By Jaclyn Jermyn
After being at the helm of last year’s A Christmas Carol—An Audio Play, director Jessica Thebus celebrates getting back on stage and shares her vision for creating a more inclusive and fantastical production.
What about “A Christmas Carol” draws you in?
It’s the story. I feel like the story that I always want to see and always want to make is one that is exciting to follow, but is also about transformation. A Christmas Carol is the story about transformation being possible. And Dickens’ writing is just fantastic—there’s not a whole ton of it in this adaptation, but it’s beautiful, it’s funny and it’s truthful.
You directed “A Christmas Carol”—An Audio Play last year. What was that experience like?
I remember thinking last year when we were trying to figure out what to do that we can’t not have A Christmas Carol. It’s such a ritual. All of those days where we were trying to find what was possible and what was safe were stressful, but that’s in contrast to the fact that when we actually did it, it was incredibly fun! We had this wonderful cast, many of which we have back with us this year. Even though we were in plexiglass booths, it was so fun to be in the room together sharing this story.
Richard Woodbury, our sound designer, has designed A Christmas Carol for years. And of course I’ve seen it for years on the stage and I was preparing to think of it on the stage. The Buddists talk of “Beginner’s Mind.” You don’t actually want to walk around like you’re an expert; you want to have the freshness of a beginner. I feel like that’s what that situation did. We both knew a lot about the story, but we were suddenly in a situation where we were thinking about what’s going to work. What do we need to hear that will help us see? It’s really great to be back in the visual world, but there are definitely some moments we loved in the audio adaptation that we want to try and keep the essence of.
Can you share an example?
Take the narrator. It was so satisfying to hear all that Dickens last year, so we wanted to keep some of it and keep that character. You don’t need a ton, a little goes a long way. Dickens talks in the novella about just how cold it was. He says it again and again, and it’s not like we have the visual of everyone wearing puffer coats. That’s something we can speak to a little bit with a narrator. In the audio play, the narrator had to tell us things we couldn’t see. Now that we can see everything, the narrator has to tell us what’s important. I always think of the narrator as whispering in the ear of the audience.
What are you bringing to this production that feels unique to your artistic vision?
I also don’t feel a lot of pressure to put my own stamp on it, but I do have things that I love. The visual world of A Christmas Carol can be anything. Sometimes we’re so uptight as theatermakers saying, “that doesn’t look real.” I’m really interested in the truth of dreams. What we can do in the theater is show with all of our colors how things feel and A Christmas Carol has so many options for that. It’s so magical when you watch things change before your eyes and what we can do in the theater is actually experience magical transformation.
Where are you drawing inspiration from?
With the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, it’s really open to interpretation. I am interested in the idea that although this story is rooted in Christmas, it’s not actually particularly religious. I think it’s really important that the story be inclusive. This celebration is for everyone. I’m also really interested in the imagery related to those indigenous to the British Isles. In the novella, Scrooge wakes up and his walls are covered in holly and ivy, and the Ghost of Christmas Present is covered in green. Evergreens and plants that don’t wither are Celtic and Duridic imagery. Christmas itself is such a layering of traditions from all over the place and the need for a winter festival spans so many cultures. All three spirits have nods to that indigenous world which just roots the story for me in a magic that predates Christmas—it has always been there.
“A Christmas Carol” has a long history, but does this story say anything about the times we’re living in now?
Just a decade before this story was written, there was a Cholera epidemic in London. It’s all very related to the story. When Ortle and Crumb say “the need is so great at this present time,” I really want that to feel specific. I really want audiences to be able to see people on the street, gathered around these little fires and it being so cold. It really reminds me of last winter when we would all gather around fire pits outside. Everybody would be masked and stand apart, but we would still gather. It made me feel like you can choose to celebrate and you can choose something beautiful. We are living that. And we see Scrooge refusing to do any of these things. But he is offered a hand—he gets the hand up that Marley never got and he’s saved as a result, saved from his own cruelty.
Why do you think people return to this story year after year?
Ritual is so important. We have these rituals that mark the passage of time—as human beings, we want to gather. The theater is great for ritual because it feels like a sacred thing. Human beings performing for each other and enacting stories will always happen because we need it. A Christmas Carol is an important part of that. So I’m really looking forward to being in that audience. I think it’s a magical place to be.