24 December 2008

Memories of a Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

Here it is, the twenty-fourth of December, 2008. On the twenty-third, I wrote a short reflection on the novella A Christmas Carol, and I mentioned that when I was a high school sophomore I appeared in a play version of it as The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. (Most people refer to it as The Ghost of Christmas Future, but Scrooge initially calls it The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, and I prefer this archaic phrase. Still, in the program for the play, I was identified as The Ghost of Christmas Future, so I’ll have to live with that.)

That Winter Solstice of 1988—now two decades in the past—remains my fondest memory of the holiday season, and one of my favorite times in all of high school. I’ll crave your indulgence—sounding a bit like Dickens narrating one of his novels—to discourse about this time and how much I still think about it when the end of the year approached. Consider this my minor version of Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory”—my favorite holiday story after A Christmas Carol—although I don’t pretend to have his skill in the telling of it.

I participated in my school’s drama program from seventh grade on. I went to a six-year school, Windward School in West Los Angeles, which had a tiny student body of three hundred for all six grades. I enjoyed playing characters and being on stage, but I wasn’t much of an actor, and I didn’t like the business of the “drama world” I discovered when I went to college, where I decided that I didn’t want much to do with stage or acting.

No, I never had any illusions of becoming an actor—but I loved the world of imagination, and playing small parts in costumes, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream in eighth grade, where I played the Wall, was something I looked forward to each fall in school. (I never participated in the Spring musicals: I can’t sing, and I don’t generally enjoy musical theater any way. Now, if somebody would do a stage version of Phantom of the Paradise….)

At the start of tenth grade, I found out that the drama program would put on a dramatization of A Christmas Carol for the Fall show. The performances would be in early December, the perfect time for the play. I was thrilled, since I had loved Dickens’s story since I first saw the beautiful Chuck Jones-produced animated version in the ‘70s. I had read the novella numerous times, seen every filmed version I could, and could recite almost the whole damn thing. I also knew which character I wanted to play: The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The inscrutable nature of the character had fascinated me since I first knew the story. I wasn’t one of the top performers among the drama crowd, but I knew that this was a part I could play. No dialogue, so no one could object to my delivery. But I believed I could bring something special to the part because I had such an interest in the Ghost. For the first and last time in any drama production, I told the director during the auditions which part I wanted to play… and that I was dead serious that I could do the best job in the part. She finally consented, although she might have had reservations, but as nobody else was clamoring for a part with no lines and a mostly obscured body and face, what the heck. Let Ryan play the damn thing. So a childhood dream came true, and I was the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

The rest of the casting fell into place easily. This was the largest cast yet for a Windward School drama production, and everyone from the seventh grade to the seniors took part, many of them not regular drama performers. This added to a wonderful, collaborative feeling to the project. It was such a warm experience, and I got closer to many people in our tiny school that I would sadly not interact with much afterwards. But I was glad to get to know them during the long hours of rehearsing into the mildly cool Southern California Autumn and Winter. A large dramatis personae, but a cozy experience.

There was no question who would play Ebenezer Scrooge. Senior Joel Kleinberg was the most skilled actor in school, and always got the largest parts. Although great with comedy, he also had the exact right frame for Scrooge, and once he was deep in his old man make-up he was spot-on in the part. (In an interesting case of method acting, Joel put gravel in his shoes to help him with an elderly walk.) In fact, I wonder if the director, Carol Rusoff, hadn’t selected the play in the first place because she knew Joel could hammer the part down in a way that nobody else could. I’m sure no one else was even considered.

The casting of Tiny Tim was another no-brainer. A seventh-grader name Daniel Mirell was the perfect look and size for the part, and the moment Carol saw him in the halls, she was begging him to audition. Probably would have drafted him if she had the power, but he was willing. And he was great.

