Smile Politely

Celebrate your city with an old timey radio rendition of A Christmas Carol

I’ve long argued that Champaign-Urbana is, indeed, a city. I think a lot of the people who have lived here since their birth or the people who have moved from elsewhere and have adopted this place as their home have a hard time reconciling this idea, for a variety of reasons.

I am willing to hear arguments, of course. But I always come back to the same conclusions about the reasons why we’re not a town, or a village, but rather, very much a city. It’s not just the tall buildings on campus, or the comprehensive mass transit district, or even the socio-economic and racial problems we encounter, but rather a simple overview of the resources we have access to on a daily basis.

For me, an example I enjoy pointing to is the robust theatre community of players, directors, writers, technicians, and the like that live here and participate in it. We don’t have a single stage on a cute, bucolic square where the local pastor plays the lead in 2 of the 4 plays per year. Sullivan, Illinois has that. And that is a wonderful thing. Rather we have multiple stages, multiple companies, rehearsing and performing, throughout the year. Often, we have professionals mixing it up with amateurs, as well.

See? That’s something that defines a city. You can point to it, if you need to, as well. No, we aren’t to be compared to Chicago or Washington, D.C. But as long as we’re making comparisons, when we choose to look at what we have sitting in our own backyard, it becomes clear. We’re a small city, and we have the stage productions to prove it.

This weekend, Parkland College will present a very specific type of stage performance when they showcase A Christmas Carol, done as part of their Actor’s Studio Series. It’s not a traditional stage show as you might find at The Goodman in Chicago or at Ford Theater in DC. Rather, this is a rendition meant to recapture the spirit of old radio broadcasts from a bygone era, complete with breaks featuring advertisements from the past, and a cast of dozens of characters to retell the classic tale of Ebenzer Scrooge, and his supernatural journey from miserly curmudgeon to generous and venerable neighbor. The true spirit of Christmas, embodied, indeed.

I asked the director, Mike O’Brien, a few questions to help give our readers some insight into what they can expect, and his answers were both engaging and thoughtful, and have me excited to experience the show in person this coming weekend.

Smile Politely: Is this adaptation faithful to a particular version of the story? Dickens’ novella is fairly dense, so it’s always interesting to hear how theatrical adaptations adjust and maneuver.

Mike O’Brien: Dense indeed! The particular script we are working with is an amalgam of other adaptations and versions of the tale. I had adapted Dickens text myself a number of years ago for a very formal, straightforward performance. However, because of the “golden age of radio” experience we are trying to create, I started with Orson Welles’ radio adaptation from the 30’s and then mixed in bits-n-pieces of other radio and film versions. The script started to drift too far away from Dickens’ original, so I went back and worked a lot of Dickens’ original text back in.  Long story short:  our version is a real mutt.

SP: What can the audience expect as far as set design? It’s a radio broadcast, so are the players off stage, or visible?

O’Brien: Visually our goal is to create an atmosphere akin to a family party where everyone can laugh, cry, and tell their stories. The “set” will look like the sitting room of grandma’s old house and the cast will be wearing the holiday party finest (i.e., that might mean a lot of ugly xmas sweaters). Auditorily we hope to create a “golden-age” radio drama Mr. Welles would be proud of. For me, the fun will be hearing one genre of storytelling while watching another. The players themselves will be seen and interacting with the audience the whole time.

SP: Talk about the throwback commercials. What’s the process there? Recreation or playing old recordings as intermissions?

O’Brien: We want a real sense of nostalgia surrounding the performance, so our throwback commercials are/were real — at least at some point in history. We are hoping to tug at the heartstrings of our patrons who remember listening to these types of radio shows. I scoured the internet for products that no longer exist like BromoSeltzer, Carter’s Little Liver Pills, and Brylcream (as examples) and “borrowed” their old commercial texts. They were edited slightly and are being performed by the cast as part of the performance.

SP: What’s the runtime on the performance? 

O’Brien: Best guess at this point is a little over an hour.

So, back to my first point. Of course, you can find stage performances of A Christmas Carol across the western world, in cities big and towns small. That’s the enduring spirit of the greatest story ever told about the Christmas holiday. But when you place it context, against the backdrop of what amounts to literally dozens and dozens of plays on multiple stages throughout the year, in a city with close to two hundred thousand people, you see it differently.

My hope is that this sort of thing becomes tradition, something that happens annually, and that the community looks forward to in the same way we do the performance of “The Nutcracker” that staged last weekend. Indeed, great cities provide these important pieces of cultural engagement to its residents and guests, and we are no exception.

A Christmas Carol
Parkland College Theatre
2400 W Bradley Ave, Champaign
December 13th, 7:30 p.m.
December 14th, 3 p.m., 7:30 p.m.
December 15th, 3 p.m.
All tickets are $25, call 217-351-2528 for more information, or to make reservations

Photos from Facebook event page

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