The Man Behind the Magic: An Interview with Carol Scenic Designer John Arnone

This interview is adapted from the Christmas Carol edition of Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

A dazzling treat for the eye, A.C.T.’s annual production of A Christmas Carol has become a Bay Area holiday tradition over its 13-year run. We looked back at our 2010 Q&A with Carol scenic designer John Arnone to find out what inspired the set’s beautiful and haunting visuals.
The concept sketch for the set of A.C.T.'s Christmas Carol. By John Arnone.
How did you approach designing the set?

As a team, we discussed the town and its atmosphere, the context for the piece, which is Dickens’s London. We wanted to convey the feeling of the congestion and the industrialization, as well as the paranoia and fear. Then we discussed the interiors, and the fact that there is only one interior that is real: Scrooge’s bedroom. It’s very claustrophobic, which I think is a metaphor for how dark Scrooge’s life has become.

How did you get the idea for the Ghost of Christmas Future as a puppet?

You never see [Christmas Future] in full detail, so you never really know what you’re looking at. It’s more of a frightening, hovering presence, and it serves as a sort of host for the last part of the production, which is what we call the “nightmare sequence.” Christmas Future became a part of the scenery—it is surreal and otherworldly and larger than life.

The set model looks very colorful, though.

The town does look colorful, but it’s also very dark. We were looking at some artistic techniques, such as watercolor, that could be abstract, dreamlike, and impressionistic—and also somewhat frightening.

Set model for the "nightmare sequence" of A Christmas Carol. By John Arnone.
Can you talk about the “vortex” part of the nightmare sequence?

Yes, the vortex is a painted drop, on which the lighting designer will project a sort of spinning gobo [a thin patterned metal disk placed in a spotlight and projected onto the stage, creating shadow effects], so that the audience’s point of view will become somewhat disoriented. There’s a scenic net of gravestones that match the gravestones on the ground. They will become animated, and the lights will start to strobe, so that it looks like they’re flying through the air. The overall effect is of vertigo and disorientation.

After the nightmare sequence, we have about 20 seconds to set up the town and restore everything onstage for the last scene of the play. The [backstage] crew never stops, not even during intermission. Once they begin, it will be like choreography for the four people who are operating the show. And it is really is up to them to make the show happen every night.

Come celebrate the holidays with us! A.C.T.'s production of A Christmas Carol runs December 1–24 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website.

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