My two fellow spirits of Past and Present were senior Becky Sanders and freshman Benny Silverman. (Yep, we had a Jewish Ghost of Christmas Present. I love Los Angeles.) As the ghosts we formed a sort of bond, even though we never shared the stage together. We would have made an interesting band, with Benny on bass, me on piano, and Becky doing vocals: The Ghosts of All Time Jazz Trio! We were Scrooge’s and the audience’s guide through the story, and we took pride in that. We also got to stand on stage uninterrupted for twenty minutes each. Not many actors get that pleasure. (Of course, this created its own problems—especially considering the arduous make-up and costume I had to wear.) We didn’t have much interaction with the other undead character, David Helvey as Jacob Marley. He never seemed that interested in the production, but he certainly delivered an intense, shrieking ghost of Scrooge’s dead and tortured partner.

Because Christmas Carol has so many wonderful characters wandering through it—this is Charles Dickens, after all, master of the unforgettable oddball persona—there was plenty for the other top actors in the school to do. Howie Hallis played Bob Cratchit, and Alex Enberg (sportscaster Dick Enberg’s son, and who has since gone on to a regular acting career with a recurring role on Star Trek: Voyager) took on a number of the more grotesque comic roles that were his speciality. He played a urchin who assaults Scrooge on the street, jolly Mr. Fezziwig in the Past sequence, and most impressively the slimy Old Joe in the pawnshop who cackles and chortles as he buys the clothing of the dead Ebenezer from the other scavengers. Thinking back on the way Alex played this scene, it strikes me that he sounded a lot like the way Heath Ledger played The Joker in The Dark Knight. Pretty weird. Christopher Scott, one of the most buoyant personalities in the school, was the clear choice to play the buoyant Fred, Ebenezer’s nephew who just refuses to give up on the old man. (“Merry Christmas Uncle, and God bless you!” he says over and over again as Scrooge tries to bully him out of the office with the growled “Good afternoon!”)

Adaya Maesrow-Nissan, who would be my senior prom date two years later, portrayed a number of different roles. Principally, she played Martha Cratchit, the oldest of the Cratchit brood—the one who plays a joke on her father by pretending that she wasn’t able to come home for Christmas Eve because there was too much work at the milliner. She also played a toy peddler in the opening street scene, which was our small way of showing the bustle of Dickens’s London that appears so wonderfully on the page. Considering our small stage and cast (just about everybody doubled up to appear in this scene) we did a good job of creating a miniature version of 1843 London on Christmas Eve. Yes, we had plastic snow chips everywhere—I helped re-distribute them after each performance.

The carolers in the street scene (who included the girl who would play Belle, Ebenezer’s betrothed from the Past sequences, and Tiffany, who would play Fred’s wife in the Present sequences) were one of my creative contributions to the story. Carol, the director, knew that I had a deep interest in the story and the history of the period, so she had me re-write parts of the script to reflect the novella better. She also had me choose the Christmas carols for this scene to reflect the popular songs of the days. I chose “I Saw Three Ships,” “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” (note placement of the comma), and “Lo, How E’re a Rose Is Blooming” to get the authenticity—and I had to teach the singers the lyrics and the melody.

Most people played more than one part, and since my main character didn’t appear until right after Intermission, I played two more tiny parts. The first was “Undertaker,” which was no more than a piece of stage business required to wheel Jacob Marley’s body across the stage in a wheelbarrow so Scrooge can see it. In the novel, Scrooge sees an entire funeral carriage barreling up the stairs of his house, and we certainly couldn’t do that. I was chosen for this simple silent role because it was meant to be symbolic of the character I would later play, a death-like specter. The real star of the scene, however, was the ghastly squeaking of the cart’s wheels, which set the mood without any help from me.

