Corrections or additions?
This article by Jack Florek
was prepared for the December 19, 2001 edition
of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Making `Christmas Carol’ Magic
Do you remember when the existence of magic was an
absolute fact? When honest-to-goodness miracles, like catching sight
of the summer’s first lightning bug, waking up to a foggy morning,
or contemplating the existence of the odd little people living inside
the TV screen, were occasions of deep mystery and wonder?
To children, magic happens all the time. It is as common as your
voice calling you for dinner or your father’s wingtips heading up
One of the casualties of acquiring a formal education is that this
sense of wonder tends to get tamped down by the practicalities of
adult logic. The need to get good grades, acquire status, and buy
expensive toys wrenches control of much of the space formally reserved
for good old-fashioned enchantment.
But once in a while it is still possible for even the most callous
adult to reexperience a bit of the old childhood magic. McCarter
current production of Charles Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol,"
now on stage through Sunday, December 30, provides just that
It is a fresh but faithful retelling of the old story, elegantly
fast paced, well-acted, and chock full of magic — you can count
a flying Scrooge, fairies popping out of nowhere, and ghosts
into the woodwork.
That all this magic should come due to the efforts of what is arguably
the hardest working stage crew in any area theater gives credence
to the finger waving of teachers from Thomas Jefferson Elementary
to Hogwarts Academy: Sure, magic is possible, but it takes a lot of
I had the opportunity to experience the nuts and bolts of magic-making
first hand, as Stephen Howe, McCarter’s stage supervisor, invited
me backstage during an actual performance. There I learned about the
delicate mix of elbow grease, high-tech computer technology, and
fortitude that it takes to make the stage magic of "A Christmas
Carol" a reality.
"Most theater people wouldn’t consider themselves military
says Howe. "But what we do backstage to keep the show running
smoothly takes the same dependability, willingness to act on faith,
and capacity to take orders that is required in the military."
It’s no secret the McCarter’s "Christmas Carol" has become
a Princeton tradition. It began with artistic director Nagle Jackson
who introduced it to Princeton audiences in 1980, and the holiday
show has continued to evolve over more than 20 years. This year is
only the second year out for the latest production. Adapted by David
Thompson and directed by Michael Unger, it features scenery by
designer Ming Cho Lee, costumes by Jess Goldstein, lighting by Stephen
Strawbridge, and music by Michael Starobin.
A good indication of the overall quality of this production is the
way that magical effects are comfortably integrated into the show,
never overpowering it. Returning in the role of Scrooge is John
Jones in an excellent performance that mixes just the right dose of
"bah humbug" with a hardy self-effacing humor. The
cast is equally lively, particularly Harriett D. Foy, new in the role
of the ghost of Christmas Present, and Michael Mandell as old Mr.
Fezziwig. Mark Niebuhr is back as Scrooge’s former business partner,
Jacob Marley, and Simon Brooking plays Bob Cratchit. Each and every
one of the show’s 12 child actors gives a lively performance, adding
a great deal to the quality of the evening.
Lee’s multiple set design is, before all else,
Utilizing a palette of rich London grays and slightly exaggerated
forms, Lee creates a world evocative of both the repressive realities
of life for England’s working poor of the 1840s with the breezy air
of enchantment that is so central to the story.
Two large movable sets dominate the stage. The interior of Scrooge
and Marley’s place of business is a two-story, three-ton office on
wheels, complete with a full-size staircase, bookshelves, a wooden
desk with a tiny candle perched on top, and a small metal stove for
heat. "It’s great, but it’s damaging the floor," says Howe.
"It’s made of 6,500 pounds of steel, and most of that weight is
on the second level, so it’s top heavy. Next year we’re probably going
to have to redo it."
Scrooge’s bedroom, built at a jaunty, off-kilter angle, is dominated
by a huge canopy bed complete with bed curtains and a larger-than-life
armchair. Weighing in at a mere 2,800 pounds, this also has a small
staircase that leads up to a doorway, as well as a big yellow wall
clock, a throw rug, and a wooden chest at the foot of the bed.
Howe introduces me to Dave Cain, a member of the crew. "I’m in
charge of magic in the bedroom," Cain announces with a chuckle.
Cain is the man behind every magical effect in Scrooge’s bedroom.
This includes operating the clock, blowing nitrogen out of a hose
that suddenly shoots Scrooge’s nightcap up out of his wooden clothes
chest ("we use nitrogen rather than air," says Cain, "it
provides more oomph"), as well as assisting in the mysterious
appearance and disappearance of Marley’s ghost. Other duties include
helping in the glitter clean-up, and playing "rock, paper,
with the three Fairies of Christmas Past in between scenes.
