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Dickens’ Holiday Classic Rings in the Season at Old Whalers’ Church

Posted on 19 December 2012

Pastor Mark Phillips and Joe DeSane look over the script for “A Christmas Carol” in the chapel of the Old Whalers’ Church.

By Annette Hinkle

Though it was written more than a century and a half ago, there’s something about Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol” that remains timeless — even in this complicated age of gun violence, economic meltdown and global conflict.

Maybe it’s the notion of revisiting lost loved ones that we find appealing. Or perhaps it’s the idea of reflecting on an earlier version of ourselves and pondering what might have been.

Or maybe it’s the ghosts

For many, the season just isn’t complete without a reading of Dickens’ classic around a roaring fire. Luckily, this Friday evening, the Old Whalers’ Church will offer a reading of “A Christmas Carol” in the chapel at 7:30 p.m. This 60-minute version is arranged as a radio play, and while there won’t be a fireplace, there will be candles to set the mood— and there may even be a sound effect or two.

Sag Harbor actor Joe DeSane is directing the reading and will be taking on the various characters along with other local actors (and non-actors). Even the Old Whalers’ Church pastor, Rev. Mark Phillips, will have a part — that of Tiny Tim.

“I always liked his role,” says Rev. Phillips. “From the start, I said I’d like to read that famous line.”

For Rev. Phillips, who likes the idea of offering the community something a little different at the church, the story of “A Christmas Carol” remains relevant today because of the parallels we can find in our own lives.

“We see a little bit of ourselves in Scrooge,” he says. “I think it’s a wonderful story of redemption. As we see Scrooge come to terms, he’s unaware of the affect his actions have on people. But by going back, he sees how our lives are connected.”

Of course, it is a familiar tale, and there have been lots of Scrooges over the years. Not long ago, DeSane saw Patrick Stewart in “A Christmas Carol” on Broadway, but says that, for him, the performance came up a little short — he was not impressed by Stewart’s actorly approach and felt as if he was sitting in an acting class.

But even though this version of the story, adapted by radio producer Anthony Palermo, is much shorter than that full production, in it DeSane found everything he was looking for.

“I felt it was very consistent with all the components of the classic. It’s 60 minutes, but it has all the moments you’d expect,” he says. “I love that it segues from a radio announcement to the narrator. You’re pulled into old 19th century London and right away feel you’re in the life of it.”

Because this is a reading and not a full production, DeSane wants to keep it spontaneous. For that reason, rehearsal has been intentionally kept to a minimum.

“A reading is a different thing. I could see it evolve into something more, but you have to resist overdoing a reading,” says DeSane. “We’ll have about eight readers and just do one run through beforehand. If you do more, it becomes over rehearsed.”

Instead of a traditional theater set up with performers on a stage, this reading will be a bit cozier, with the performers sitting in a semi circle and the audience close at hand.

“It will make it feel like the audience is sitting around an old radio hearing a play,” says DeSane. “We had the idea that the atmosphere would make it feel almost as if the cast is part of the audience.”

To keep the feel of the reading casual, DeSane intentionally cast non-actors alongside more experienced thespians.

“There’s a lot of fun to be had in the way something’s read,” says DeSane. “It’s easy to go see actors read a play with a certain expectation. But I like the idea of having some trained professional actors and some who are not. They’re already a little nervous about what it means. I keep telling them just come as you are. I think that’ll be part of what makes it accessible.”

Despite the laid-back forum of the reading, DeSane and Rev. Phillips are envisioning some supplemental sound effects like bells and music to help the audience recreate Victorian era London in their minds.

Perhaps they will even muster up some chains for the Ghost of Marley.

And though there’s no charge for the reading, a freewill offering will be taken to benefit the Community House Fund at Old Whalers’ (because it’s for a good cause, hopefully there will be no miserly Scrooges in the audience). DeSane notes the bigger gift, however, will likely be what audience members take away from the reading.

“This is a nice way to pull people into something different and to offer a bigger spiritual message through performing,” says DeSane. “This is great – it’s not religion heavy in any one direction. It’s a nice thing, especially for people struggling with their belief system. This can be for any religion and walk of life.”

“And maybe a couple good spirits will show up,” adds Rev. Phillips.

The Old Whalers’ Church reading of “A Christmas Carol” is Friday, December 21, 2012 at 7:30 p.m. in the chapel. The church is at 44 Union Street in Sag Harbor.

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