‘A Christmas Carol’
When Ford’s Theatre realized it couldn’t reopen in time to mount the annual production of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” they looked to another medium to keep a 33-year-old Washington holiday tradition going.
Not only a beloved institution but also a financial boon that dependably sells out for six weeks annually, “A Christmas Carol” is a genuine mainstay for Ford’s. “We were hoping we could make it work with social distancing and smaller capacity audiences,” says Paul Tetreault, director of Ford’s Theatre. “But shortly after Labor Day, the writing was on the wall.”
The Ford’s creative team went feverishly to work on how to move forward with an engaging, alternative way to present the mid-nineteenth century ghost story starring D.C. actor Craig Wallace as Ebenezer Scrooge, the miserly old Londoner who changes his coldhearted ways after a series of chilling yet illuminative Christmas Eve visits from three very disparate spirits.
The team’s first thought was to make an audio version available to patrons via website. But Tetreault had another plan. He thought, “If we’re going to go to all the trouble of recording why not try and get it on the radio like an old-fashioned radio play? It would be Ford’s gift to area listeners.”
After hitting some dead ends, Tetreault reached out to Murray Horwitz who runs “The Big Broadcast,” a weekly show of vintage radio programming on WAMU, Washington’s National Public Radio station. Horwitz and the station were soon on board with Horwitz in the role of narrator and a broadcast date set for noon on Christmas Day.
“So little good has come out of this pandemic. There’s just been one frustration after another,” adds Ford’s out director. “This is one of those times when two great D.C. non-profit institutions can partner and bring some cheer to DMV audiences. I’m thrilled about it.”
Radio is new territory for the historic theater. Adapted and directed by Michael Wilson with sound design and original music from John Gromada along with expert help from Ford’s stage management team, the project has come together with few hitches and many unforeseen delights, says Tetreault.
At two acts in one hour, the radio play is shorter than its in-person counterpart. “The script is tighter, but it captures so many familiar elements,” says Tetreault. “And the actors have done a brilliant job in conveying characters with just audio.”
Naturally, the pandemic presented unique challenges. While many cast members recorded their parts remotely from home, those who recorded at Ford’s were set up alone in separate rooms. Most were scheduled on their own day so that the room could be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected between each actor.
Radio plays typically can get by on a skeleton cast, but Ford’s is using the 18 actors originally signed for this year’s stage version whether they have two or 200 lines. (In addition to Wallace as Scrooge, the 18-person cast includes Stephen F. Schmidt, Rayanne Gonzales, and out actor Tom Story.)
“While it’s not six weeks of work, it’s a way to say you’re important, you matter, we want to keep this going,” says Tetreault.
And while listeners will need to imagine the top hats, Christmas turkeys, boughs of holly, and Justine “Icy” Moral flying high above Ford’s stage as the Spirit of Christmas Past, Tetreault is certain the audio version more than holds its own, especially now.
“After the year we’ve had, the radio play will be real tonic. It will make people remember we had great times before and we’re going to have great times again. And it’s things like ‘A Christmas Carol’ that are going to get us through.”
“A Christmas Carol” will be made available: to Ford’s Theatre Members on Dec. 7; to the public on Dec. 14, via the Ford’s Theatre website, fords.org/carol-radio; broadcast on WAMU 88.5 FM (D.C. area) Dec. 25 at noon ET. And WAMU will make the broadcast available to other public media stations nationwide throughout December.