Arts & Culture | Theater | Hartford Stage | COVID-19
Robert Hannon Davis and Sarah Killough in A Community Carol. The work runs at Hartford Stage from Dec. 17 through the 21st. Screenshot from Zoom.
Scrooge has awakened to the ghost of Christmas past, her voice like silk and spiced wine. He squints up at her, a twinkling ball of light in his bedroom. As she conjures the past, a camera pans through Bushnell Park, its walkways empty. Snow falls steadily through the frame. The grass is covered in leaves.
Scrooge is remembering now. The schoolhouse he used to attend. The people he once knew. In the lower lefthand corner of the screen, two little girls jump on a bed, laughing.
Scrooge (Robert Hannon Davis) is in fact one of three Scrooges in A Community Carol, an emotional, pandemic-era adaptation of A Christmas Carol streaming from Hartford Stage Dec. 17 through 21. An experimental return to Dickens’ 1843 text, the work replaces the theater’s annual, glitter-flecked performance of A Christmas Carol in what would have been its 23rd year on stage.
“We thought about what the play does for us seasonally,” said Artistic Producer Rachel Alderman, who is directing the show. “How do you bottle the essence of that? Not only what the story is, but also how do we feel when we're making it and when we're seeing it. What do we do in this moment when everything has to be virtual?”
Work on the production began months ago, after Hartford Stage moved its return to in-person performance to fall 2021. Prior to COVID-19, the theater was steadily growing its community footprint, with new programs such as built-in childcare during performances and partnerships with Capital Community College, the University of Hartford and Christ Church Cathedral.
Ensemble members gather at the beginning of A Community Carol.
Then COVID-19 hit. In the past nine months, the theater has cut its Fiscal Year 2021 budget from $9 million to $3.5 million. At the beginning of the pandemic, it had 80 staff members, and an additional 120 contract workers. It is now down to just 21.
Alderman wanted to pursue “this notion of building our block” virtually, she said. In August, she started working with ensemble members who had been in the cast for years, some for decades. She reached out to acting students at Capital Community College and community partners at Christ Church Cathedral and the Hartt School of Music. She roped in dramaturg Sally Lobel, whose apprenticeship at Hartford Stage had been cut short by the pandemic.
“We explored text,” Alderman said. “We explored ritual. When you return to the text every year, you've changed, your family's changed. That's why you have the ritual. Certain moments of the story and certain moments in the text sort of rose to the top for us. And with the text—well, things hit differently in a pandemic.”
In years past, for instance, no one had ever paid quite as much attention to Dickens’ line that “there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.” In the midst of a highly communicable respiratory virus, it suddenly stuck out.
Most of the play’s early workshops took place over Zoom, with candle lighting rituals and close readings of the text that Alderman has since folded into the show. While cast members prepared online and submitted video contributions, Alderman was able to work in partly person with students from Capital, which she called refreshing in a year where most performance has taken place entirely online.
While the final cut may be confined to a screen, it has allowed actors to revisit the show anew in a year when physical gathering is impossible. Lobel, who relocated to Arizona to be with her family during the pandemic, recalled how the format required an initial shift in thinking among both cast members and the creative team.
At first, she said, there was a “scope of wonder” that didn’t feel tenable over Zoom. Then cast members dug into the text. They started talking about how lonely Scrooge was. They wondered aloud whether he knew how his actions affected the entire community around him. Over 150 years after the original work, the parallels were still striking.
“All of a sudden, we could see in people's homes,” Lobel said, reached by phone last week. “There's something very generous and vulnerable about that. We realized how emotionally striking it is to listen to someone talk to you. There’s a bedtime story quality to it. We were realizing that we had more storytelling tools open to us. We could allow a multitude of voices to approach the story.”
Those voices experimented and devised new material. After 19-year Christmas Carol veteran Rebecka Jones whipped out a puppet on Zoom, Alderman worked with Night Fall’s Anne Cubberly and artists Dejé and Devé-Ann Bennett to turn Jacob Marley’s visit from beyond the veil into a chilling, fantastical nod to Caribbean culture and artistry.
The three started playing with the idea of Marley as Jancro, an albino buzzard with fantastic feathering in shadow below. They were able to film the work in Christ Church Cathedral, which gave it a dark and haunting feel as the vaulted ceilings rose above them.
“In the script, they describe how when Marley takes his rags away from his face to get Scrooge to see him more and his jawbone drops open,” she recalled. “The whole idea of these bones really got me.”
In the finished cut, Devé-Ann plays a cowering Scrooge as Dejé approaches her, swaying in a huge, bony skull. Her eyes flash out from just beneath the beak, gleaming and a little wild. Were it not for the pandemic, they said, they wouldn’t have come together to work on the show. Normally, they are in the audience this time of year instead.
“The collaboration was amazing,” said Devé-Ann in a phone call. “ It’s so weird how much it connected with this year . Sometimes you need to stop and reflect and change your habits. ”
“For me, it taught me not to be individualistic,” Dejé chimed in. “What Scrooge went through made him realize: ‘Okay, I need to focus on what's outside of me. Not just to focus on myself, but just to focus outside.’”
