Q + A with Jessica Thebus
By Susan V. Booth
As she steps into her third season directing the beloved holiday tradition of A Christmas Carol, Chicago artist Jessica Thebus opens up about her own Christmas traditions and her first encounter with Dicken’s magical story of redemption.
Susan V. Booth: What’s your most treasured Christmas ritual?
Jessica Thebus: In my family, it was hosting a candlelit party Christmas Eve and singing carols. I come from a high-octane Christmas family—lots of importance placed on the holiday, the community and the rituals! My mother’s family always had a Christmas Eve party when she was growing up, and she continued the tradition with us. The gathering was important, the menu was important (it was so 1970s—ham, white bean casserole, cherry, almond and marshmallow custard, rolls and avocado salad) and the singing most important. Because I was part of an expat family that traveled widely before coming to roost in Evanston in 1977, we had Christmas song books from our years in Thailand with English lyrics on one page and the same lyrics in Thai on the facing page. We still use them to sing Christmas Eve at my house. Singing together was not common, so when it did happen it was very magical.
SB: I love the menu. I continue to have a (literally and figuratively) unhealthy love for cheese fondue as it was the Christmas Eve meal throughout my childhood. With hunks of straight up white bread and meatballs as one’s dipping options. Do you remember the first time you encountered a holiday ritual from a tradition other than your own? For me, it was an afternoon movie/Chinese food dinner ritual that my Jewish husband introduced that is now a mainstay of December 25th.
JT: It was watching It’s A Wonderful Life, which my husband introduced to me as a mainstay of Christmas—I’d never even seen it, and I was 35! I was always puzzled at all the references to bells and angels and Clarence. When I finally saw it, I wept properly.
SB: So now it’s time for Dickens. Do you remember your first encounter with the Christmas Carol story in any form? I have this super vivid memory of coming home after the Christmas Eve candlelight service (almost done digesting the fondue) and watching the old black and white film version. And finding it all kinds of scary. I’m not sure if the redemption part was lost on me or if I fell asleep before it happened. But it was a long minute before I met it again as a theater practitioner and was delighted to discover its joy.
JT: I actually think it was the Goodman Christmas Carol! I have thought hard about this but I had not read it and Christmas movies were not really happening as we were living overseas with not much television at the time! So I would have been about 12 my first time seeing the show at the old Goodman—and being truly scared, truly moved, truly delighted! Then I read the novella in college and adored its brilliance. There are still phrases in it—like Future Shrinking into Scrooge’s bedpost—that I will never forget.
SB: So here’s my last wondering. Imagine you’re sitting in the Goodman’s lobby after a performance of A Christmas Carol, and a mother and a daughter are talking about what they just experienced. What would you most hope to (over)hear?
JT: I did actually witness this last year, but it was a grandmother, daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter! Incredible to see four generations going to the theater together. If they were anything like me someone would be crying, because Scrooge’s redemption should strike a familiar and authentic cord in our lives. And—I would be thrilled if they spoke of “magic,” because that should also be present—the glowing, the unexpected, the powerful.
Susan V. Booth is the Artistic Director for Goodman Theatre.