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Improv Life: “A(n Improvised) Christmas Carol”

This holiday season marks my fourth year of performing the role of Belle/Mrs. Cratchitt in “A(n Improvised) Christmas Carol” at Unexpected Productions. (We typically double-cast, so I have been sharing the role with Sarah Scheller since joining the cast.) With opening night just 3 days away, I’m in a reflective mood.

Seattle area folks, good news: you can come and see me in A(n Improvised) Christmas Carol this season for just $15! I am in 11 performances this year… I’m in all Thanksgiving weekend shows (8:30 Friday/Saturday, 7PM Sunday) and in December I’m appearing Dec 3, 4, 8, 10, 17, 18, 19 and 22. On all other nights, the lovely Sarah Scheller covers the Belle track. Click here for tickets – Advance ticket purchase STRONGLY recommended; shows routinely sell out.

My first Christmas theatrical production was back in 2005; I played Mother in a production of A Child’s Christmas in Wales. It was… a disaster. The show itself was fine, but the experience was a bit dreadful. 11 children – and all their parents crammed into the green room. I was entertained by the one little boy who had a crush on me because I made video games, but other than that the show wasn’t very fulfilling and the drives in holiday traffic were super stressful. I resolved never to do a holiday show again.

Fast forward a few years, and I joined the ensemble at Unexpected Productions. The ensemble is expected to perform in TheatreSports, but many branch out to do our mainstage shows at 8:30. One of those, each year, is A(n Improvised) Christmas Carol. The actors in it generally raved about the experience. A few years passed watching this before I decided to toss my hat in the ring. In 2013, I joined the cast in the role of Belle, Scrooge’s love. The following year, the cast size was dropped from 7 to 6, meaning that the Belle actors took on Mrs. Cratchitt as well. And so it is this year again: I’m very happy to join the cast once again for the 2016 production.

Each year has been a little different:

  • 2013 was, of course, learning the show for the first time. Chaotic, as each of us not playing Scrooge plays 2-6 roles, usually switching roles in back to back scenes. More than any other improv show (and many scripted ones), learning the show is about the choreography of getting yourself to the right place at the right time.
  • In 2014, the experience was changed by the addition of the role of Mrs. Cratchitt, and by the experience of doing the show in parallel with my husband, who was Marley at ACT’s Christmas Carol that year.
  • 2015 brought a lady Scrooge for the first time in recent memory, which definitely led to a different dynamic since both Belles were also women. I also suggested we add a brief dance number (since almost every telling has one at Fezziwig’s) and I was delighted to see that suggestion successfully added. (It’s still in this year!)

2016 has meant more tech rehearsals, as we now have a completely new lighting system with intelligent spotlights and LEDs for the first time. The cast is also extremely veteran, which is good since this year has also been marked by a certain unease about how audiences will respond. To be perfectly blunt, audiences since the election are a tightly coiled spring, and while we still hope the holidays will provide healthy escapism there’s definitely an undercurrent we’re swimming against.

But the greatest gift the Carol experience has given me is not entirely unlike the gift the Grinch received, with his heart growing three sizes. I long resisted the holiday season; I’ve got a winter solstice birthday that in childhood and adulthood usually can’t be celebrated with friends because of events and travel. That, plus the previous experience with holiday shows, really pulled me out of the season. Seeing the audience responses (and reviews) for Carol have really opened me back up to the joy of the season. The story, especially in our retelling, is surprisingly secular, and yet healing in its themes of human connection and warmth. The thirty (yes, 30) suggestions allow us to modernize the story somewhat, but it still remains timeless. And even though the plot remains essentially the same, it’s amazing how much variance we can find within the structure of those thirty suggestions.

The Roles

Playing the role of Belle really speaks to my interests as an improvisor. As a longform improvisor at heart, I am drawn to chances to emotionally connect to roles and characters. More than anyone else in the show, Belle has a chance to humanize Scrooge and take him from evil caricature to a flawed but real person that might elicit empathy from the audience’s own lives. Some nights I do better than others, and I want to continue to work on it this year. The primary challenge lies in the fact that the bulk of our time together onstage is the breakup, so Belle has to find a way to simultaneously call Scrooge out for being a terrible fiancé while painting a picture for the audience of why they got engaged in the first place.

Mrs. Cratchitt is strangely more of a comic role – the more we are ancillary to Scrooge’s life, the more flexibility we have to incorporate the suggestions. But still, she has a deep love for her ill son, and we get to see an arc in her too (and often in her relationship with her husband.) The comedy from the suggestions doesn’t play as well if our love and emotional commitment to each other doesn’t read clearly. Our “track” also plays a caroler, one of the solicitors, “Turkey Boy”, and Scrooge’s childhood friend. Turkey Boy – the street urchin Scrooge sends to buy Christmas dinner for Cratchitt – is a fun contrast to the rest.

