The Man Who Invented Christmas (with a Little Help)

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Man Who Invented Christmas (with a Little Help)
By Michael Paller

Charles Dickens, circa 1860s. 
Heritage Auction Gallery
Imagine a Christmas without carols or cards. No festive dinner. No presents under the tree on Christmas morning. No tree. No day off to spend with the family. This was Christmas in most places before A Christmas Carol was published on December 19, 1843. Charles Dickens has been called “the man who invented Christmas,” and while that’s an exaggeration, it’s only a slight one. He didn’t invent the modern holiday by himself, but for many people, his vision of Christmas is Christmas.

Christmas was grim in England’s cities during the Industrial Revolution. Factories and businesses were open on December 25, and there was no day off for employees like Martha Cratchit. Still, while Christmas wasn’t much celebrated in London or other large cities, some of the old customs were observed in remote rural villages.

"The Spirit of Christmas Present."
From Dickens's A Christmas Carol, 
illustrated by Soy Eytinge.
Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1869. 
Courtesy the British Library
When Dickens was 12, his father was declared a bankrupt. He and the entire family except for Charles were imprisoned for debt. The boy, suddenly alone in the world, was removed from school and put to work. It was the formative experience of his life. It’s not surprising, then, that in a series of pieces beginning in 1835 with an essay called “Christmas Festivities,” Dickens depicted a holiday centered on families, especially children who were loved, cared for, and surrounded by warmth and good cheer. Dickens eventually produced five short books and numerous articles on Christmas themes, but A Christmas Carol has always been far and away the most popular, and the most successful in setting out what he came to call his “Carol philosophy.”

"A Retrospect."
From Dickens's A Christmas Carol, 
illustrated by Soy Eytinge.
Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1869. 
Courtesy the British Library
First stated in “Christmas Festivities,” the philosophy is an earthly one, concerned with the welfare of all in the here and now, however much it might find echoes in religious texts: “And thus the evening passes, in . . . good-will and cheerfulness, doing more to awaken the sympathies of every member of the party on behalf of his neighbor, and to perpetuate their good feeling during the ensuing year, then all the homilies that have ever been written, by all the Divines that have ever lived.”

It’s a sad irony that the profit-driven atmosphere of the early nineteenth century, which led Dickens to write Carol, has infected the holiday in our own time. Still, Carol is an antidote to what a contemporary critic referred to as “this money-seeking age and money-getting country.” Dickens’s vision of Christmas isn’t about money; it doesn’t divide rich from poor. It encompasses all, child and adult, fortunate and unfortunate, the loved and the orphaned. It’s summed up in a sentence that, if it’s accumulated sentimental baggage in the ensuing 169 years, is still revolutionary in its plea that the bounty of life be shared among all: “God bless us every one!”

For tickets to A Christmas Carol visit

A Very Real Woman

Monday, November 3, 2014

A Very Real Woman
An Interview with Testament Costume Designer Jessie Amoroso
By Adam Odsess-Rubin

Costume designer Jessie Amoroso shares some of the images
that inspired his design.
Fall is always a busy season in A.C.T.’s costume shop: the staff creates costumes for all Master of Fine Arts Program, Young Conservatory, and mainstage shows, in addition to renting costumes to people looking for special Halloween outfits. That doesn’t stop A.C.T. Costume Shop Manager Jessie Amoroso, who is the costume designer for Testament, from investing himself in the design process of the one-woman show. Amoroso gave us a look into the complex process of designing a costume for one of the most iconic women in history.

What research did you do for Testament?
Mary is such a prominent figure that has been written about for centuries, so there is quite a bit out there to digest. Luckily, we have Michael Paller, who did an amazing job with the dramaturgy. But research starts with the script, and Colm Tóibín wrote an amazing piece of literature. I knew we weren’t going for a “swords-and-sandals” portrayal of this great woman, but we didn’t want something so abstract that she would be removed from what we know of Mary. I knew early on that the color blue would appear as a watered-down blue-gray. I also looked at historical clothing, and I found that it was usually brown in color, and the fabrics were natural: linen and flax. I took all those images and presented them to Carey [Perloff], and we tried to see where the story was going.

What have your conversations with director Carey Perloff and actor Seana McKenna been like?
We spoke a lot about the realism of the costume and the idea that it may need to transform during the process. The character relates several stories in Testament, and it would be nice if the costume could help facilitate that; maybe a scarf becomes a shawl, or maybe it’s wrapped around the waist. The costume should have a transformative effect so that she can inhabit some of the other characters she talks about. She reenacts the wedding scene and the Crucifixion; she visits temples, walks through villages, and speaks to other people. Seana may want her costume to transform as she transitions between recollections.