Jones, a New Havener who is currently based in Florida with her son, said that she can’t imagine this time of year without the play in her life. When the actor first joined the cast in the early 2000s, she was a newcomer to Connecticut with an internship at Hartford Stage.
Almost two decades later, she has hopped between roles while watching cast members grow up, get married, and have children of their own. While the virtual work is not the same, she said she feel grateful to be in community at all after a year of isolation and shuttered arts venues.
Fezziwig's party, reimagined.
“I don't remember a Christmas without A Christmas Carol,” she said. “It's been so long that I've gotten to the point that I can't keep up with my birthday anymore. It’s always been there. These people have become my family. I would travel anywhere to see them. I miss them. ”
As she’s grown with the work—from a mother of one to a mother of two, from Mrs. Cratchit to the ghost of Christmas past, from a new New Havener to a champion of the city—she’s found that Dickens’ story has an uncanny ability to transcend time. In 2008, it was Scrooge’s mention of “a quick foreclosure” that stood out to her. This year, it was the personifications of Want and Ignorance and the plight of the Cratchit family.
In the play, Scrooge’s purse stands between Bob Cratchit’s son Tiny Tim and the medical care he needs to live. As she and actors pulled apart the script on their screens this fall, the U.S. Supreme Court headed into oral arguments on a case that could gut the Affordable Care Act.
“Those two words are very powerful right now,” she said. “The story of the family struggling and being sick and needing healthcare. All of that is so poignant right now—as is the thought that hope will come. That things can change.”
Vanessa Butler, who has been with the show since 2016, had a similar reaction when Alderman reached out in August. As a teaching artist, Butler commutes between her home in New York City and gigs in Connecticut, including at Hartford Stage, Housatonic Community College and HartBeat Ensemble. This year, she is playing Mrs. Cratchit and one of the solicitors.
Following a spring where jobs were “pulled out from under me,” Alderman’s announcement felt like a reprieve. In March, Butler watched work disappear overnight as cases skyrocketed around her. She heard from dozens of friends who had lost their careers and were scrambling to apply for unemployment. When her fiancé went on his daily runs, he would bring her back reports of refrigerated trucks outside a nearby hospital.
“I guess I never realized how much I emotionally depended on this show until this year,” she said. “It always gave me a feeling of hope, no matter how bad my year was. I would walk into this show, and would be okay. This year, it's very hard … I feel like it's been on a spectrum of ‘this sucks’ to just utterly devastating and heartbreaking.”
John-Andrew Morrison as the Ghost of Christmas Present and Buzz Roddy as Scrooge.
Like Jones, she said she sees the ensemble as extended family. All year, she’s stayed in touch with cast members over Zoom, while navigating separation from her own family in Wisconsin. She reveled in the ability to devise work virtually after months spent at home. While she has been teaching in-person in Bridgeport this fall, she described her acting students as socially distanced, masked, and utterly “freaked out” to be in a classroom during COVID-19.
“Those moments of being able to connect with people, I've been really starving for,” she said. “I just wanted more time with everyone. I love playing, I love being able to stretch those muscles. In my classes, they just look at me like I'm a crazy person. They're freaked out. I’m freaked out. It makes sense.”
“I want the earthquake to stop moving,” she later added.
After months of devising, writing, rewriting, filming, and splicing, Alderman said she is excited to finally roll out the project to the wider world this week. In a Zoom call on Sunday, she cycled through a rough cut of the work, pausing on some of her favorite scenes.
In one, the customary whoosh of wind and snow brought Dickens’ words suddenly to life, words typed across the screen by an invisible hand. An ensemble, gathered in inch-high boxes, checked their surroundings and noticed that fog that was suddenly pouring in against their windows and doors. The magic had begun.
In another, Capital students filled the screen for Fezziwig’s reimagined party in neat, one-inch boxes, dancing to “Agua de coco” as it played tinnily over the frame. Each year, the Hartford-based Diaz family (Marcelino “Chelo” Diaz Jr. on cuatro, Marcelino Diaz III on guitar, and Julio Diaz on güiro) performs the song as part of their annual “Promesa De Reyes.”
In a third, actor and Emerson University student Destini Stewart looked out at the viewer. As she sang “There is a Balm in Gilead,” her voice rising, one image became multiple images. Hartt students danced out on their sidewalks and in their front yards. Actors lit candles beside their Christmas trees and sat beside their glowing menorahs. Stewart loosed a songbird from her throat. It felt bright and warm, and also bittersweet.
Alderman added that making theater on a screen hasn’t ceased to be strange for her. Normally, she would be in tech rehearsals at the theater this week. Instead, she’s alone at home, working in an quiet office with her computer. In Hartford, the stage is sitting quiet as a tomb. But just as in years past, she’s still mining fresh meaning from the work.
““It's all about how we treat each other,” she said. “Every year, I set an intention when I direct the show. And this year, what really came out in many conversations was the need for joy and healing and redemption—that how we treat each other matters. It's trying to capture the heart of that. That's where the joy comes from, and the light in one of the darkest seasons of the year.”