Though each performance is fully improvised within the frame of the classic Dickens story (aside from some direct references at key points in the story), it takes a lot of preparation. We take the source material seriously and review it each year both the original text and various media. We had 20 hours of rehearsal this year (high for an improv show, even more so one that has only one new cast member.) And with 30 suggestions per performance, we must all be students of popular and classic culture, as the breadth of subjects we often must reference is vast.

Favorite Memories

As far as favorite memories, they float back to me piecemeal, as it’s hard for the human brain to remember dozens of shows over 4 years’ time, especially with the volume of suggestions. I also hesitate to spoil too many suggestions, as even the same suggestion can be taken in new ways. But one of my favorite Belle/Scrooge breakup scenes was set at Chuck E Cheese’s, with the Ghost of Christmas Past set in a horror genre. One by one, the ghost took out the actors portraying the animatronics behind us, as our scene continued unscathed.

Another moment didn’t so much have to do with audience suggestions as chance. Above our theater is a wedding venue, and – apparently – they sometimes use the same wireless microphone frequency. There we are, in the dramatic graveyard scene. Scrooge is begging not to be forced to see his gravestone, and the Ghost of Christmas Present points silently.

Suddenly, an unfamiliar voice begins speaking over the audio system. “Heyyyy ladies and gents. Hope you’re having a good time out there on the dance floor. It’s last call for alcohol, so get yourselves to the bar before it’s too late!” As an actor onstage, one’s reactions go into slow motion: (1) Who in the cast is doing this? (2) Oh wait we’re all onstage. Is this someone from the TheatreSports show? Nope. No one in the wings. (3) Is this going to end soon? (4) Oh god the whole show is ruined! How will the audience respond? Of course, aside from Scrooge and the Ghost we’re all playing statues and fairly stuck.Eventually the moment stopped, the announcement over. A moment of silence. Then the Ghost of Christmas Future walked wordlessly offstage, and returned a moment later with a beverage. The audience loved it, we moved on, referenced last call once more in the show, and the show lived on in infamy. IMPROV!

Audience Response

The audience reviews are also a big part of what makes the show so fulfilling. These are just some of the audience reviews from the 2015 Carol shows on Yelp – (my heart grew an extra size from all the 5-star reviews):

  • “Just got back from seeing An Improvised Christmas Carol, and I couldn’t have loved it more. The theatre space is wonderful and intimate and really allows the actors to connect with audience (which they did multiple times throughout the show). I did not stop laughing for more than a minute or two during the hour and a half show- it was THAT funny! The actors are incredibly talented, and use the audience suggestions for the story to their fullest potential, allowing for many hilarious moments.”
  • “An Improvised Christmas Carol was hilarious and amazing! We went on Friday, December 11th and enjoyed every minute. The improv suggestion for movie genre was musical and the cast staged an amazing impromptu dance number to “Halo”. Do yourself a favor and see Unexpected Productions “An Improvised Christmas Carol” so you can laugh your stress away! We could not stop laughing.”
  • “An Improvised Christmas Carol is a Christmas tradition for my friends and I. We go at least once every year. A great show!”
  • “A very good experience. We experienced, ‘An improvised Christmas carol’. Going in I was a bit skeptical but the act was very professional, funny and replete with moments of amazing acting. Overall I completely enjoyed it and would recommend this is show as a great way to spend a weekend evening.”
  • “What an absolute gem of a theater and crew! I joined a friend to come see the production of An Improv Christmas Carol, and it was HILARIOUS. I’ve seen many a Christmas play, but this version is one I won’t soon forget.”
  • “We had the best date night at improv Christmas carol last night! My sides hurt, my eyes teary. I think we’ll probably bring our family back before the Christmas season, and make this an annual event for our family.”

Giving Thanks

Thanks to my UP Carol family for helping my heart grow bigger each holiday season. Looking forward to making more audiences happy with you this year. One can never say whether the streak will continue next year – Randy may choose to shake up the cast, or I’ll take a year off to allow more holiday/business travel. But each year when it comes time to submit myself for consideration, I find that I want the chance to brighten people’s holidays far more than the flexibility to celebrate on my own time. And once we begin rehearsals, I’ve got Christmas stations on repeat as I drive to rehearsals and performances, even in November. I’m a bit of a changed woman thanks to Carol.

If you’re looking for more Carol memories, I blogged about my 2014 experience (the year when both my husband and I were in Carol productions: mine improvised, his scripted) — “A Tale of Two Carols”.

Whether you’re joining us for the show or simply celebrating your choice of holidays in your own way, may they bring you comfort and joy.

To join us for the 2016 run of “A(n Improvised) Christmas Carol”, head over to Eventbrite to purchase advance tickets. $15 with discounts for large groups. Cheryl is appearing November 25, 26, 27 and December 3, 4, 8, 10, 17, 18, 19 and 22.