You have the task of designing a costume for a play that is set in a nonspecific time and place. How do you mediate that?
In the script, Mary speaks as if the events surrounding her son’s execution have just happened, but for us, they happened two millennia ago. Tóibín takes it to a place of realism, and he tries to explore the larger ideas and how they pertain to our daily lives. If we put that story in a world of stone, mud, heat, and sandals, it would take away from the audience’s ability to identify with her. We will use contemporary clothing, which is an idiom that audiences will recognize. That way, they won’t be put off by the image of the Mother of God, who is a character beyond reproach. People will relate to Mary much better if they don’t have to decipher what the costume is.

Is the costume meant to be a bit ambiguous?
Not so much ambiguous as universal. We talked a lot about whether or not we would include a crucifix. If this character actually is Mary, Mother of God, would she wear a crucifix? We decided she probably wouldn’t. We will answer questions like that every day in the rehearsal room. I plan on going to rehearsal quite a bit to talk about what the costume needs to do, and to see how things evolve with Seana and Carey on a daily basis.
This is my third time working with Seana, so I have an idea of what she is comfortable in and how she has felt about past characters. Luckily, we did a reading of Testament earlier this year, so I saw her perform it once. I was able to get a good idea of how she moves the character, where she puts some of the exclamation points. That helped me choose a starting place.

Do you agree with the way Tóibín has shaped Mary?
I do. It’s almost like she is the mother of an executive. He’s more important to his shareholders, as their leader and the moneymaker, than he is to his parents; they might have other children, or maybe he wasn’t their favorite child. Parents have very different relationships with their children from the relationships the children have to the rest of the world. That’s something to remember: everyone is someone’s child.

For more about Testament, be sure to read our latest edition of Words on Plays!
Click here to order online.

For tickets to Testament visit

Clowning Around with Technology

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

by Projection Designer Erik Pearson

Bill Irwin and David Shiner
in Signature Theatre's Production
of Old Hats. Photo by Joan Marcus
I grew up in Santa Cruz and had the good fortune of seeing productions at A.C.T. as a kid. I became involved in the theater myself when I was very little and family visits to the city to see a play left a big impression on me. I live in Brooklyn now and work as a director and designer in New York and regional theaters around the country. This is my first time returning to the Bay Area for a project since moving east. Old Hats is just the sort of A.C.T. show that inspired me when I was young and I can’t imagine a more perfect project for my return.

I first became involved with Old Hats a couple of years ago at Signature Theatre in New York. Bill Irwin and David Shiner had started developing ideas for a new project that would be a follow up to their wildly successful Fool Moon. There was no show yet, really—no director, no title—but they had a lot of ideas. Many of these ideas involved the imaginative use of projections and video. I joined Broadway projection design legend Wendall K. Harrington in taking on this challenge and began collaborating with the clowns in a series of workshop rehearsals at Signature.

Tony Award-winner Bill Irwin in
Signature Theatre's production
of Old Hats at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater.
Photo by Kevin Berne
My work focused primarily on a new solo piece Bill was creating, called “Mr. Business.” He had an exciting idea for a new technology-obsessed character and his misbehaving tablet computer. Bill envisioned a complicated struggle between a man and his gadgets in which the tablet takes on a life of its own. We began developing ideas in a rehearsal room together, trying out gags and experimenting with surprising ways for Bill to interact with the tablet.

At the same time, I was working behind the scenes to figure out the technology necessary to support the performance. As far as I’ve been able to tell, no one had ever attempted anything like what we were doing, and this led to many unique challenges. To run the tablet computer for the New York production I created a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of computers, wireless routers, off-the-shelf software, and an iPad, all connected together to bring the tablet to life. The completed system allowed us to wirelessly send video to the tablet in Bill’s hand as he performed. When it worked correctly, it was as if the image on the tablet interacted with and responded to Bill just as a live actor might. Unfortunately the system was not entirely reliable, and on some nights Bill’s electronic companion would misbehave. It was as though the other actor in the scene would sometimes forget his lines and Bill would have to improvise to keep the scene going. Bill and I shared many a laugh over the way life was imitating art; our efforts to get the technology behind the scenes to work properly mirrored the struggles of Bill’s character to control his tablet. Thankfully returning to the show for a second time at A.C.T. has given us an opportunity to fix some of the bugs we encountered in New York.

For this production we’re working on a new and improved version: “Mr. Business 2.0.” Before rehearsals even began, we shot all new video for the tablet on stage at the Geary, improving on our original ideas—going for new laughs and expanding the story. We also brought in a local programmer, Dave Orton, to work with us in creating a brand new piece of software to run the tablet. This new app makes it possible to run “Mr. Business” with a single computer and Android tablet—no more Frankenstein’s monster! Our hope is that this version will be much more reliable.

As with all of Bill and David’s work, the comedy in “Mr. Business” is inspired by the kind of human struggles we all encounter in our day-to-day life. While technology may continue to seduce us with its promise of making things easier, it often seems that for every problem solved another is created. In Old Hats, Mr. Business leaves the stage having triumphantly conquered his gadget dependency. Having faced and overcome our own technological demons, we’re thrilled to share “Mr. Business” with A.C.T. audiences!

Performances of Old Hats run through October 12! For tickets and information visit
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