Ann Arbor hosts a unique take on ‘A Christmas Carol’
The auditorium seats at Ann Arbor’s Power Center for the Performing Arts will be empty for the National Theatre of Scotland’s (NTS) production of “A Christmas Carol,” which runs through Jan. 3.
But that’s not because of low ticket sales — although only 150 tickets will be sold per night due to the highly unconventional presentation of Charles Dickens’ classic story. Audience members will sit onstage in an enclosed set for the offices of Scrooge and Marley.
“You are literally transported back in time,” says the show’s director and designer, Graham McLaren. “You experience the show within a Victorian room, and that room has a ceiling, walls, a floor. It feels like you’re on a film set, and the show happens around you, in front of your eyes, inches away from your nose.”
McLaren conceived the production in 2008 as “a kind of boutique, bespoke show for a small audience.” The Ann Arbor run marks the fourth time theater company has produced the show, and the first time it’s been produced outside Scotland.
The Power Center is actually the most traditional setting the show has yet occupied. The NTS, which bills itself as a “theatre without walls,” doesn’t own a venue and stages its shows in a variety of unusual settings. In previous runs, “A Christmas Carol” ’s enclosed set has been erected inside an old town hall, a shopping mall and — McLaren’s favorite — a church.
“The audience had to walk through an old 15th-century graveyard to get to this Narnia-esque door that said ‘Scrooge and Marley,’ and from that they walked along a corridor into this room,” McLaren says.
The production introduces another unexpected element by using puppets to portray Scrooge’s lengthy dream sequences, as the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future visit him. It’s here that the show takes a somewhat spookier turn. The production is recommended for ages 8 and up, but McLaren insists it’s “absolutely” for children of all ages — “providing they want to be terrified.”
“I have yet to meet a kid who doesn’t want to be terrified and scared,” he says. “My daughter, when she was 5, saw this show. She was terrified and she said, ‘Let me see it again, Daddy.’ ”
The University Musical Society’s presentation of the show is the result of more than two years’ work to find an Ann Arbor-area site suitable for the production. The society initially considered presenting the show at a Christmas tree farm and several other venues before settling on the Power Center.
The society’s programming director Michael Kondziolka says the Power Center’s traditional space still poses some challenges in staging the very nontraditional production.
“It’s not until you do something that’s overtly different that you realize how wed everyone is to the rituals that they know,” Kondziolka says. “The No. 1 challenge we’ve had is getting everyone ... comfortable with thinking about using the space differently.”
Kondziolka and McLaren are both tight-lipped about some of the specifics. There will be surprises, they say, in how audiences will find their way to the set in the first place — and even in what they’ll be sitting on once they get inside.
McLaren mentions that advances in Bluetooth technology have allowed him to improve upon “tricks” he developed for the show seven years ago. What kind of tricks?
“I’m not going to tell you,” McLaren deadpans. “If I told you, I would have to kill you.”
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.
‘A Christmas Carol’
Dec. 17-Jan. 3
7:30 p.m. Dec. 17, 22-23, 29-30; 8 p.m. Dec. 18-19, 26 and Jan. 2; 2 p.m. Dec. 19-20, 22, 24, 26-27, 29-31 and Jan. 2-3; 6 p.m. Dec. 20, 27 and Jan. 3; 9 p.m. Dec. 24 and 31
Power Center For the Performing Arts
121 Fletcher, Ann Arbor