By Max Shulman, Assistant Professor of Theatre, UCCS
My goal in writing these essays is to make you as excited about a play as I typically am. Sitting down to think about the upcoming production of Christmas Carol (the ninth in Theatreworks’s history), I realized that the most compelling thing about it is that it will be the first helmed by the new artistic director, Caitlin Lowans. And I'm excited about her. So, in lieu of an essay on Dickensian politics or the evolution of Christmas traditions, I hope you'll accept an interview between myself and Lowans about the upcoming project. There are spoilers, moments of musing, and a picture of a director “in process.”
Max Shulman: So, you're directing Christmas Carol this December. I’m wondering—what excites you about the play?
Caitlin Lowans: I think the most exciting part of Christmas Carol is how very strange it is. We’ve built a holiday tradition around the story of a man haunted by four ghosts, and they’re all weird and they’re all a little bit freaky. When we say we gather for Christmas cheer, the actual text is ultimately redemptive but not very cheerful.
MS: It’s a ghost story!
CL: Yes, it’s a ghost story! It’s a haunted Christmas story. I like that juxtaposition: the opposite of all the things that we associate with Christmas happening in this thing that’s become the apex of Christmas.
MS: Are you hoping to scare people?
CL: Well, we’ve talked a lot about having three of the ghosts played by puppets or including some puppet elements, because they’re simultaneously human and superhuman. They go past human into something else, so we want to communicate something rooted in human ingenuity and creativity but also greater than (or stranger than) human.
MS: It’s funny how much this play demands a kind of belief. The darkest and coldest period of the year becomes a time for belief and a time for magic.
CL: Yes. It's also intriguing to think about how it’s not just the darkest period of the year, but also a really dark time for people in the 1840s with the Industrial Revolution in full swing. All of these people coming to the cities were cut off from their families and cut off from the life they knew before. For a lot of people, it probably felt not just like a bleak time of year but a bleak first half of the century.
MS: Dickens seems to be highlighting that. There's this nostalgia for a London that may have never existed, that we now idealize as the embodiment of Christmas with all its cheer and warmth.
CL: I mean, the Cratchits really have no right to exist when we hear about how little Bob Cratchit gets from Scrooge. And yet, the first we see of Bob Crachit is a description of him racing away, skating down the streets, throwing snowballs at London street children. Dickens creates a person with this impossible level of belief and hope in the future and in Scrooge’s essential worth as a person, even when Scrooge doesn’t necessarily believe in his own worth. In a weird way, even though we journey into Scrooge's past, it’s Bob Cratchit who personifies the yearning for the best version of us.
MS: Is Scrooge proof that anyone can find salvation—that anyone can change?
CL: Part of the idea is that anyone can change, but the people who need it most oftentimes don’t see it. The play promotes the idea that the journey to self-reflection is the hardest. Once Scrooge sees himself for what he's become, a switch flips: “yes I will keep Christmas in my heart. I will buy you an enormous turkey. I will come to your party and I will become the best man that ever was.” But the story also makes a distinction between surface level and complete self-knowledge. Scrooge thinks he's gotten there after the first ghost. He says, “oh yeah. I see how I used to be better. I can get there.” And then the ghost says, “no, that’s not deep enough.”
MS: Do you think there's a larger political message or is the story more focused on individual reformation and benevolence?
CL: That’s tricky. All we have is this individual narrative. But when the two charitable gentlemen ask Scrooge for money and he asks, “are the workhouses not still in operation?,” we see this idea that the social structures combating inequality and poverty are insufficient. And I think there's a danger in a lot of the language that we use around the holidays. There’s a lot of focus on an individual putting coins in the bucket, but questions remain about the larger systems underpinning it all.
MS: When it comes to Scrooge, you have done some rather exciting casting. Can you tell us about your choice of Lisa Wolpe in that part?
CL: Yes! Lisa is someone who I've been aware of as a Shakespearean actor and as a person who challenges the limitations of gender. I actually got to meet her at the beginning of last year and then saw her again playing Shylock at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Lisa has an amazing power and facility with language; she’s part of that Shakespearean tradition, and Dickens has so much rich rhetoric. Having an actor who has that facility is really wonderful. In terms of casting a woman to play Scrooge, it's a purposeful challenge. The English literary canon is often spoken about as if everyone can relate to this group of people from one very specific corner of the globe with one very specific historical experience. With the casting of Lisa and the diversity of the rest of the ensemble, we take up a challenge: if this is everyone’s story, what happens when we put everyone in it? In watching Lisa play Shylock, she just leaned entirely into the masculinity of it as someone who was performing the gender. Shylock's religious identity, and the fact that he was being played by a woman, became part of the stretch he needed to push himself out into the world. It was really compelling. There’s something about Scrooge's isolation in the play, about how he’s walled himself off, that parallels what happens when an actor is doing that extra bit of stretching by playing a character that’s not their gender. They’re putting up a bit of a front. They’re putting up a bit of a wall.
MS: I think it sounds very exciting. Now, you’re using Murray Ross’s adaptation. Given that he directed it over and over again, is there something you see that Murray seemed to love about this story that you are also drawn to?
CL: I love that it preserves so much of Dickens’s original language, much of which is spoken directly to the audience. My favorite moments in theater are when the people onstage don’t have to spend extra energy pretending the audience isn't there. I love it when we can acknowledge each other, celebrate that we’re both here, and show something really exciting. Right from the beginning, this adaptation says “I know you’re here. You know I’m here. Let’s get on with sharing this amazing story."
MS: What better experience for a communal holiday!?
CL: Yes! We’re gathering together, and that’s great.