a new energy, and the world we have been creating in our minds begins to take physical shape. The kids run around and make sure everyone has seen their costumes and how wonderful they look. Though if I'm being honest, I do the same thing. I made it a point to leave my dressing room after trying on each costume to parade around a bit to make sure others had a chance to see me in my Dickensian dress. I even went into our rehearsal space and joined one other adult woman in twirling around in front of the mirrors to see how high our dresses spun out. That is one great thing about being an actor... you don't have to grow out of playing dress up.

Halee Towne
Ghost of Christmas Future

Walls, windows whipping in from the fly space

Over this past Thanksgiving weekend, the production staff and the actors of "A Christmas Carol" have had a pretty busy time. So busy in fact, I've not had enough time to keep this blog up to date. Without further ado, then, here's the first part of what's been going on.

Friday and Saturday, we had a couple of lengthy rehearsals known in the trade as "dry tech". No, not because the Deco Lounge at the FAC was closed while we were rehearsing, but because the rehearsals were all about the tech stuff: the flying in of sets, the setting up of props, the lighting, and the sound. All of the technical things that wrap and enhance the actors' performance. In general, for a musical, there's lots of different scenes in various sets and hence lots of scene changes. When you're watching a show, you're hardly aware of this -- unless we've done our job badly -- and the sets seem to fly in and out almost magically. That magic takes a great deal of rehearsal of its own to make it seem smooth and effortless. And so that's what happened Friday evening and Saturday afternoon, time after time, we'd reset a scene and then rehearse whipping it out and bringing the next one in.

So, for example, in Act II, when the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge his relatives celebrating Christmas Eve, there's a scene change from Scrooge's bedroom to Fred's drawing room, Fred being Scrooge's nephew. The bedroom has a four-poster bed, a fireplace and mantel, and a window with a small balcony. These all have to disappear and Fred's drawing room windows, little occasional table (with drinks and glasses), and four chairs have to come in. Over and over we did this change, making sure that everyone concerned knew their place and what they were doing. It the end it was quick and flowing. Ditto for the next scene change: Fred's drawing room slips out and the Cratchit's house comes in.

Another aspect to this is a concern with safety. These walls and windows come whipping in from the fly space above the stage. They are heavy and the tech crew member doing the flying is doing this blind (the ropes have markers at the exact point where the fly operator should stop). They can't see the stage from where they're at and so can't see that someone happens to be standing just underneath. And so we have to ensure that anyone who is on stage is well away from the flies. And repeat to make sure. Several times, until it's drilled into people's heads where they should be during the scene change.

The problem for the actors and why a dry tech all seems to take so long is that these scene changes are not about them, they're about the tech crew. The actors are just standing in their respective places or are coming in as the scene changes. The repetition gets to be a little boring and tiring. But, as I said, it's all absolutely essential.

We also had some fun on Saturday afternoon, during the dinner break, when some of the cast recorded their voices for Scrooge's nightmare scene. In essence the scene happens at the end of Scrooge's interaction with the Ghost of Christmas Past, when he remembers in a swirl of half-forgotten memories all that she has just shown him. There's a crescendo of voices all overlapping as the characters all swirl around Scrooge. So our Sound Designer was recording certain phrases from the script with the actors concerned, and he needed a certain je ne sais quoi to the way they were said, with a different speed or timbre or inflection. So, it was kind if fun to listen to actors say that same phrase over and over again, a bit like the old exercise of how many ways you can say "I knew him well" or similar. ("I" knew him well, I "knew" him well, I knew "him" well, I knew him. Well! And so on.)

But in the end, we had some smooth efficient scene changes and it wasn't often that something was left on stage inadvertently. Then Sunday, it was the first dress rehearsal. Or to give it its true weight and importance, the First Dress Rehearsal. But that's for another blog post.

