The Evolution of a Holiday Classic: A Christmas Carol at A.C.T. Part Two

By Michael Paller

*This article originally appeared on Inside A.C.T. in 2016. 

By 2004, A Christmas Carol was 28 years old, and the sets were showing their age. A significant investment would be required to refurbish them, which set Artistic Director Carey Perloff to thinking. Carol had more than served its purpose since 1976. Every year but 1994 and 1995, when the production was put on hiatus until The Geary reopened, many young Bay Area children—and parents—had their first theater experience watching Bill Paterson, Sydney Walker, Raye Birk, or Ken Ruta awake on Christmas morning a changed man. Now, however, Perloff wanted Carol to serve an additional purpose, featuring parts for students in the Young Conservatory, and roles for actors in M.F.A. Program who could add the mainstage experience toward earning their Actors’ Equity union card.

A.C.T.'s 2009 production of A Christmas Carol. From the left: 
René Augesen, Gregory Wallace, James Carpenter, Calum John, and Philip Mills. 
Photo by Kevin Berne.
Perloff went in search of an existing Carol that told the story well while accommodating a full class of young actors. But after failing to find one, like Williamson 28 years earlier, she wrote a new adaptation in collaboration with dramaturg Paul Walsh. The process started with Dickens’s original text; Perloff read the novella aloud to her own children and then, with the sound of Dickens’s language in her ears, set about the new adaptation. This version would have roles for every third-year M.F.A. student, plus many in the YC. Such a intergenerational Carol turned out to be exactly what Ball had meant by a conservatory theater: the veteran actors would instruct, mostly by example, the M.F.A. Program students, who in turn mentored the members of the YC. 

James Carpenter as Scrooge and Tony Sinclair as Boy Scrooge
in A.C.T.'s 2010 production of A Christmas Carol
Photo by Kevin Berne.
Ken Ruta as Marley and Sharon Lockwood as Mrs. Dilber (a role that Perloff expanded from Dickens, as the original had no significant roles for women) have been regulars (Jack Willis played Marley from 2006 through 2011). And since 2006, the gifted James Carpenter has played Scrooge with the estimable Anthony Fusco doing several performances a season as well. 

Just as Williamson and Powers were drawn to certain aspects of the story (including the dark nature of its world), so too Perloff’s own tastes dictated significant elements of the new version. She was struck by what she saw as Dickens’s conviction that the imagination can trigger empathy: Scrooge’s change of heart from an alienated miser into a caring human being occurred because he was willing to believe in the three ghosts (the last thing one would expect from a character like Scrooge). This, she thought, was an emphatic endorsement of the power of art. No wonder the story had appealed to theater people since the year the book was published in 1843. 

John Arnone’s sets—alternating realistic windows and Victorian furniture with exteriors of houses in shimmering watercolors—lent the production a powerful sense of forward movement, and Beaver Bauer’s bold, bright costumes struck a playful modern note. The script, composed of two acts of 45 minutes, is more attuned to contemporary attention spans and, mindful of the many children in the audience, includes an intermission, which the previous version did not. 

In the 40 years A Christmas Carol has been on The Geary stage, more than a million Bay Area theatergoers, young and old, have seen the show.

Carol returns to A.C.T., this time as a radio play! Get your tickets here

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