Community partner spotlight: McCarter Theatre Center

This year, the library, like many other institutions, has had to reconsider its core values and find new ways to serve the community. One of the biggest lessons many have found is that we go farther when we work together. At a time when we cannot necessarily visit our friends and family or welcome them into our homes as we might have at the end of 2019, we look to our partners at McCarter Theatre Center to see how they are bringing the show ‘home’ and reimagining gathering and celebration.
 As Dickens wrote in 1843, “It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.”We spoke with McCarter’s artistic engagement manager, Paula Alekson,  to learn more.

“A Christmas Carol” at McCarter is a tradition for thousands in the area. How many years has McCarter held performances of the play? What is McCarter doing to address this season’s special circumstances in which the theater must remain closed? 

December, 2020, actually marks the 40th Anniversary of “A Christmas Carol” at McCarter Theatre Center!

It was under the artistic leadership of Nagle Jackson (McCarter artistic director 1979 -1990) that a production of a dramatized version of the story became a holiday theater-going tradition. The first adaptation of the novella, written by Nagle himself, premiered on the Matthews Stage in December, 1980. Under Emily Mann’s artistic direction (1990-2020), the tradition was renewed with three different, stunning versions — all adaptations (though not the same adaptation) by David Thompson — and our newly minted artistic director Sarah Rasmussen was adamant when she joined us in August that the theater would find some way to continue the tradition for our audience, despite the necessary closing of the theater due to the COVID-19 crisis, and from that, A Christmas Carol@HOME—starring YOU! — was born. A Christmas Carol @HOME features a cleverly curated, beautifully packaged box filled with scenes to read aloud or fully perform; postcards of characters from the story to color and send; and conversation cards that capture the themes of the story and ask for personal reflection on the impact of those themes in our own lives. The intention is to allow McCarter patrons and families to create a personal “A Christmas Carol” and ignite the spirit of Dickens’ classic tale in their own homes.

As of this moment, A Christmas Carol @HOME is a sellout, however, for those who weren’t able to order a box, McCarter is offering free access to our online “Beyond the Box” portal, which includes a link (in the “Starring YOU!” section) to the most recent draft of David Thompson script for McCarter so that everyone can create their own “@HOME” experiences of “A Christmas Carol.” We hope people who do so will post photos and videos of their Beyond the Box adventures, whether they decide to act out their own scenes, create a costume or drawing of their favorite character from the story, or cook or bake one of the Victorian recipes from “A Christmas Carol” contributed to the library’s Engage Princeton Recipe site. We’d love to be tagged on FacebookInstagram, or Twitter for anything inspired by this project!

Historically, the library and McCarter have come together to read “A Christmas Carol” aloud, so we know it has a lot of fans – What makes it so special?

It is just such a wonderfully crafted story by a master storyteller. Charles Dickens intentionally wrote the story as a novella to be read aloud at the holidays — it can be read in one sitting, actually. Reading it thusly — and hearing others read it communally — is such a remarkable experience. We laugh together at Dickens’ cleverness, his comical sensibilities, heartwarming depictions of Ebenezer’s favorite memories, of familial love shown by the Cratchits, and the joy and mirth of people who are especially generous of spirit, such as Fezziwig and nephew Fred. And we are duly surprised by the story’s more horrifying passages — it is a ghost story after all! — as well as its heart-wrenching descriptions of characters’ agony and regrets. There is one passage at the very end of Stave One, as Marley is departing, where Scrooge looks out the window to see the air filled with phantoms struggling to try to make up for their neglect of the poor and the needy while they lived— I actually got that passage to read at the very first “A Christmas Carol” Community ‘Filibuster’ event and I cried through the passage as I read it — it is one of many moving moments not often included in stage or filmic adaptations of the story. I wonder who will read it this year.

I also have to add that partnering with the Princeton Public Library and its staff every year to read the novella also makes this event very special. You are more than community, you are family! And though we can’t be together at the library this year to read the novella, drink mulled cider, and eat cookies together, I am so happy that we can continue this tradition of the novella reading virtually for 2020. My great hope is that we will be back in-person next year — though we will have to find a way to include our new non-local friends in the event.

How are you inviting the community to join the fun this year?

We collaborated with the library for “A Christmas Carol” Community Virtual Community Read-Aloud   We also invited people to celebrate “A Christmas Carol at Home.”

 What are some universal lessons from “A Christmas Carol” that we might take with us into 2021?

No passage from “A Christmas Carol” resonates for me more than when Jacob Marley’s Ghost admonishes Ebenezer Scrooge when Scrooge remarks on Marley’s business prowess while he was alive. Marley “cries,” according to Dickens, “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business, charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all my business.” (Stave One) Sometimes we lose the meanings behind the word we hear, read, and use; we sort of know what they mean, though we might not actually be able to define them. I urge everyone to look up the definitions of charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence and to intentionally live into those words, as Ebenezer Scrooge eventually does in the story of “A Christmas Caro.” Taking action, living into the actions of those words will be transformative for the people you help, forgive and show compassion and goodwill toward. And you yourself will be transformed. This is the lesson that Ebenezer learns:

“Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.” (Stave Five) 

Dickens originally thought he might write a political pamphlet entitled “An Appeal to the People of England, on Behalf of the Poor Man’s Child,” to make a difference, but instead of simply appealing to people’s intellects, he appealed to heads, hearts, and spirits through the writing of a gorgeously entertaining ghost story that continues to teach us how and why we are each responsible for uplifting and enriching the lives of others. A story like that is worth reading every year, don’t you think?

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