Seeing a stage production of A Christmas Carol is par for the course when getting into the holiday spirit—perhaps just as important as trimming a Christmas tree and decorating cookies. There are currently 40 productions of Dickens’s classic tale taking the stage at TCG member theatres across the country, in varying adaptations that play off the story’s themes of compassion, forgiveness, and holiday cheer. Dallas Theater Center (DTC) has presented artistic director Kevin Moriarty’s adaptation for the past four holiday seasons, which places Dickens’s classic tale within a factory during the Industrial Revolution.
This year, another layer has been added to the DTC production (running Nov. 30-Dec. 28)—women are playing the roles of both Ebeneezer Scrooge and Jacob Marley. American Theatre caught up with Sally Nystuen Vahle, who plays the miserly Scrooge, to learn about her preparation for the role and how the casting choice has affected the story’s central themes.
How are audiences receiving Miss Scrooge?
Very positively so far! The audience reaction has been very positive.
What do you think this casting twist brings to the character of Ebeneezer Scrooge?
On opening night, a couple of people came up to me and said ‘I was really, really surprised by how affected I was when I heard Marley referred to as a her, and saw Scrooge come out at the very beginning of the prologue and it was the silhouette of a woman.’ It made them realize that some sort of an interesting glass ceiling has been broken in this production—imagining that these characters might not only ever be men. Steven Michael Walters who directed the play was very, very interested in really trying to bring out the humanity of this story rather than the fable-like quality of the novella and that sensibility. I’m hearing from people that they are feeling more connected to Scrooge’s journey—getting more of a thrilling sense of how Scrooge became the Scrooge that they meet at the beginning of the play as they go back and experience Scrooge’s past, and obviously present and then future.
Scrooge is the owner and leader of a factory in this adaptation. How do you think the election outcome has factored into this portrayal of Scrooge and Marley as women?
We all were in rehearsal when the election results were coming in and I think that everybody felt that it was maybe more important than ever to see a woman in a story where a woman has power and has to contend with all of what that is. Kevin Moriarty arranged the beautiful music, and I’ve been hearing from people that they’ve been particularly moved by one particular moment in the play, that speaks to them about what some of them are feeling the state of the world and the country is in at this moment. It is a traditional hymn that Scrooge sings called I Heard the Bells.
I heard the bells ringing out peace on earth
And then I hung my head in despair
There is no peace on earth
For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men
I think that moment is one that resonates with people beyond the world of the play. People are reflecting perhaps about their own place in the world and where they perceive things to be or not be depending on how they connect.
Scrooge is a very complicated, multi-layered character. What has your experience been like taking on this iconic role?
It’s been a real treat actually. I love complicated characters just generally speaking, as an actor. I’ve done many productions of A Christmas Carol over the years—many times playing Belle when I was younger, and I took a crack at Mrs. Cratchit a couple of times. I’m somebody who has always been very moved by Scrooge’s journey.
I think what has been a real interesting and rich experience in connecting with the character, and finding out who this person is, for me has been that Scrooge does a lot of watching, observing, and listening. In my opinion, there is a lot of self investigation and self work that happens for Scrooge when Scrooge isn’t saying anything. And that has been a really interesting discovery to make and an interesting exercise to have to live in night after night, performance after performance, while keeping engaged. It resonates for me in different ways, the different times I hear things. Some of the richest, most moving moments for me have been in the listening and responding and the watching—and engaging in that process of weighing in as the character.
As a member of DTC’s resident acting company, what are some of your favorite past roles on the Wyly Theatre stage?
This is actually my first time back doing A Christmas Carol in 11 years. I have taken some time off from the production because I had younger kids at the time and I also teach college.
This is my first time acting in this particular adaptation. The most recent role that I played at DTC as a member of the acting company was Medea in Medea. I’ve done all sorts of interesting roles, I’ve been very fortunate. I was Annette in God of Carnage, I was in Clybourne Park, I did Cabaret some years back, and Death of a Salesman playing Willy Loman’s wife—which was a very challenging, wonderful role. I’ve had a really fortunate run with stimulating, rich, complicated characters. What a treat as an actor!
Now you can add Scrooge to the list! How has being in this show gotten you in the holiday spirit?
It’s like getting shot out of a cannon when you do A Christmas Carol. We started rehearsals on Nov. 1 and we opened on Nov. 30, so it was a very quick process. One of the great things about acting in a production of A Christmas Carol is that it really throws you into the world of Christmas very quickly. But in a more complicated way—a complex, good way compared to like walking into a Target and seeing Christmas ornaments up before Halloween has even happened.
There is something about being grounded in the core themes and ideas that Dickens brings into play in A Christmas Carol that has a ripple effect, as least for me, in how I am moving through my own world. Especially playing Scrooge, it amplifies for me moments when I am being more Scrooge-like than I probably should be or would ever would want to be. It also brings Christmas around full-circle. Being in A Christmas Carol puts extra pressure on you to be a little more organized around the holiday with Christmas shopping and cookie baking or whatever it is a person does as part of their rituals in getting ready for the holiday. Just because it is a time-intensive, many-shows-a-week kind of a schedule. It has got me thinking about the elements of Christmas that matter the most. And that has been illuminating and interesting because I just haven’t been immersed in the world of A Christmas Carol like this in a long time. It has been a cool rediscovery.
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