When Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was granted public domain status in the 1970s – when copyright for the work reached its term of the author’s life plus 100 years – the freedom of not having to pay licensing fees or stick to the original text resulted in all kinds of poetic license in numerous, widely adopted stage adaptations. Productions now run the gamut of creative expression, from verbatim performances set in Victorian London in the 1840s to re-imaginings taking place in a variety of times and locations, from large ensemble stagings to one-person shows, and from sober renditions to outlandish jukebox musicals.
The tradition of annual offerings of A Christmas Carol at regional theaters also gained popularity in the 1970s, with some of the longest running, consecutively staged productions appearing at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Kentucky’s Actors Theatre of Louisville, San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, and our own Trinity Repertory Company in Providence.
Now in its 47th year of successive production – including an online version streamed during the pandemic – each Trinity Rep adaptation has been defined by its invention and conscious casting choices for the sake of representation and diversity, which help productions remain relevant, resonant, and timely for contemporary audiences. Last season, Scrooge and his dead-as-a-doornail business partner Jacob Marley were portrayed by women, the Cratchit family was Hispanic, and Scrooge’s nephew Fred was gay. This season, among other innovations, was a most intriguing incarnation of The Ghost of Christmas Present, under resident company member Stephen Thorne’s wordsmithing and direction.
The Ghost of Christmas Present offers Scrooge the opportunity to reflect on his current Christmas day. But how the spirit is portrayed on stage has the potential to allow the audience to do the same. As such, it is arguably the most creatively pliable and time-sensitive of the three Christmas ghosts. In Dickens’ day, the character was a “jolly giant” dressed simply in a dark green robe with a fur collar, bare feet, a bare breast, and a wreath of holly set with icicles. In this season’s Trinity Rep production, it was a larger-than-life spirit in over-the-top drag portrayed by Black actor/dancer Taavon Gamble.
“I knew that Stephen wanted this world to be joyful, celebratory, and inclusive,” says Gamble. “I’d describe my version of The Ghost of Christmas Present as non-binary, genderqueer, and fabulous. I took great inspiration from all the mothers of drag houses within the ballroom scene and others, from Grace Jones to Pepper LaBeija to Naomi Campbell to Diahann Carroll. That I could be both masculine and feminine regardless of standing in three-inch heels in a corset and skirt gave me the confidence, power, and freedom to embrace and show all sides of this Present.”
Heels, corset, and skirt came courtesy of Toni Spadafora-Sadler. “Because this spirit opens Act II,” recalls the designer, “and given the spirit’s claim that ‘You have never seen the like of me before,’ their entrance needed to be grand! It needed to be a spectacle to get the audience reinvested in the story. I keyed in on events like celebrities arriving at the MET Gala and the Oscars. I considered high fashion that crossed gender stereotypes and honed in on some of the red carpet looks of Billy Porter and Queen Latifah. And knowing that the set would be in the round, open, and defined by surrounding architecture, I felt that
Present needed to fill the space and be as big as we could manage it.”
Dickens’ descriptions of the spirit and its surroundings – “walls and ceiling hung with living green” and “bright, gleaming berries” with many food stuffs “heaped up on the floor to form a kind of throne” – came into play. So did Present bearing “a glowing torch in shape not unlike Plenty’s [cornucopian] horn.”
According to Spadafora-Sadler, “The ‘living green’ became the skirt, with layers and layers of lightweight Crystal sheer organza to create the boughs of a tree. ‘Plenty’s horn’ became the top edge and sleeves of the bodice and the headpiece, filled with food stuffs. In his description of the ghost, Dickens wrote that ‘its capacious breast was bare’ not ‘concealed by any artifice.’ I felt some bareness could help create the character’s vulnerability, so that is why their shoulders were bare.”
Regarding the character’s casting, director Thorne explains that “theater-makers must be intentional with every choice and we have the great fortune at Trinity Rep to draw on our resident acting company, of which Taavon is a member. Our conversations, imaginings, and collaborative work on the show – after a lot of trial and discovery – led us to this version of the spirit.”
“We were definitely making deliberate and conscious choices based on my [Black] identity once we were in rehearsals,” says Gamble, “and I believe in celebrating all the complexities it can bring to a role.” In fact, in this adaptation, “Present makes a crafty joke about occupying a space with the audience that traditionally has very few people of color in it.”
These creative choices paid off in terms of fostering holiday spirit (see the Motif review) and box office earnings (attendance: 19,481 patrons). “And I believe that our focus on bringing joy, both to Scrooge and the audience, was exactly what each and every one of us was in need of in times such as these,” adds Spadafora-Sadler. Thorne agrees: “Present’s job, so to speak, is to get Scrooge to actively engage with the present moment and, by proxy, to get us to consider doing the same.”
Bob Abelman is an award-winning theater critic who formerly wrote for the Austin Chronicle.