Take a behind-the-scenes look at how Seattle’s ACT Theater creates the magic of “A Christmas Carol”
Over a hundred stage lights rested on the floor of the Allen Theater at the ACT Theater in downtown Seattle. The stage floor had already been transformed into a cobblestone design, and the actors were lounging in sweatpants and khakis in the front rows and on stage between rehearsals. Costume and wig stores were bustling, hands and threaded needles hovering over fabrics and hairpieces.
It was the first week of rehearsals for ACT Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol”, which opens on December 7, and the theater was coming to life for the first time in 20 months.
Coming in its 46th year in December, ACT’s âA Christmas Carolâ is a holiday tradition for many in Seattle, and, in this production, the chilling effect of Jacob Marley rising from the ground (or sometimes from the bed of Ebenezer Scrooge to surprise audiences) to warn old friend Scrooge of his cranky ways has become part of the tradition some viewers anticipate each year. Last year, theatergoers missed out on the viewing pleasure when, due to the pandemic, ACT produced an engrossing audio version of the play instead.
This year, as the holiday classic returns to the stage with an in-person audience for the first time since 2019, we got a behind-the-scenes look to see what it takes to get the ghosts out of the ground and the humbugs changing their way. melody, and to create spellbinding holiday magic on stage.
Ghosts of the Deep
In just a matter of weeks, the hundred lights that were on the floor would be hanging above the stage at the Allen Theater, the costumes and wigs would be sized and suitable for their actors, and everyone – technicians, costume designers, actors. , managers – would have memorized a detailed choreography dictating the timing and location of every stage exit, costume change, sweating forehead pad and backstage button press.
Or, more precisely, in the sub-scene.
Because the Allen Theater is a round theater, with its stage in the center of the room surrounded by the audience on all sides, there are no walls for the sets to disappear behind. Instead, these stopped parts must go up or down.
Below the Allen Theater stage, there is a dark room with low ceilings and narrow passages where technicians operate several pneumatic and hydraulic elevators. On the ground, masking tape arrows direct pedestrian traffic, including one that says “head!” Warning from a pole protruding at head height, wrapped in what looks like a pink pool noodle.
James Nichols, Master Stage Carpenter, and Nick Farwell, Stage Operations Supervisor, run the show in this small dark room, watching a small TV screen for signals and operating all equipment.
At the time of the show, they operate four pneumatic elevators on the edges of the oval basement room and a large hydraulic elevator system in the center to bring essential sets (and even actors) from the darkness below into the rooms. bright stage lights.
A pull on a lever in this basement room brings a ghostly Marley out of a trap door in the stage floor to begin the journey of scaring Scrooge away from his holiday grunts. The elevator system under the Allen Theater stage is loaded each year specifically for this show.
Ready for the show, the elevator currently holds in its spare room the chair adorned with the ghost of the Christmas present and the grave that will eventually shake the famous Scrooge crank. They will each move on the main platform to be lifted to the stage when it is their turn. For now, the main platform is empty, waiting for the person who first turns this Christmas story into a ghost story – the arrival of the ghost of Jacob Marley.
Transform the cast
This year, actors R. Hamilton Wright and Amy Thone will don the tattered dresses and disheveled wig to become Marley, playing the character of every other night. (They also alternate as Scrooge.)
To transform the entire cast into these classic characters, ACT’s costume and wig departments put in hours of painstaking needle and hook work for weeks before the show, taking the steps of a cast of 20, resizing and adjusting old costumes, creating new costumes imagined by designers and directors, and giving a salon treatment to old wigs to make them ready for the show.
Breaking with previous years due to the pandemic, there will be no actors under 12 this year. (Tiny Tim, usually played by children ages 7-9, will be played by Ty Ho, 12). absolutely. Creating new costumes – like the new and beautiful flowy dress for Spirit 1, the first of the three Christmas ghosts – is a much longer process. From a simple drawn design, the costume shop creates an inexpensive cotton and muslin mockup and goes through many rounds of tweaks and tweaks before they’re ready for the show. Ditto for wigs.
Have you ever wondered how actors’ hair stays so perfectly in place and shiny after sweating for a 90 minute play? Two words: wig oven.
That’s right, the wig store has a “wig oven,” as costume store manager Amanda Mueller calls it. It’s basically a cabinet that can hold the mannequin head wig stands and works as a salon-style hair dryer. Once a week, wig master Joyce Degenfelder takes on the eight to ten hour task of washing, styling and replacing all wigs and facial hair. (Think of Scrooge’s signature mutton chops.)
Have you ever wondered how Mr. Fezziwig’s ponytail gets its curl? How does Marley’s hair straighten out? Degenfelder has tips for each of them. Fezziwig’s ponytail gets an insert of wire wrapped right in between shows. Marley’s wig is often hung upside down to let gravity do its work.
All this even before the opening of the show. On show evenings, the costume and wig departments come into action four to five hours before the curtain opens, washing and pressing the costumes, painting and putting on the wigs. Then, during the show, the costume team waits backstage with costumes laid out in any order they need, helping the actors get into their shoes and shave off the beards at times at record speed.
As the head of the costume store, Mueller oversees everything from dusting the costumes and taking them out of storage each year to details on the night of the show as to which costumes go where, on whom and when.
âMost actors play more than one character. It’s a very costumed show, âMueller said. âIt’s a choreography. Because we do the show every year, the components work like a machine. ”
“From isolation to the community”
What becomes 90 minutes of another-world immersion for audiences begins with weeks of 12-hour days full of costume and wig making and fitting, building elevators and hanging lights. Then, during each performance, an equally awe-inspiring dance takes place behind the scenes as technicians and clothiers, stage managers and actors move with timed precision to ensure the story unfolds seamlessly on stage.
And, as Thone says, “The play is not over until you have this final element.” – the returns, the public.
âThey see it for 90 minutes or two hours,â she said. âPerformance is just the tip of the iceberg and underneath is this vast submerged island. â¦ I love invisible work, it’s craftsmanship and it’s chaos and it’s love. I find that very satisfying, very moving.
For several of the show’s crew, this will be the first time they’ve done an in-person show in nearly two years, and they’re a little nervous.
âWe have come back from the global death of the entire entertainment industry for a long time. Overall it was just gone. Now it’s slowly pushing back, âsaid Farwell, the stage operations supervisor. “It’s just good to be back with my other family.”
ACT Artistic Director John Langs explains that this is why the story of “A Christmas Carol” seems particularly suited to the strange times we all live in.
The trip for Scrooge is “one of isolation from the community,” Langs said.
Still, this year’s âA Christmas Carolâ may look different than usual due to these weird times. Rehearsals continue with social distancing, masks, weekly coronavirus testing and, in some cases, limits on the number of people involved. These changes in the behind-the-scenes work, Langs said, could mean the story itself will be different as well.
âEveryone comes there anxious. Everyone comes there traumatized, âLangs said to a chorus of awkward laughter.
“We’re all kind of awkward ducklings that come back into that space again and say, ‘We used to do that. We liked it. We challenged it. There were some things that were wrong with that. What are we going to do now? ‘ What will our show be like because of the way we rehearse? We really don’t know.