Cheers, Julian
Ghost of Christmas Present

Nov 21, 2007

The life and times of Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth in 1812 during the reign of King George III, but the reign he's most associated with is that of Victoria, who ascended the throne in 1837. When Dickens was 12, his father was imprisoned in a Debtor's Prison, the first major calamity in Dickens' young life. He was sent out to work to help keep the family (there were 8 children and he was the second oldest). His experiences working in a boot-black factory formed the genesis of many of his themes in his novels. Later, after various jobs in the legal field -- from which he gained a thorough knowledge of the law, and a dislike for lawyers and injustices against the poor, all of which permeated his work -- he became a political journalist for the Morning Chronicle in 1834.

It was around this time that he started writing novels, which in the fashion of the time were serialized in literary magazines on a monthly basis. In fact, in the early days Dickens often had several serials on the go at the same time. For example, he was finishing off The Pickwick Papers (his first novel) at the same time as starting on Oliver Twist. His novels were notable for their finely drawn characters, sometimes described as grotesque, with bizarre names (some of which portend what the character is about), and with vivid, almost poetic. description. Most of all, as a constant subtext in the writing, there is the social commentary exposing the flaws and excresences of Victorian society.

Dickens had five novels (the above two, Nicholas Nickelby, The Old Curiosity Shop, and Barnaby Rudge) under his belt when he wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843. Apparently he had quickly dashed it off for publication in order to clear a debt, and never dreamed it would be as popular as it was. As it happened it sold 6000 copies in the first week and became one of the most enduring stories about Christmas ever written. Fellow writers and critics at the time also pointed out that the story was paramount in rejuvenating the Christmas traditions and spirit, which had been in decline for a while.

The underlying themes of the story, apart from the overlaid one of Scrooge's journey towards his redemption, are the usual ones for a Dickens tale: poverty and injustice. These themes come out the most in Scrooge's dream trip with the Ghost of Christmas Present, as the latter shows him how even the poorest people in the land celebrate Christmas with a sense of togetherness. Of course, in their travels they also visit the Cratchit's who are poor beyond belief: Bob Cratchit has to support his large family on a mere 15 shillings a week working as a clerk for Scrooge. And there's his son Tiny Tim who is crippled and walks with a crutch and for whom they cannot buy enough medical care. The Ghost even warns Scrooge that Tiny Tim would die if he didn't get enough medical attention, which of course meant money.

And right at the end of Scrooge's visit from the Ghost, the Ghost shows him two emaciated wolfish children that he called Ignorance and Want, epitomizing social injustice, warning Scrooge that his very world would be rocked to its foundation if these two were not taken care of.

Dickens lived until 1870, not particularly old perhaps, but it's generally thought he never recovered from a railway crash that had happened some five years earlier. Indeed in those five years his output was small. He completed one novel already begun (Our Mutual Friend), wrote a novel in collaboration with Wilkie Collins (No Thoroughfare), and started a new serialized novel called The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which was only half finished at his death.

Cheers, Julian
Ghost of Christmas Present

Nov 20, 2007

Julian discusses his 'blob of jelliness' at auditions

In this post I'd like to cover briefly how we all got here. First of all, I suppose, you can trace it all back to the brain of Alan Osburn, the Producing Artistic Director for the Fine Arts Center Theatre Company. Last year he came up with a 2007/2008 season and, of course, it had to have a Christmas-themed December show. This particular adaptation caught his eye, since it's not performed all that often (in fact we've not been able to find any cast recording of it) and it can certainly be called the quintessential story about Christmas. So, "A Christmas Carol" it is then.

Next on the list of things to do is get a director. Having applied for this position myself (I directed "Cabaret" at the FAC a couple of years back), it involves asking possible directors for their vision of the production. How would they like to present it to an audience, what do they want to concentrate on in the story, what aspects of the music do they want to bring out, and so on. All touchy-feely stuff. The result was that Alan picked Susan Dawn to direct.

Next up, is hiring the other "directors", those for music and choreography, for set and sound and lighting. Putting on a musical involves gathering together a whole bunch of talented people even before you get to think about the actors. So pretty quickly Roberta Jacyshyn and Mary Ripper Baker were signed up for music and dance, for which I am very glad, since I've worked with them before, most notably in "Anything Goes".

At this point, it's time for the auditions for the actors. You as actor get essentially 5 minutes or so: 12 or 16 bars of some song that you can sing and that shows off your particular voice and range, and a 2 minute monologue to show off your acting chops.

