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In A Difficult Season, 'A Christmas Carol' Takes New Forms To Fit A Pandemic

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St. Louis Shakespeare Festival
Passersby take in a reimagined version of "A Christmas Carol" told through art installations in the Central West End.

Stage adaptations of Charles Dickens’ short novel “A Christmas Carol” are typically the most-performed shows in the U.S. holiday season. They range from a one-man play to the lavish musical that has traveled to the Fabulous Fox Theatre for 28 engagements, dating back to 1982.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Rep announced plans to start a tradition this year with annual productions of a new adaptation.

Such performances form a reliable holiday tradition for many people.

The pandemic makes it impossible to hold them safely this year. Yet, some St. Louis organizations are finding ways to tailor Dickens’ story for these times and bring it to the public in a safe way.

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival and Painted Black STL translated the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, a miser who hates Christmas but is persuaded to change his ways, to a series of storefront art installations. Metro Theater Company produced a socially distanced reading of the book for a web stream.

There’s no grand spectacle onstage at the Fox this year, but the public may attend a behind-the-scenes tour of the theater populated by characters from the story, who dramatize a loose version of it.

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Metro Theater Company via video screenshot
Actress Ellie Kemper read from 'A Christmas Carol' for a web stream produced by Metro Theater Company.

In the process, some say they are helping to fill a community need that’s larger than just the hole in a theater’s season schedule.

“So many of the traditions, the shows, the gatherings, the celebrations that make this time of year special aren’t going to be possible this year,” said Tom Ridgely, producing artistic director of St. Louis Shakespeare Festival. “We wanted to have this sense of ritual that, even though you wouldn't be able to do this the way you normally would — at the Fox or wherever you’d usually see ‘A Christmas Carol’ — that there would be a way to honor the tradition.”

The festival’s collaboration with Painted Black STL yielded 22 storefront art installations in the Central West End neighborhood of St. Louis. They reimagine the story, largely from the perspective of Black artists and other artists of color.

To illustrate the part of the story in which Scrooge is shown examples of sharing and good cheer around the world, Charlie Tatum created a display featuring a dinner table set for essential workers. Surgical masks are strewn over a Christmas tree. A large screen hangs above, suggesting the way many people have invited others into their homes during the pandemic through video calls.

It isn’t the story of “A Christmas Carol” as folks are used to experiencing it. But it may be familiar enough to help fill a need for community traditions during a holiday season that has been transformed by the coronavirus.

“Taking refuge in those rituals and repeating the same stories every year reconfirm normalcy,” said Rebecca Messbarger, a professor at Washington University who has studied the ways artists make new work in response to calamity — like the spread of plague. “They reconfirm the cyclical nature of this time, that things are going to come back to normal.”

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Visitors to the Fabulous Fox Theater will be greeted by a festively decorated lobby as usual for this time of year, but theater leaders have devised new programming to replace the lavish musical that often appears on their stage.

The new offering at the Fox, dubbed “A Dickens of a Tour,” is not a staged production of the story. But the chance to do something — anything — like a performance in that space can offer a taste of pre-pandemic times.

“I got a little emotional,” theater artist Lara Teeter said of his first visit inside the Fox since it closed in March to prevent spread of the virus at shows there. Teeter has the unusual title of artistic director of a tour.

“I said, I’m standing on a stage right now when so many of my colleagues can’t be in a theater. I’m sorry, I have to take a breath here because I’m overwhelmed,” said Teeter, who is also head of the musical theater department at Webster University. “I didn’t expect it, but it really hit me like a ton of bricks.”

A reading of “A Christmas Carol” newly organized by Metro Theater Company looks like a lot of pandemic-era theater — it’s composed of short videos that participants shot in their homes. But it also harkens back to the tradition of public readings from the book, something Dickens did for many years.

The theater is asking people to preregister for streams of the production on Thursday and Sunday. It has received reservations from virtual audience members in 15 states plus the United Kingdom, emeritus board member Marcia Kerz said. “The way we’re celebrating the holidays this year is dramatically different from the way we’ve celebrated them in the past,” she said.

The positive response from audience members — and readers, dozens of whom participated — suggests the importance of preserving at least one holiday ritual, even in altered form.

“I think it shows the incredible need that families have to move away from what’s happening around us and enjoy something together as a family,” Kerz said.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

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