A Conversation with the Adapters of A Christmas Carol

amyFeatured, Season 15-16

In 2014, Perseverance Theatre commissioned Arlitia Jones and Michael Evan Haney to adapt Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for the stage. This new adaptation had its World Premiere last year in Anchorage. Co-adapter Arlitia Jones, an Anchorage-based playwright, began her writing career as a poet. She has won many prizes for her writing, including a 2013 Individual Artist Fellowship from the Rasmuson Foundation, allowing her to dedicate four months solely to writing. Co-adapter and director Michael Evan Haney, currently one of Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s associate artists, has directed A Christmas Carol each year for over 20 years. He has directed shows all across America and internationally, in more than 100 venues. This year, as Perseverance Theatre prepared to mount Arlitia Jones’ and Michael Evan Haney’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol once more, we spoke with both adapters about the magic of A Christmas Carol.

Q: What is the appeal of Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol?

Michael Evan Haney: I like to describe A Christmas Carol as the second greatest story ever told. That’s why it has flourished for 150 years as the go-to story at Christmas time. Dickens’ use of language rivals Shakespeare’s – and I think his storytelling surpasses Shakespeare’s. Dickens’ stories are populated by characters who are just so memorable. And real; everyone has known a Scrooge. We’ve also known a Cratchit family, a nephew Fred, and a Belle – Dickens’ characters are recognizable to us even in our modern-day lives. Although Dickens wrote pre-Freudian, and the reason why Scrooge was a miser did not interest him in the way that it interests a modern audience, we get a sense of Scrooge’s loneliness in the scenes from childhood. We are told that Scrooge is “as solitary as an oyster.” Losing Belle hurts Scrooge so much that he builds up a hard, protective shell so that he never has to feel like that again.

Arlitia Jones: Dickens has always been one of my favorite authors. I started reading his novels in junior high. I devoured his diction and humor and larger than life characters with their funny names and eccentric habits. It was college when I learned Dickens first wrote A Christmas Carol as part of his wish “to deliver a sledge-hammer blow on behalf of the Poor Man’s child.” A Christmas Carol was indeed a smashing blow. The darkness in his novels is heavy; the light when it comes is blazing. Dickens was never afraid of extremes. I think I’ve always been a sort of “old fashioned” writer. I love the high style of the Victorians with their complex sentences and their “four-cylinder” words, as an old-time Alaskan friend of mine (who could’ve passed for a modern-day Fezziwig in flannel and denim) used to call them.

Q: What was the adaptation process like? How did you prepare and what was important for you to keep in mind while working?

MEH: I’ve been doing this play for many years, and I knew that this adaptation needed care and attention to be done well. The richness of Dickens’ language is one of the most beautiful things about A Christmas Carol, so we’ve tried to stay as true to Dickens’ original language as possible – anything less would be a disservice to the audience. Like Shakespeare, Dickens requires of his audience that they engage with this elevated language and embrace it. We wouldn’t try to modernize Shakespeare’s language, and we shouldn’t try to modernize Dickens’, either. For this adaptation, Arlitia put the words on the paper and I edited, rearranged, gave notes, and together we came up with a final version. Lots of scenes lifted directly off the page, but other scenes had to be dramatized based on passages in Dickens’ novella that were written without dialogue. Arlitia took those parts and crafted the words and made it sound like Dickens – and at the same time, it has a little bit of her in there, too.

AJ: Before beginning work on this adaptation, I steeped myself in Dickens for several months, reading Bleak House for the first time, rereading Great Expectations, and rereading A Christmas Carol at least once a week. Working with Michael Haney has been one of the most rewarding collaborations I’ve had so far in theatre. His very real connection to the story and his understanding of Scrooge’s dilemma and final redemption kept the script focused and tight. Michael was definitely a guidepost for me when I tended to spin out on a tangent, lost in the beautiful language of 19th century London. Together we’ve shaped an adaptation we’re very proud of, that stays true to the original story and its intent. Most of the dialogue in the original novella is preserved in this stage adaptation. In the in-between sections, when I had to make it up, I did what all playwrights do–imagined what it would be to be in the lives of these characters. Most of them are so familiar to me. In rehearsal this year I had to come up with some ad lib lines for the Cratchit family as they are coming to table with Christmas dinner. I could have had them say anything, but there is Mrs. Cratchit carrying that goose and what came to mind was my brother and I when we were the ages of the Cratchit children, how every time any kind of fowl was served to us our first thought was for the wishbone. So the Cratchit children bring their wishes to table and this production becomes deeply personal for me.

Q: What makes A Christmas Carol important?

MEH: The message: that we’re all fellow travelers to the grave, and we need to help each other, and love each other, and especially help those who are needy. And unfortunately, that message needs to be heard every year. The story of Scrooge’s reclamation is the perfect lens through which to learn that lesson: he starts out alone, he’s got all this wealth, he doesn’t put it to good use (he doesn’t even splurge on himself and send it back into the economy) – he just hoards it. Then when he learns the joy of giving, it makes him cry, and it makes us cry. Hopefully this play makes you want to be a more generous human being, especially at this most wonderful time of the year.

AJ: A Christmas Carol tells the truth about us in a very fundamental way. Deep down we are kind and generous and our need to receive love is as strong as our need to give love. I think we all have a Christmas Carol moment in our lives. For me, it was when I was very young moving with my family to Alaska. I’ll never forget our first Christmas so far away from back-home, we were welcomed into a long-time Alaskan’s home who knew that while my family didn’t have much in the way of material possessions, we brought love and kindness and we were so grateful to share it among friends. Every time I see A Christmas Carol, or read it or even watch the Fezziwig party in rehearsal, I am that seven year old girl again welcomed inside out of the cold Anchorage night to a Christmas feast in a room full of laughing people. The Christmas Spirit is real. The story asks us to think about the future. The Ghost of Christmas Present warns Scrooge that Tiny Tim will die if “these shadows of the present remain unaltered by the Future.” In the end there is redemption, Scrooge’s, Ours, all of Mankind’s. After a night of hauntings, in the morning there is still time to change our lives, to reverse the courses of Ignorance and Want, by thinking of our fellow travelers on this earth. That’s the power of A Christmas Carol.