In a show dependent on visual effects, it is important for the crew
to make certain every detail is taken care of, and sometimes, it is
best to utilize high-tech equipment for the smallest embellishment.
"The flickering candle on Bob Cratchit’s desk is really controlled
by a small computer chip," says Howe. "When I first started
working on these shows we always used real candles with real flames,
but this way is so much better. What if an actor forgets to blow it
out? Besides, I think it looks very real."
Yet there are also times when the low-tech solution is preferred.
Jim Sergeant pushes a prop piano onstage using an old fashioned
and Cain creates a convincingly portentous rapping at Scrooge’s
door by simply tapping a stick onto the floor. "Sometimes we tend
to get too computer conscious," says Howe. "It’s good to
that sometimes it’s better to do things by hand."
The vision of Scrooge flying through the air is a great crowd pleaser,
and it is made authentic by a series of harnesses and strings provided
by Flying By Foy, the preeminent theatrical special effects company
based in Las Vegas that has been making actors fly ever since the
days of Mary Martin’s "Peter Pan" of the 1950s.
"They’re very thorough," says Howe. "Early on, they came
in and took all of John Christopher Jones’ measurements," says
Howe. "Then they come back and try it out. If it’s uncomfortable
for him, they redo it. Finally they spent two whole days teaching
him how to fly. He learned that if he sticks his arms out a certain
way, he’s going to go over, or if he turns another way he’s going
Matt Colt operates the mechanism that keeps Scrooge aloft. "It’s
a tricky business, and timing is crucial," says Howe. "Matt
does it completely by sight. He has to have a good eye, watching the
actor very carefully. When Scrooge hops up, Matt has to make sure
he hits it just right so that Scrooge just keeps on going higher."
To many people, the Ghost of Christmas Future is the highlight of
the show, adding that touch of horror-movie spookiness to the holiday
story. The McCarter production is no exception, having developed a
12-foot-tall mechanical puppet, swathed in lightweight fabric, that
is operated by Jim Augustine and Piper Goodeve. The figure is so wide
it must shimmy its way through the backstage area in order to make
its stage entrance.
"Last year it required three people to operate it," says Laura
Fasano. "But this year we were able to refine it a bit, so now
it only takes two." As she says this, the giant puppet steps in
front of me and ominously extends a giant bony finger my way, nearly
touching my nose. "Both Jim and Piper are natural puppeteers,"
says Howe. "They could make the ghost snap its fingers and gyrate
to disco music if they wanted to. It’s pretty amazing."
Gabe Shackney works in what is called "the netherworld,"
the trap doors from beneath the stage from which a number of key
and exits are made.
"I have to catch Scrooge at the end of the first act and make
sure he hits the mat just right," says Shackney. "The first
lesson the actor learns is to make sure you keep your mouth closed
because otherwise it’s easy to bite your lip or tongue." Shackney
is also the crew member who is in charge of gluing the flash-paper
to Scrooge’s tombstone. At the precise moment he hears his cue,
sends the tombstone up to stage level and ignites it.
During the month-long run of the show, the crew will use approximately
$500 worth of flash paper, as well as $500 to $600 worth of dry ice
to create the fog effects, and $1,000 worth of glitter.
"We use the most expensive glitter you can buy," says Howe.
"We have to — the cheaper glitter contains a kind of metal
dust that can get into the eyes and damage the cornea."
During the week of technical rehearsals before the show opens, the
crew may work as many as 90 hours. The process of setting light
devising cue sheets, and figuring out who should do which job and
when, is a delicate process that is open to constant revision.
always trying to figure out the best way to make things work,"
says Howe. "Sure it takes a lot of time, but it’s all worth it.
Everything we do is for the audience."
As "A Christmas Carol" draws to a close, the actors go through
their curtain calls, standing in the light as waves of applause wash
over them. At the same time Howe stands in the wings, watching and
smiling, holding Tiny Tim’s leg brace. "You have to be a special
kind of person to do this sort of work," he says. "You have
to be motivated and well educated, because we work with some pretty
high-tech equipment back here. Yet you also have to be humble enough
to mop the floor after the show."
As actors rush past on their way to their dressing rooms, the crew
is already busy fetching those mops and setting up for the next show.
"Sure, everyone on this crew could be working other jobs that
pay more money," says Howe. "But it’s true what they say about
theater — there’s something about it that just gets into your
— Jack Florek
Place, 609-258-2787. Www.mccarter.org. $29 to $47. Through Sunday,
McCarter is collecting non-perishable food items for the needy and
new, unwrapped toys to donate to Kids-For-Kids of New Jersey, a
non-profit that provides community services for abused, impoverished,
emotionally disturbed, disabled, and terminally ill children. The
organization was founded in 1995 by Carly Rothman, now a Princeton
High School senior. Her sister Daryl is in the cast of "A
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