My other part was as a supernumerary in the Fezziwig party in the Past sequence. I actually spoke here, but not written lines, and not so the audience could understand. I stood in a corner and chatted with the seventh grade girl, Nicole, who was playing my daughter, and Hoody, the actor playing Dick, Ebenezer’s best friend and one of the major characters in the scene. The three of us ad-libbed some drivel about favorite English cheeses—I guess I was the Victorian version of Wallace from Wallace & Gromit. The job was merely to add chatter and party atmosphere to the scene. I didn’t like playing the part, not because it wasn’t fun, but because it meant a much quicker costume change to give Lisa Weisbart, the make-up artist, time to start altering me into the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. This was a bit stressful, and I was always worried that I wouldn’t make it in time for my appearance—even though I had the rest of Act I and the Intermission to finish it. I took the part very seriously, so I was always concerned that it might not come across right.

Ah, the make-up. Lisa and Sarah Kleinberg (Joel’s older sister) did an amazing job with the various creations. Joel and David (Jacob Marley) required extensive old-age make-up and bald wigs, and the final affect was astonishing. Benny’s Ghost of Christmas Present got a lighter job, but it was designed to give him a reddish, slightly unreal glow under the lights. Becky and I also got extensive jobs. My make-up, although visually the most striking on stage, was actually the simplest, since it required no specialized blending or realistic effects. I was “skeletonized,” blackened eyes, white face molded into a skull’s visage, and skeleton teeth spirit-gummed over my mouth—which meant I really couldn’t talk and had to use hand signs to ask people when the Intermission would be over. Forced method acting.

How were the three ghosts portrayed? Always the key question in an adaptation of A Christmas Carol. I was the most traditional of the three, and looked very close to Dickens’s description: clothed all in a flowing black robe with hood, white hands protruding from the sleeves. The skeleton face was an addition, since Dickens describes the spirit as having a completely hidden visage. I originally thought this was how it would be done, and I was perfectly willing to play the part with my whole body disguised. But the director and costumer decided seeing my eyes would make the part better, and the skeleton face was too startling an effect to pass up. The Inverness cloak I wore was immense, a huge flowing spot of inky darkness that made me look ten feet tall and an imposing blotch of nullity from a nightmare. I was very pleased with the way it turned out; once I got fully into costume and make-up, it was impossible not to play the part.

The other two ghosts had changes wrought on them. The Ghost of Christmas Past is always the toughest one to present, because Dickens’s description is maddeningly obscure—on purpose, I’m sure—describing an androgynous figure of indeterminate age that gives off its own light and seems to shift shape depending on how long you look at it. Becky Sanders as the ghost was done in an ethereal blue robe of glowing tatters and a similarly shaded face. Her emergence from the armoire was a startling moment because she looked so genuinely unearthly. There was a moment, when she first appears and stares off into the audience when you think she might be playing the character blind. It was quite remarkable. I should also admit, twenty years later, that Becky Sanders was a gorgeous, tall woman and I had a secret crush on her. There.

Anyway, Becky played the part similar to how the spirit appears in the book, despite the physical change: gentle, soft, but with a passive-aggressive edge that maddens Scrooge as it tours him first through the ups and downs of his youth and finally to his failure when Belle rejects him. (“Be happy in the life you have chosen.” I can still hear the girl playing Belle—damn, what was her name?—delivering this line with a perfect mix of iciness and regret.) Becky took the acting note to play the Ghost as if it were made of glass: fragile, any sharp move would shatter it. It was a wonderful performance and fit the mood of the past sequences.

The Past section also included a role for one of my closest friends at school, Lily Thompson, who played Ebenezer’s joy-filled little sister Fan. “A delicate thing, whom a breath might have withered,” the Spirit says. Funny, because that sure isn’t the way Lily is in real life!