Let me tell you, an audition can be nerve-racking. I'm not a great singer, so my music auditions generally turn me into a blob of jelly. I'm much more relaxed about my acting auditions, be they monologues or just reading from sides (a theatre term: a "side" is a small extract of a play, usually photocopied from the script, that concentrates on one role in particular). The reason for that is simple, I consider myself much more of an actor than anything else and feel comfortable taking on a role, even briefly.

Sometimes, though it's worse. Worse? Say it isn’t so! The choreographer can insist on a dance audition too ("How quickly you can pick up a simple routine, Julian?" Glazed look from yours truly.). Given that I have at least two left feet -- I lose count sometimes -- my blob of jelliness will turn almost liquid by this point and I have to be mopped off the stage.

For the directors, auditions are a piece of cake. They sit out there in the auditorium in the gloom and bark commands at you. You, of course, hope it's not something short like "Next!" I remember one audition I listened to as director of "Cabaret", the poor girl decided to do a monologue from "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde, perhaps one of the most quintessential English plays in the repertoire. And she did it in front of an Englishman who'd appeared in it in a production a few years previously. And she did it straight without any appreciation of what the monologue was about. Ay yay yay, she didn't have a hope, but since she was the last audition of the evening, I took pity on her and talked to her about the play and about Gwendolyn, whose monologue it was. I then asked her to do it again. Since she couldn’t do an English accent, I asked her to be more freeform with it and do it as a Valley Girl (“Yah, I’m like way glad to say that I have never, like totally never, seen a spade. WhatEVER.”) and I have to say it was much better.

What isn't a piece of cake for the directors is making the decisions about who to cast. Sometimes it's easy, "So-and-so's just right", sometimes you've got two or three people who would do a part beautifully and you have to choose.

For some reason, Susan Dawn thought I'd be a perfect Ghost of Christmas Present and so here I am. I'd also have to say that overall she's made some excellent casting choices: we have some stellar actors and singers in this production. I'll have my work cut out to make an impression with the audience amongst all this talent, so maybe I'll resort to some ghostly subterfuge...

Cheers, Julian
The Ghost of Christmas Present

Nov 19, 2007

Why this Ghost is the English accent police

Today, like yesterday, was spent on stage for the first time, this time for Act II of 'A Christmas Carol.' Like putting Act I on stage yesterday afternoon, the process has been start and stop, start and stop, as we try out the blocking we'd already rehearsed for the past two or three weeks.

For some reason, today seemed to go relatively painlessly. At least that's so from my viewpoint, I didn't get a chance to have a chat with Susan Dawn Carson, our director, after the rehearsal to see how she perceived it.

Perhaps this ease was because we'd already seen the stage, had already seen most of the big flies, had already carted other scenery and props on and off stage.

For me and the Ghost of Christmas Future, it was our first time on stage on our stilts. Piece of cake you might say, but we suddenly realized that the orchestra pit was yawning open at the front of the stage. We don't want to fall in, that's for sure. So we practiced walking around the "safe" part of the stage, going through our own blocking and making sure we understood the sight lines. No costumes today though, it'll be next weekend when we kit up for good. I must say, on both our behalf, that we're getting a lot steadier on the stilts, at least compared to a week ago when we first started using them.

Another part of the rehearsal process is concentrating on our accents. The story of "A Christmas Carol" is set in very early Victorian London -- Dickens wrote it in 1843 and Queen Victoria had only come to the throne six years earlier -- and so of course we have to have English accents. Two types of English accents too: there's essentially the middle class, exemplified by Scrooge and his nephew and their relatives, and the working class, typified by the Cratchits and by the tradesmen. We're making things very simple here: the working class accent is Cockney and the other would be known as Home Counties in England, a posher accent with drawn out vowels and missing Rs.

Today we were encouraged to speak "English" all the time at rehearsal, even in the Green Room (the room that the actors use to relax in when they're not on stage). The entreaty was, to be honest, not well followed today: I'll have to be more vigilant about making sure the cast continue practicing.

