“A Christmas Carol”: A Kansas City tradition for 32 years continues

Meredith Shea

Keeping it fresh: A director’s approach to continued success

For the 30th anniversary in 2010, the KC Rep revamped the entire show and proved its astounding ability to entertain. Scenic Designer and UMKC Professor John Ezell worked with Hatley to create something more magical: a rotating stage.

After difficulties with an elevator stage to raise and lower sets for different scenes, Hatley knew he needed a better method for transitions.

“The elevator was unreliable. It would on occasion and without warning just not work, leaving the actors and the show in a moment of unsolvable chaos in front of 600 people,” Hatley said.

The introduction of the turntable stage allowed magical moments to be even more magical and more reliable. The stage operates much like a record spinning on a turntable.

Hatley said he and Ezell spent an entire summer figuring out how to redesign the show without using the elevator and still maintain “good storytelling tempo.”

“I simply asked John, ‘If you could go back in time knowing what you know now, what would you do differently with your initial design for “A Christmas Carol?”’ He answered, ‘I would’ve made them put it on a turntable like it was meant to be.’ I looked at him and said, ‘That’s the answer!’ and we had liftoff,” Hatley said.

Part of Hatley’s homework was revisiting Dickens’ original 1843 novel. He wanted to make sure the play remained a ghost story like Dickens intended.

This production marks Hatley’s third season directing the Kansas City classic, and the continued use of the rotating stage. With repetition came challenge.

“I love telling this story and working with our local actors but this year I was surprised at how in my own head I was,” Hatley said. “Jeff Cady, the lighting and projection designer, and I often quietly commiserated with each other about how we felt as though we lost our objectivity with the story.”

Hatley said he and Cady thought they were failing their creative jobs.

“It looked beautiful, it sounded beautiful, and it’s certainly the best cast of singers we’ve had in a long, long time, but something didn’t feel as immediate to us as it had in the last two years,” Hatley said.

Once the show began previews and Hatley saw how a live audience reacted to the performances, it refueled him to drive the show forward. He was able to focus more on the actual acting, and less on the necessary technical precision.

“My neurotic fear of losing my objectivity launched me into a proactive, hyper-attentive drive to go further with the actors and further with reimagining other moments of the play, such as the ‘Ignorance & Want’ scene, as well as the end of the show,” he said.

Enhancing this year’s show also included projections. Last year, projections were added to the show for the first time. Using a technique called pixel mapping, Cady was able to project an image to the exact dimensions of a set piece with no spill onto the rest of the stage.

“Jeff Cady and I worked very hard on enhancing and overcoming all the projection and graphic challenges to accommodate our new design for all the scary moments: wreath at the top of the show, the Marley door knocker moment, the Marley entrance, each of the ghosts’ entrances and the tombstone effect at the end of the ‘Future’ sequence,” Hatley said.

According to Hatley, one of his favorite parts is scaring children.

“I love scaring kids. It’s a thrill and then a release, but it holds their attention and pulls them in even closer to the stage,” he said. “And honestly, how often do people get scared in a theatre? Not very often. So, even just on a practical level, as a theatre nerd, I love it when people jump in their seats or scream.”

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come sequence is gorgeously staged and all too frightening. The ghost, dressed in a black hooded cape, appears in a mass of fog. The scene progresses to show the future tombstone of Scrooge.

Cady used his pixel mapping skills to animate pictures and moving words onto the stone. Several years ago, this scene had less impact on the audience. It shows how far the KC Rep has come in tightening the technical aspects of the show.

“The show got tighter, and the design and effects got smarter and this holiday show started to become serious theater,” Hatley said.

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