With the Ghost of Christmas Present, the production faced a problem. Dickens’s character is a towering Father Christmas figure, boisterous and robust. We didn’t have anyone who fit those dimensions. So the character was re-imagined as a jolly, comic elf-like character, or, as I liked to call it “the Christmas Geek.” He was dressed in green vest and pants with a holly wreath around his head, and gave something of a leprechaun vibe, if a leprechaun had gotten lost and ended up in December. Benny Silverman, one of the funniest guys I knew in high school, had the part nailed down. He was a comic riot and made a perfect balance to the solemn and slow Past sequences. Benny came up with a lot of the comic business himself, but it never distracted from the story—and the audiences loved it. The dinner scene with the Cratchits occurred here, and it was one of the best moments in the production. But Benny also played well the Ghost’s moments of anger with Scrooge, such as the awesome “Decrease the Surplus Population” speech. And his final moments, with the introduction of Ignorance and Want (the two actors playing these orphaned monsters were really scary) he was suddenly straight-out nasty. “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”

Which lead right into my entrance. I entered through the window over Scrooge’s bed, and stood on a platform that was bolted into place right after the Ghost of Christmas Present was dragged under the bed to make his disappearance. A fog machine poured a massive amount of London pea soup around me as I threw open the window. It was a real stunner of an entrance: a black shrouded, death-headed figure enshrouded in a billowing wall of mist. Each time it caused a sharp gasp from the audience. It was a magnificent feeling, and the best experience I ever had on the theater stage.

Playing the Ghost was difficult. Simply because the spirit does not speak doesn’t mean it’s easy to play, and I knew that when I sought the role. The physical demands were heavy. I spent the entire twenty minutes I was on stage perched on top of the bed, which was canted toward the audience to allow a better view of it, which meant I was on a slippery, slanted surfaced covered with a comforter, wearing a floor-length heavy black robe that I could easily step on if I moved wrong and trip myself. Any sudden moves on the Ghost’s part would wreck the atmosphere on stage, and as this was the grimmest and gravest section of the story. The Ghost of the Christmas Yet to Come going splat in the middle of the Cratchit’s mourning scene would be a play-killer, to put it mildly. Also, the spirit gum that attached the skeletal teeth appliance over my mouth was both itchy and made it impossible for me to move my mouth without ripping the device off. I constantly worried that some grimace would cause it to fall, which would be another moment-killer.

In summation, playing the Ghost was stressful even before considering the performance. But this tension helped me with playing it. I had thought through how I wanted the ghost to move, passed on through an assimilation of the novel and the many film versions I had seen, although I was most affected by the way the Ghost was portrayed in the 1984 George C. Scott version released to U.S. television and theaters in the U.K. I knew that economy of movement, deliberately slow gestures, use of my hands, and an inscrutable intensity would leave the right impression. The Future is unknown, dark, and impossible to fathom. It speaks through directing attention, not through interpretation. That was how I approached the Ghost.

I was proud of what I did. It’s the only time in my short time acting in high school that I felt that way about a performance I gave. Carol, the director, paid me the only compliment I ever received during my six years in the Windward School drama program: “Ryan, your intensity in that part is wonderful. I’m glad we cast you.” I know she had reservations about putting me in the role, but I tried to live up to the part.

I also had the honor of standing on stage during the production’s best scene: the Cratchits mourning Tiny Tim’s death. The actors playing the family nailed this one shut, powered through Dickens’s dialogue without any additions. Audience members later told us how amazed they were with the emotional power of this scene. Daniel Galvadon, a wonderful teacher and humanitarian (he volunteered all his time outside of school to a children’s hospital), said he could barely get through watching scene, and he came to see the play three times because of it. My own contribution to the scene was small: I “summoned” it onto the stage with my outstretched hand, and then stood sentinel over it. I’m sure my presence as a black, death-like figure over it helped the gravity, but my only contribution to the scene other than at the beginning was to slowly lower my head and hide my face as the family hugged each other and Bob Cratchit says, “Then—I am happy,” before the scene closes. Scrooge then question me about whether these are shadows of things that will be or, or only may be. I turned my head slowly up to meet his eyes from my reverent bow, and there was this electric second for me. This was one of the moments I remembered so intensely in the story from a young age, and I was thrilled to take part in it.