And why me? Why am I the accent police? Well, if you've seen me in previous productions, you'll already know. I'm English. I'm hopeless at American accents, and so much so, directors tend to let me speak with an English voice. (For example, cast your mind back to "Arms and the Man" at Theatreworks a year ago. I played Major Petkoff, and had this speech about how dirty the English were. It was all the more funny because I was speaking in my normal voice.) So, by default, I'm the voice coach for this production.

All in all, as I said, the rehearsal was a success today, I think. Less than two weeks to go before opening on Nov. 30 though, so there's no time for complacency.

We have Monday and Tuesday off -- but have to continue running lines on our own -- and our next group rehearsal is Wednesday. In the meantime, during these two days off, I'll talk more about the story and how we got as far as we have.

The Ghost of Christmas Present (aka Julian M Bucknall)

Nov 18, 2007

Liveblogging on stage from rehearsal

Today's another big day for us 'A Christmas Carol' actors. We're on stage for the very first time, and it's a whole new world. Unexpectedly, it's as if this were a new play.

We've been rehearsing in a large room adjacent to the theatre, while the set crew build and hang and paint on the stage. Although the room is large by normal standards, it's no substitute for the actual stage. Furthermore, the sound in the theatre is very, very different from the room. The theatre, unlike the rehearsal space, has been designed and built for sound projection. The walls absorb the sound -- the back walls are in fact a thin veneer over empty space: take a look next time you're in the SaGaJi Theatre and tap on the back wall and the side walls to hear the difference.

Anyway, today is the first rehearsal on the stage. Our blocking suddenly has more space: we can move further downstage (that is, towards the audience) and also right and left. There's also scenery, the bane of actors. The other bane, props, we've been using for a couple of weeks now.

Everything is taking a long while. We have to be positioned correctly so that the audience can see, the musical numbers have to be recalibrated for the extra space, and we all have to rework things take account of the scenery.

Hence I have time to write this in the middle of the rehearsal since there are long periods when I’m not needed. Not quite liveblogging -- that means posting this text on the website as I write it -- but at least I'm writing this as we go along.

As it happens, a lot of us in the cast have multiple roles. We're relatives of Scrooge's nephew Fred, we're townspeople, we're merchants. So we're on and off stage even when we're not playing our primary role. As an example, I'm also playing one of the friends of Fezziwig in the first act and the poulterer in the second.

So far, all has gone pretty well. The flies are coming in and out smoothly (the flies are set and scenery pieces that "fly" in from above the stage). The only real issues concern the crowd scenes. For example, in Act I there is a scene of last minute shopping for food from a market on Christmas Eve. There are wheeled carts, shoppers, movement, singing, and last of all a huge Christmas tree. The rehearsal prop we're using for the tree is an old fake one. On lifting it, invariably it separates into two at the join, meaning that Ray and I struggle to control it as we bring it in and set it upright in the right place. The very top section of the tree drops off at this point, to the merriment of all.

Today it's Act I and tomorrow Act II. We've just completed this day's work and so I'm off home. Until tomorrow...

Cheers, Julian
Ghost of Christmas Present

Nov 17, 2007

The Ghost of Christmas Present suits up

Part of the fun of acting and appearing in a show such as "A Christmas Carol" is the costume. You'd already forgotten the time a few weeks back when the costume designer measured you in meticulous detail ("You can stop sucking in your stomach, Julian: if you do, the costume won't fit."), when suddenly you have the magical moment when you have your first costume fitting.

It doesn't.

Well, in general it doesn't. Sometimes you, the actor, have put on weight, or, better -- healthier, maybe -- you lost some. In my case, possibly more the former than the latter. More often than not, the costume designer has a small catwalk collection of clothes for you to try on, to see how they all look together.

This time around, as the Ghost of Christmas Present, the costume was designed not to fit. It was designed to be put on me, for me to be clothed in it, yes, but under no circumstances should you assume the word "fit" had anything to do with it.

You see, the Ghost of Christmas Present is, in Dickens' own words: "a jolly Giant, glorious to see" and it "was clothed in one simple green robe, or mantle, bordered with white fur. This garment hung so loosely on the figure, that its capacious breast was bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice. Its feet, observable beneath the ample folds of the garment, were also bare; and on its head it wore no other covering than a holly wreath, set here and there with shining icicles. Its dark brown curls were long and free; free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour, and its joyful air."

