“A Christmas Carol”: How We Adapted a Beloved Holiday Tradition in a Year Unlike Any Other

L: William J Norris as the Goodman's first Scrooge. R: Larry Yando as Scrooge recording his role for the 2020 Audio Play.
By Neena Arndt

At the Goodman, holiday traditions run deep. Since 1978, the theater has produced A Christmas Carol annually with audiences—diehard fans and newbies alike—experiencing Dickens’ ghostly Victorian tale in a production that reflects the diversity of present-day Chicago. When I joined the Goodman’s artistic staff in October 2008, the joy and anticipation in the building was palpable as the theater geared up for that year’s production. In the years since, in addition to enjoying the ghostly tale myself, I have seen firsthand the joy and wonder it brings to audiences of all ages, but especially wide-eyed children experiencing their first professional play. That is why, as 2020 plodded mercilessly on and it became clear that we could not produce A Christmas Carol in our usual manner, I, along with many other staff members, felt that we must find some way to tell this vital story. A tradition this cherished possesses a certain strength; it can bend awfully far without breaking.

And so, the conversations began about how we might deliver holiday cheer directly to our audiences’ living rooms. We decided to produce an audio play, using the Goodman’s usual script (adapted by Tom Creamer in 1989 from the novella by Charles Dickens), making changes as necessary to tell the story through sound only. On stage, artists use many tools to clue an audience in. Sets, costumes, the presence and body language of actors all help us understand the where, when, who and what of a scene. When you have only sound—voices, foley (the reproduction of everyday sound effects) and music—it has to be able to do all the heavy lifting of storytelling on its own.

Fortunately, A Christmas Carol has a long history of delighting audiences aurally and is well suited to doing so. Its rich, poetic language and colorful characters encourage the listener to conjure their own vivid images of the story’s action. Dickens himself toured England and America reading his novella out loud and Franklin D. Roosevelt read it to his family each year. In the early 20th century, when film was still in its infancy, adaptors created radio versions of the story. Lionell Barrymore—best known for his role as Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life— famously starred as Ebenezer Scrooge in one 1939 adaptation.

Our production’s director Jessica Thebus, sound designer and audio producer Richard Woodbury and I set to work adapting Tom Creamer’s script to suit our new milieu. We added narration from Dickens’ novella that gives context about where scenes are located, what characters look like and what is physically happening in the story. We edited out select sections that relied heavily on visual cues, while taking care to maintain the integrity of Tom’s approach to the story, and added lines that help the audience track the characters’ actions and emotional journeys. Richard identified moments that would require foley—the clunk of firewood as it lands in a wood stove, the sound of a door opening, and of course, the creaks, moans, winds and shimmers that let us know we are in the presence of ghosts.

Once we had a working draft, we rehearsed for five days on Zoom, further refining the text with input from the actors. At the end of that week, the cast did a final read-through on Zoom. We noted that it was the last time the entire group would be together. For the recording itself, actors came to the Goodman in small groups to record one scene at a time. In the Goodman’s Healy rehearsal room, crews set up plexiglass cubicles so that each actor had their own socially-distant space, but could see and interact with their scene partners as they performed. Jessica presided over the recording sessions, giving notes on acting and pacing, while Richard handled the technical aspects and Production Coordinator Alden Vasquez (who has stage managed A Christmas Carol for the previous 29 years) kept the process flowing smoothly.

With the recording complete, Richard edited the piece together, folding foley and original music by Andy Hansen in with the dialogue. After a few drafts, and the re-recording of select sections, we had our finished product: Charles Dickens’ classic story—not a feast for the eyes this year, but a feast for the ears.

Although we wish we could see you at the theater this year—and I will surely miss the look of anticipation on your children’s faces as the lights dim—we hope you will find joy in listening at home with your loved ones. Perhaps you will eat a hot meal or put up holiday decorations while you listen. And perhaps you will ponder how tradition—that bedrock on which lives and meaning are built—always finds a way.