Save the Bible, there is no book more integral and inseparable from our understanding and cultural interpretation of Christmas than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. When the book was first published in 1843, Christmas was a somewhat somber and quiet affair, influenced by Puritans who warned against adapting such pagan symbols as trees into the Christmas celebration. But the tide was slowly turning; Nostalgic Victorians in England were beginning to unearth and sing once again the old carols, and the first ever Christmas cards were being sent. A Christmas Carol capitalized on this slowly building movement to make Christmas a joyous holiday once again, and Dickens’ spooky, secular tale that emphasizes the joys of togetherness and caring for one’s fellow man, became an instant classic.
But one of Dickens’ chief inspirations for A Christmas Carol came from the writings of Washington Irving, who wrote fondly of the old British Christmas traditions alongside his tales of headless horsemen and ne’er-do-wells who wander off into the Catskills for a nap. Two centuries later, storyteller Jonathan Kruk is connecting these two authors once again.
Kruk and his accompanist Jim Keyes have been performing The Legend of Sleepy Hollow every autumn at the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow. About four years ago, they decided to branch out.
“Jim said to me, ‘Look at this beautiful old church, we’re doing so well with The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, what about doing another ghost story for the Christmas season?’” explains Kruk. In olden times, ghost stories were synonymous with Christmas, and many a night during the twelve days of Christmas were spent telling tales such as Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. But A Christmas Carol turned out to be the perfect fit for the space.
“The setting of the church is ideal for the ghost story as the church is lit by candlelight, and the ancient shimmery windows of course, and the magnificent pipe organ that Jim uses to create all the different motifs for the ghosts,” says Kruk. “And the church is intimate. We only sell 150 tickets, so that enhances the effect. It’s as if I was telling it in your living room for the holidays, instead of watching the Mr. Magoo version on the television.”
Kruk has now performed the story hundreds of times throughout the region; In addition to the usual run of shows in Sleepy Hollow he’ll be performing at Olana just outside the city of Hudson on December 12.
“It can be exhausting,” admits Kruk. “I do three shows a night at the Old Dutch Church. But I get buoyed by the audience, the redemptive quality of the story, the church organ. And of course, Vitamin B12.”
David Anderson, of Hudson’s Walking The Dog Theater, knows a thing or two about endurance as well. He’ll once again be performing his own one-man version of A Christmas Carol in Hudson this season. Like Kruk, Anderson has performed the show numerous times in numerous places, but always finds something new in it each time.
“I’ve done over 100 performances of it by this point,” he explained. “So it’s not about knowing the story anymore, it’s about deepening the experience. What does it take to be so present with an audience and invite this story to speak so that we are all taken on this journey of this character together?”
Anderson’s adaptation has gone through many changes throughout the years. He originally came to A Christmas Carol by stepping into another one-man production of the show just days before opening when the original actor bailed. Anderson’s friend Ted Pugh came to see the show, was impressed with his performance, and suggested that the two of them create their own adaptation of the piece for Walking The Dog Theater. Eventually they developed an upbeat, boisterous affair with original music and based on the live performances of the piece that Dickens himself used to do.
“Originally I did it as Charles Dickens,” said Anderson. “He performed this version of it himself, he’d enter the room and everyone would know who he was, he would be Charles Dickens telling his story. So I would play Charles Dickens telling the story.” But after a few years, Pugh and Anderson began to feel that they weren’t quite getting at what the story was really about.
“So we took it all away” explained Anderson. “We took the music away, took the props away, took the costume away, and said ‘What if we just let the story come alive between the actor and the audience?’ I play all the characters, but I’m really in the room with the audience, and we’re going through the story together. Suddenly it came alive in a completely new way. That’s how I’ve been doing it every year. Every year we take a different route into exploring it further into deepening the journey.”
The Ulster County Ballet’s original version of A Christmas Carol went through its own journey to become the modern Hudson Valley classic we know today. Twenty years ago, the dancers in the company came to choreographer Sara Miot with a humble request: Was there any way that the company could mount a Christmas related production that wasn’t The Nutcracker? Tchaikovsky’s beloved masterpiece has become so ubiquitous for contemporary dancers that they were, quite frankly, a little bit sick of it. There were no other Christmas ballet dances in the canon so Miot had to create one. The idea of adapting A Christmas Carol for ballet came up, but Miot wasn’t convinced until she thought about the story while listening to the work of the 20th Century British composer Vaughan Williams, whom Miot had grown up listening to. Suddenly, certain pieces of Williams’ work seemed to be a natural fit for different parts of Dickens’ tale. But the biggest challenge was yet to come.
“With The Nutcracker or Sleeping Beauty, the music is written for the story so a lot of the story telling work is already done for you,” explained co-Artistic Director Scarlett Fiero. Miot had to comb through all of Williams’ work and select pieces that created a narrative throughline.
They started small, staging just a few scenes from the first third of the story, to see how the audience would react. Every single costume was borrowed from another theater in the area. The initial reaction was positive enough that they added a bit more of the story the next year, and then more the following year. It took a total of ten years to finally finish staging the entire story – and by now, they finally have their own costumes.
Be they spooky, intimate or lavish; all three productions of A Christmas Carol agree on what it is that has made the work endure since it was first published over 170 years ago.
“This isn’t just something to look at that’s pretty,” said Fiero. “It sends a strong message that you have to be accountable for your actions and that you have to ask yourself what is really meaningful in life. The story still gives hope in a very dismal time, that we are capable of change.”
“If Ebeneezer Scrooge, the old miserly humbug can be transformed into a worthwhile human being, then there’s hope for all humanity,” said Kruk.
“It’s like a resurrection, isn’t it?” mused Anderson. “If we go into the dark of the story, hopefully what is dark and needing transformation in us becomes awake to that, so when we come out of it, we come out of it illuminating the darkness a little bit more. Otherwise, why would we all want to revisit this story every year?”
Brian PJ Cronin is a freelance writer in Beacon, NY. You can find him online at brianpjcronin.com and on Twitter as @brianpjcronin.