Reporters write the story. It isn’t often we have the honor of becoming part of it.
Yet that’s exactly what happened during the auditions and late night rehearsals of Carrollwood Players’ A Christmas Carol, opening Friday and running through Dec 22.
Having been cast in a small role, I was able to learn firsthand what goes on behind the scenes when putting on a production as large as this. With a cast and crew of 42, ages ranging from seven to ~70s, A Christmas Carol is one of the playhouse’s larger shows.
With over two dozen Saturday and late night rehearsals under our belts, despite 42 distinctly different personalities and acting level – first-timers to seasoned professionals, the cast has become an extended family.
It has been an incredible journey to see the transformation from reading directly from the script in our street clothes in September to “Sink or Swim” a night that tested line memorization in early November, to Monday’s first dress rehearsal or “tech week” dubbed "h*ll week" where the cast got to see everyone transformed through the talents of costume designer Chris Dietz.
On Monday night, a wig, a gown, a suit, a bonnet, raggedy gloves, a dab of soot transformed actors pretending to be rich and poor Londoners into an authentic Londoners.
You may think you know the beloved tale of a miser turned giver, but this year, director and actor Jim Russell and assistant director/stage manager and actress Carmen Lusigne have taken a traditional story and given it a twist.
“Since people already know and love the story, we are going to have some fun with it and do some different things,” said Russell. “We’re going to have a Ms. Scrooge instead of a Mr. Scrooge. We’re going to have some different and unique ghosts in our production. Other than that we are going to give people the traditional story that they know, love and want to see at Christmas time.”
Despite the familiar storyline, Russell stressed that the audience would leave the show feeling like they seen something fresh and new.
“My cast is comprised an extremely talented group of veteran performers and fresh faces new to the theater. They have all come together with one purpose which is to have a wonderful time telling a beloved story. The group is young and old, black and white, experienced and novice – and that is what community theater is all about.”
Petra Sussman, carrying the responsibility of Ms. Scrooge, jokes that she came out of womb performing. Initially she wanted a very small part where she could sing and dance. Instead, the director cast her as the lead role.
When asked how she won the lead, Sussman was quick to respond. “I caved. Jim (Russell) said ‘I want to cast you as Scrooge’ and my husband said I would be an idiot not to take it. It’s been amazing. The cast has been so good to me, so helpful and sweet. We want the audience to walk away from our show thinking that there can be a light at the end of the tunnel that is not a train.”
The stage, once bare and painted black for a previous show, now dressed in holiday finery, is credit to set designer James Cass and his many volunteers who spent days and late nights, building, painting and decorating the scenery to emulate the streets of London at Christmas time.
Jim Johnson, in a booth above the theater seating area, brings the stage to life with music and specialized sound effects. Frank Stinehour is in charge bringing lighting nuances and atmosphere to each important scene.
During dress rehearsal, in the women’s dressing room actresses mother and daughter Sherri and Sara Connolly finish the last touches on hand-sew bonnets and capes to be worn in the play while they wait for their scene.
When complemented on her gorgeous bonnet, the youngest Connelly smiled and shook her head, “Oh no. It’s not finished yet.”
Carmen Lusigne visited each dressing room with a call that sets the actors into action. “Places!”
She was happy to take on the key role of Russell’s assistant director and stage manager.
“Carrollwood Players has never strayed from fine quality productions and this show is no exception. I am honored to assist with these actors, technicians and crew over these past few months,” she explained. “Directing gives me the opportunity to enjoy the process alongside the cast of stretching, growing, and achieving their goals. Whether it be a hitting a mark, picking up a cue, nailing a difficult scene or finding their voice, directing is the front row seat to a masterpiece of life's emotions.”
Lusigne’s 16 year old daughter, Hillary took the reigns as youth director, helping the show’s youngest cast members.
“It is harder working with children and I am very grateful that I’m allowed to have these ideas and put them on the stage,” said Hillary. “This has given me the opportunity to explore my hidden talent. I’ve never directed before and this is something that I actually could pursue.”
Vivacious and precocious, Madison Levine, age 7, is A Christmas Carol’s youngest actress playing the famous role of Tiny Tim.
What she enjoys most is the camaraderie. “I can see friends and make new friends. I can be myself and be silly.”
And Levine wants what all the cast hopes for at the close of the curtain. “I want the audience to be blown away. I want them to think ‘wow, what just happened.”
Russell added, “We want the audience to walk away with hope. That is what this story is about. There is always a chance for redemption and hope. I want them to walk out with a smile on their face and hope in their heart.”
A Christmas Carol runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday, from Nov. 30 through Dec 22.
Also under direction of Russell, following A Christmas Carol performances on December 8, 9 and 15, the improv troupe Nine and Numb will take on the classic tale with a twist - the audience will control what happens in the story.
Tickets are available at www.carrollwoodplayers.org.