By Annette Hinkle
The notion of striving for goodwill towards all and finding the true meaning of the season can seem supremely ironic in this era of Black Friday mobs and rampant over-commercialization. Which is why there are certain holiday traditions that are seen as sacrosanct by many — those old stand-bys that take us back to the day when there was more to the season than just a great bargain at the mall.
Perhaps no holiday tradition is more beloved than Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” The story of Ebenezer Scrooge, the miserable miser who gets a new lease on life after visits from a series of ghosts on Christmas Eve, never fails to hit its mark. And whether it involves reading Dickens’ original tale by a roaring fire or catching one of the many remakes on TV (which Scrooge is your favorite — Alastair Sim, Mr. Magoo, Bill Murray or Albert Finney?) for many of us, the holidays just aren’t complete without it.
This year, East End audiences have a chance to experience the story of Scrooge with a twist — thanks to a new radio drama of “A Christmas Carol” produced by WPPB 88.3 FM. The production, which is directed by Michael Disher, will air on the station four times between now and Christmas Day and is the brainchild of on-air radio host (and producer) Bonnie Grice who has envisioned just such show for a very long time.
“We’ve talked over the years with Josh Gladstone at Guild Hall and Murphy Davis at Bay Street Theatre about doing a drama there live and recording it,” explains Grice. “But it never came to be.”
“So I said, ‘Let’s do it this year,’” she adds. “I wanted to do ‘A Christmas Carol.’ I thought it was an easy beginning and most people know the story.”
Last week, a cast of 13 local actors assembled at the radio station’s studios in Southampton to record the classic tale. Just like an old time radio show, the room was crowded with microphones on stands while heavy chains and sleigh bells were on hand to provide the sound effects (though digital versions were also available). Taking the first two mic positions were Josh Gladstone who plays the narrator (as well as the Ghost of Marley and Fezziwig) and Dan Becker (who plays Scrooge) and the other actors relayed in and out as their respective parts came up in the script. Sound engineer Kyle Lynch closely monitored it all from his sound board at the side of the room while Disher offered suggestions to the actors for honing their performances and Grice made sure the whole operation ran smoothly.
“My goal is for the actors to do it like they are doing it live,” says Grice. “I would love for them to keep it in mind. If you give the actors that direction, they’re prone to just go with it. I want them to think that way instead of thinking they have the option of a retake.”
“It’s definitely a lost art,” she adds.
While Grice is correct when she says “A Christmas Carol” is a familiar story, there are still big challenges to consider when presenting it on air. Given the format of the broadcast venue, the show needed to run exactly an hour. Grice also needed to find a version that would portray all the scenes audiences are used to seeing visually in a way that would allow them to hear the action instead. So she headed to the Drama Bookshop in Manhattan, which specializes in theatrical scripts, for a little advice and came home with Orson Welles’ adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” which he produced as a radio drama in December 1938 for Campbell’s Playhouse.
“There was a guy at the desk of an age who probably would’ve heard Orson Welles, and his eyes brightened when I asked him,” recalls Grice of her visit to the shop. “He was so excited.”
Because so much of Dickens’ story is atmospheric, Welles needed to put an enormous amount of responsibility on just one role in his script — that of the narrator who, while absent in most traditional versions of “A Christmas Carol,” plays a crucial role in the radio version.
“The narrator has to fill in all the gaps in the right tone and timbre and evolve along with Scrooge,” explains Disher. “You couldn’t have done it without a narrator. ‘A Christmas Carol’ is not just dialogue driven.”
Grice also tweaked the script a bit by adding scenes from the story which were left out of Welles’ version — specifically the one in which the Ghost of Christmas Present warns Scrooge to beware of the two needy children at his feet — Ignorance and Want, which leads Scrooge to ask, “But have they no refuge?” The ghost responds using Scrooge’s own well known words, “Are there no prisons, are there no workhouses?”
Another scene Grice felt was important to include is the one in which the Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge a vision of his sister, Fan, coming to visit him at the school where he was sent as a child.
“The script didn’t have Fan, and it didn’t have Scrooge at the end visiting his nephew and all beatified,” says Grice. “But I thought she [Fan] was key. His sister died in childbirth, which is why he rejected his nephew, Fred. Scrooge’s own mother also died giving birth to him, and his father rejected him.”
Though Disher comes to this project as a seasoned stage director (most East End audiences know him through his productions for Center Stage at Southampton Cultural Center), he admits that directing for radio is a whole new experience.
“I’ve had no experience with radio dramas,” he admits. “I think that was part of the appeal.”
It’s an interesting challenge. So much of what I do is strike a balance between the aural and visual in theatre,” he adds. “This is all about what I hear.”
Ironically, Disher finds that even though — or perhaps because — radio dramas rely on just one of the senses, there is inherent intensity placed on that one mode of communication.
“It’s more detailed,” says Disher. “You pay more attention to each word and the emphasis upon each word and the rhythm of each sentence and the spoken meaning of each line. It’s a whole different animal when you listen to it.”
“Everyone has a preconceived image of what Scrooge, Cratchit and Victorian London should look like,” says Disher. “Here I’m relying on a variety of voices to provide those pictures. It’s both more expansive and more focused and a great irony.”
And without the visual cues, Disher has found that his actors must call on other skills to get the meaning of their words across.
“Therein lies the rub,” he says. “You can’t rely on facial expression or movement to be there, and must rely on the spoken word.”
Now that he’s made it through his first radio drama, Disher is excited by the possibilities of doing more like this one on the East End.
“I like to think we’re a new team,” says Disher of his collaboration with Grice.
“My vision is to do more radio dramas with local actors,” adds Grice. “They never go out of fashion.”
And neither, apparently, do holiday traditions like “A Christmas Carol.”
“It’s a reminder to me in many ways of the nature of the season without sugar coating it. There’s an essence there we can all use,” says Grice. “I need to see it every year and I cry every year.”
“There’s also something solid about tradition,” adds Disher. “How can anyone imagine the holidays without ‘A Christmas Carol’ or the ‘Nutcracker’?”
“A Christmas Carol” will air on WPPB 88.3 FM on Friday, December 16, 2011 at 7 p.m., Friday, December 23 at 11 a.m., Saturday, December 24 at 4 p.m. and Sunday, December 25 at noon.
The production stars Dan Becker as Scrooge with Josh Gladstone as the Narrator (as well as Marley and Fezziwig). Rounding out the cast is Paul Bolger, Barbara Jo Howard, Tristan Vaughan, Brooke Alexander, Rosemary Cline, Brendan O’Reilly, Meryn Anders, Terrance Fiore, Katie Kneeland, Rupert Stow and Julia Tyson.
Top: Kyle Lynch mans the controls while the cast of “A Christmas Carol” works through the script and Michael Disher and Bonnie Grice look on. (Michael Heller photo).