Art Beat: Creating spirits to haunt 'A Christmas Carol'


HomeHome / Blog / Art Beat: Creating spirits to haunt 'A Christmas Carol'

Dec 09, 2023

Art Beat: Creating spirits to haunt 'A Christmas Carol'

Adapting a classic piece of literature for film or stage can be a challenging

Adapting a classic piece of literature for film or stage can be a challenging task. Perception of beloved characters is subjective and colored by what people visualize as they read a story, or view on stage or screen.

Countless interpretations of the 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol, range from stage adaptations from as far back as 1844, to film versions from 1901 to the present day (who can forget Scrooge McDuck in Disney's animated version and Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit in The Muppet Christmas Carol?) — even a ballet and opera.

Although Charles Dickens was detailed in his description of the characters, this well-known story of love and redemption is a wonderful opportunity for interpretation.

Geva's acclaimed production of A Christmas Carol debuted in 2010. Directed and adapted by Mark Cuddy with music and lyrics by Gregg Coffin, this sparkling production draws together a stellar team of designers and artisans, and is a feast for the eyes and ears.

The first spirit to haunt Ebenezer Scrooge — the ghost of his seven-years-deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, is described by Dickens as "in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights and boots; the tassels on the latter bristling, like his pigtail, and his coat-skirts, and the hair upon his head … the chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound around him like a tail. … His body was transparent." As a costume designer, how does one approach this?

Costume designer Devon Painter commented, "Scrooge probably thinks he and his life are basically all right, and Marley is the first warning saying: ‘No, you are not all right.' Marley needs to be truly scary, gruesome enough to be truly gross and uncomfortable."

She was inspired by images from the Catacombe dei Cappuccini in Palermo, Italy, where monks and Italian nobles are dead, but not buried. There, bodies of the deceased were preserved and embalmed and prominently displayed in their vestments or contemporary fashion, creating a visual historical record.

The character of Marley is played by actor Remi Sandri, who also plays several other roles in Geva's production. In order to make quick changes possible, the costume department created an ingenious full head mask for Remi, who also pops in creepy contact lenses to create the effect of a walking cadaver. His period frockcoat is bedecked in chains — the costume itself weighs 45 pounds. He makes a conspicuous entrance through the audience and is a frightening (and noisy) figure to behold. The effect is startling.

This is but part of Scrooge's journey to redemption, for after the darkness comes light in the form of the Ghost of Christmas Past.

This is the character perhaps most open to interpretation, especially for a stage production. Dickens describes the Ghost of Christmas Past as: "a strange figure — like a child: yet not so like a child as an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium. … Its hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin." Some versions portray the character as an older, wiser and kindly woman; others a child and still others a more androgynous character. Geva's production celebrates light and the character is played by a young girl, cast from local auditions.

As she is "otherworldly," she descends from the heavens and is suspended in midair — taking Scrooge through a flying journey of his past, both happy and sad, reminding him of the person he used to be. The young actress playing the Ghost of Christmas Past is first fitted for a harness, as she will be suspended 12 feet from the stage for roughly 20 minutes.

Painter designed a long, flowing, iridescent gown made of many layers of translucent white and opalescent fabric and a fiber optic crown for which the actress is equipped with a battery pack. Lighting designer Paul Hackenmueller designed a moving rain-like pattern projection on the dress to convey a sense of hovering. Long, white hair and light makeup complete the ethereal look of someone wise beyond her young years.

Most people equate the Ghost of Christmas Present with Father Christmas, albeit with a very serious message for Scrooge. Dickens describes him as a "jolly giant" wearing a "simple green robe, or mantle, bordered with white fur. Its feet are bare and he wears a holly wreath set here and there with icicles."

In Geva's production, when the character of Christmas Present first appears, he wears a sumptuous green robe with soft, white leather boots. He is meant to age during his time with Scrooge, as Dickens says, "While Scrooge remained unaltered in his outward form, the Ghost grew older, clearly older," and when we last see him, he has aged considerably and the robe now hangs on him ponderously. Painter designed a second robe for this scene, one that was much longer, and voluminous enough to mask the presence of two sad, sickly children: Want and Ignorance.

For the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come, Geva employs some of the latest theatrical technology in the form of a projection — an all-seeing eye that appears on the giant clock face on the back wall of the set. It follows Scrooge's path across the stage during the entire future scene. There are also two ghostly figures that appear and disappear above the audience that are based upon the Harry Potter Dementors. Adapter and director Mark Cuddy was inspired by Scrooge's imagination for the final spirit. "By this point, Scrooge is all but convinced that his life has been ill-used," says Cuddy. "His conscience is in overdrive, weighing heavily as if being watched (the eyeball) and conjuring deep and dark images (Dementors) to which he finally declares his changed ways. It's a frightening journey for Scrooge."

Geva has been producing a stage version of this story for nearly 30 years and generations of Rochesterians have made it part of their holiday tradition. However you like your spirits — frightening or jolly (I prefer mine on the rocks) — Dickens’ characters remind us of the message of goodwill to all mankind, a message that is particularly needed in these times.

A Christmas Carol runs at Geva Theatre Center through Dec. 24.

Community Art Beat shares contributions by Cultural Classics arts community professionals. The author, Dawn Kellogg, is communications manager at Geva Theatre Center.