Of course the story ends in joy, and Joel Kleinberg as Scrooge hit all the right notes as a man so suffused with love of life that he can hardly contain himself. I don’t think Joel was really acting, either… the enthusiasm of his laugh was simply too rich and real. Unfortunately, because of the nature of the staging, the play had to conclude at Fred’s party, when Scrooge stops by to interrupt the “Yes and No” game (“It’s your Uncle Scrooge!” he shouts, to win the round) with a Christmas tree. In the previous scene, he had come in to the Cratchits’ home with the goose, where in the novella he sent it anonymously. A very warm ending for a play, of course, but it meant getting rid of the novella’s concluding scene, one of my favorites, where Scrooge surprises Bob Cratchit the next morning at work, first pretending to be his old miserly self, and then springing on Bob with a salary raise. (I understand why Bob Cratchit wanted to reach for a ruler and brain ol’ Ebenezer, assuming he had gone bonkers.) A great scene from Dickens, but sacrificed to have as much as the cast as possible on stage at the end. Made bows easier too, and I usually took my bow in my costume, but with my make-up off. That way, people could actually say “Oh, it was Ryan Harvey in the part!”

It wasn’t a perfect show. There were a few scenes that didn’t work. The Fezziwig party was a problem from the beginning; it seemed like forced enjoyment instead of the glowing celebration that Dickens wrote, where a few pounds brings everyone a night no one would ever forget. Our version fell flat, even with Alex Enberg as Fezziwig giving it his best as an enthusiastic host. I think part of the problem was that most of us in the scene (remember, I was there) played more important characters elsewhere and got placed in the party to fill up the crowd. Not until the scene shifted to its important drama—young Ebenezer, Dick, and Belle—did it come into focus. During rehearsals the party scene was a dead fish; the director even commented: “The Fezziwig party—was that a bummer.” It improved for the actual performances before audiences, but it never was one of the production’s prouder moments.

I also disliked the first scene the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows to Scrooge: two men discussing callously another man’s death. In Dickens this occurs in a place of business, where a few fat and pimply traders nonchalantly discuss the death as if it were a boring lunch conversation. It captures the business world that Scrooge lives in, and how it won’t miss him a damn bit. The way our production played it was two buddies meeting in the street, possibly drunk, and joking uproariously about the dead man. It didn’t work, it was too forced. I’m glad the next scenes, the Pawnshop of Doom and the Cratchits’ Sorrow, were strong and compensated for it.

There were also a few acting choices that just didn’t sit well with me at the time, and still don’t. The little boy who Scrooge greets from his window on Christmas morning was plain weird. Damon Needleman, a friend of mine at the time, decided to play the part with an annoying kiddie whine. I don’t know how the director allowed him to get away with it. And for some reason, the costume budget must have run out at this point, since the character was dressed in a near-modern snow outfit. All the other characters had perfect early Victorian costumes rented from a theatrical costume service, but this one character ended up a bit—1988.

Overall, however, it was a superb production for a high school play, and the praise we got from students, parents, and teachers was above anything I had heard about a drama production before or since at Windward School. Joel Kleinberg was always a great actor, but he was something astonishing as Scrooge. The production design was perfect, the tech crew made miracles with the lighting to enhance the mood, the make-up was ethereal, and the cast worked together as an ensemble. The last two weeks of rehearsal and the week of the play in December were utter magic in which I felt I had stepped into the Dickensian world. I can still smell the paint on the sets, feel the heat of the gel lights on me, catch the acrid odor of the fog that shrouded my entrance, and recall the crunch of the plastic snow under my feet as I helped to sweep it up after another successful show. I started to become close friends with Adaya during the production, and enjoyed a great friendship with Lily during our long time waiting backstage. I knew, after it was over, that I really didn’t want to do any more acting (although I still did two more shows in junior and senior year, neither of which I enjoyed) because I had done the part that meant the most to me in a production I didn’t think I could better. With Charles Dickens’ words in my ears, I started to turn more seriously toward writing.

And that, in my long-winded way, is the story of my favorite Winter Solstice ever.

Whatever holiday you celebrate, and even if you don’t celebrate one, may the end of the year bring you happiness and hope, and may the next year be the best of your life.