Theater Traditions

By Richard Schultz, December 2015 Issue.

Once upon a time, under the leadership of artistic director Matthew Wiener, Actors Theatre created an original musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that was written by Valley playwright Michael Grady with music by Alan Ruch.

The year was 1998, and the production was a festive favorite for the next 12 years.

According to David Ira Goldstein, Arizona Theatre Company (ATC) artistic director, the holiday season has not been quite the same since Actors Theatre, which closed in 2014, ended its annual holiday staging of A Christmas Carol in 2010.

“When Actors Theatre left the Herberger and stopped doing a Christmas show, a longstanding holiday tradition vanished from our community,” Goldstein said. “We have really felt this artistic gap in downtown Phoenix and have been looking for a way to add holiday programming to our productions.”

This year, Arizona Theatre Company aims to start a new holiday theater tradition with the staging of two seasonal productions: The Santaland Diaries, featuring Ron May (pictured), and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a one-woman tour-de-force starring Katie McFadzen.

“Really the idea, for me, started with the artists – Ron May as Crumpet the Elf and Katie McFadzen as Dickens’ Scrooge just felt right,” Goldstein said. “When I was able to add Matthew Wiener to the team, the man who gave us such a loving Christmas Carol all those years, we all felt that this was a project to tackle.”

“If the community embraces this, we do hope that [these] become a holiday tradition in the same way that Actors Theatre’s A Christmas Carol did for so many years,” Goldstein said.

The Santaland Diaries

The Santaland Diaries evokes what a slacker’s Christmas must feel like. Out of work, the slacker decides to become a Macy’s elf during the holiday crunch. At first the job is simply humiliating, but once the thousands of visitors start pouring through Santa’s workshop, he becomes battle weary and bitter.

Taking consolation in the fact that some of the other elves were television extras on “One Life to Live,” he grins and bears it, occasionally taking out his frustrations on the children and parents alike. A change in Santa startles the elf into an uncharacteristic moment of goodwill just before his employment runs out.

“I’m playing the author David Sedaris,” May said, founding artistic director for Stray Cat Theatre. “This is a first person account of this horrible, awful, soul-deadening job. I’m really just doing my best to channel my inner, ‘I can’t believe that I’m an adult and THIS is the job I signed up for. Please someone just kill me.’ I’ve had plenty of those jobs and, ultimately, that’s kind of the crux of the humor.”

However, May believes that Sedaris’ humor will appeal to the LGBT community.

“There’s such an incisive, dry sarcasm to the whole thing. It’s the perfect anti-holiday holiday story,” May said. “Everyone could sympathize with the overgrown gay elf who’s like a flesh and blood version of a refugee from the island of misfit toys.”

A Christmas Carol

McFadzen, an associate artist with Childsplay theatre, believes that the universality of A Christmas Carol and Dickens’s immortal words “can resonate with all people. People have the ability to change their lives and in doing so can help change the lives of others.”

In May, Goldstein approached McFadzen regarding a one-woman version of this timeless holiday favorite.

“When I asked him about a script and he said there wasn’t one,” she said. “We’d just use the novella, which would take about three hours to perform. So, we knew we would need to edit.”

McFadzen and Wiener, the show’s director, worked on the script together.

“[We] found an abridged version that Charles Dickens used when he did public readings and used that as a starting point,” she said. “Over a period of five weeks, we compared and contrasted the novella and the abridged version. We did some cutting and adding, and ended up with what will be our script.”

McFadzen acknowledges that the biggest acting challenge will be doing scenes where two or three characters are having dialogue. But, it’s a challenge McFadzen said she’s up for.

“We are focused on finding the humor in the story of Scrooge’s emotional journey and ultimate change,” she said.

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