A giant, eh? Or, rather, a Giant with a capital G, underlining the bulk and height. Somehow my six foot frame wasn't going to suffice. Enter stage left a pair of dry-waller stilts to raise my height two feet. Enter stage right, various garments with padding to add that extra bulk. And finally, oh so finally, the huge glorious green robe made to fit over all the padding and
reaching to the floor covering the stilts.

The first time it took me and the costumers a good ten to fifteen minutes to get it all on. I put the padding on (three layers, note), and then sat up on the table to put the stilts on. Duh, wrong way round: I couldn't reach the straps of the stilts for all the padding. So I sat there like Humpty Dumpty while the costumers strapped my legs in. Then the fun part: this huge heavy
green robe. Up over my head, pushing my arms into the sleeves. Then I had to stand -- oops, watch the light shade! -- so that the material in the robe fell around me to the ground. One of the costumers stood on a step ladder to zip me up.

And then... Lots of standing, very wobblily. I braced myself with my hands on the ceiling. Lots of fiddling around, pushing the padding hither and thither, trying to get a good look. Of course, the only way to do that was for the costumer to slip underneath the robe and manhandle the padding garments; a sensation I can't say I'll ever forget.

In the end, the costume worked and looks extremely good (and I even tried walking around a bit in it: very weird) but there were the inevitable bits to let out or tuck in, so there'll be more costume fitting in a few days.

The Ghost of Christmas Present (aka Julian M Bucknall)

Nov 16, 2007

Remembering the story of Scrooge

(The FAC Blog is proud to bring you the inside scoop on our next musical, 'A Christmas Carol,' which opens on Nov. 30. Told to you, our cherished blog readers, by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, who will give you the unearthly inside skinny on the production.)

Yesterday evening, we three ghosts of Christmas had the opportunity of meeting the press to talk about the show we're in. Already, with the few hints I've given you, I'm sure that you've worked out that the show is "A Christmas Carol" and we three are the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future.

The Fine Arts Center Theatre Company have given us spirits the opportunity of blogging about the show, the rehearsal process, the actual performances, and anything else related to all this process of putting on a musical about dear old Scrooge. Last night was our indoctrination, as it were: we were interviewed by the Gazette, Indy, and Woodmen Edition to give our viewpoint on the show.

One topic that came up a couple of times was the thought that "A Christmas Carol" was too well-known to attract an audience. Surely everyone knows the story, right? So why would they come to see our version?

Ha! Well, of course, for a kick-off you'll get the three of us, a friendlier or, for that matter, a more sinister triplet of spirits you'll ever be likely to meet.

In reality, though, would the audience really remember the whole story? Or do they just remember bits of it? Scrooge of course, and Tiny Tim, and "God bless us, everyone". Maybe they remember scenes from one of the many adaptations of the story there have been over the years, or, maybe, like me, they had to read the story at school.

It is the curse, if you like, of any "classic" text, be it play or book. Just like Scrooge, we've all heard of Hamlet and Holden Caulfield and Heathcliff, and we think we know their stories, but in reality all we remember are lines, some scenes, but the plot remains elusive. We need to remind ourselves of what these plays and books are about, to remember why they are classic texts and to share the stories. All good stories are about a protagonist and the events that change his or her life, and the best ones are the ones that strike a chord deep into our consciousness. The story of Scrooge is no different: the reason it does have such widespread recognition is that it does speak to us all, that a bad character can turn out good in the end.

Having done a version of Christmas Carol in the past at Theatreworks (12 years ago, and I played Marley), I'll admit the story remains one of my favorites. This adaptation remains extremely close to the original, to the point of the characters uttering Dickens' words. It has some extremely apt and well-written music and lyrics to help move the story along, dark and in minor keys at the start, with some flashes to lighten the gloom, until all becomes joyous and happy at the end. I guarantee that you'll leave with a smile on your face at the end.

And you’ll find that you do remember the story after all.

The Ghost of Christmas Present (aka Julian M Bucknall)