The Time before Us is Our Own

“It is I, your Uncle Scrooge. I have come to dinner. Will you let me in?”

The great good fortune that brought the Hippodrome Theater into existence is one I can only imagine, but I can well imagine it, because The Six who started the Hipp are my very near contemporaries, and when they were founding the Hipp in 1972, I was following my heart with a handful of troupers under the spell of our maestro Nilo Manfredini out of Northern Illinois University in Dekalb 60 miles to Chicago, where we would start a theater company called Horses, Incorporated.

We made it happen too. Horses lived. For a time. On Halsted Street next to the St. Nicholas Theatre that David Mamet and William H. Macy founded, where soon the Steppenwolf Theatre, founded by John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, would stand.

Horses died a few years later, but the Hipp, founded by UF theatre department grads, Mary and Greg Hausch, Bruce Cornwell, Kerry McKinney, Marilyn Wall and Orin Wechsberg, who decided to stay put, stayed alive.

They somehow managed to land the federal building. Thanks to modernism, absurdly, it had become a white elephant. Gainesville or Alachua County or Florida or the United States of America had no further use for it because it wasn’t new, modern, and it became available to the arts, miraculously, as it is a work of art itself.

There was a downside of their success, The Six – they couldn’t really do it all alone. They needed New York actors. It wouldn’t have been special without them. It wouldn’t have been an authentic New Your steakhouse.

Gregg Jones found a way to stay in the game by teaching at Santa Fe College, where he directed such ground-breaking productions as The Haiti Project and Judevine, and getting a part now and then at the Hipp. Nothing steady, nothing he could count on, and built an acting career outside the Hipp, jack of all trades, emcee, stand-up, puppeteer, voice-over, movies, TV, commercials.

Actors Equity is the union that protects working-class actors on the job, securing them a livable wage and proper working conditions – while they’re working, that is, which usually isn’t often. Eighty percent of the union is out of work at any one time.

On the other hand, if you want to work for free, you can play Prospero and Macbeth and Ricky Roma and Willy Loman and star in plays by Michael Presley Bobbitt and Tom Miller. And you can get paid. Not up to union standards, of course, in fact, peanuts, but you get to play. All I ever wanted to do was play. I don’t care too much for money; money can’t buy me love.

That’s what the Black C is all about for Ani Collier and Warhol Caldwell and Tom Miller.  

Warhol, who had directed all those plays at the Hipp.

Gregg, who has acted in more than 50 plays at the Hipp.

We just want to play.

Half a century later, and the Hipp is still standing, not just the building, which was built to last, but the theater. The building has been there since 1911, but it has long since been transformed from a post office to a cultural mecca, unparalleled in these here parts, unique, in the heart of downtown Gainesville, with all the forces of modernism swirling around and rising into the sky above it.

It’s a majestic view in both directions, either looking at the Hipp from the street that leads to it or the view from the porch of the city before you.

Modernism is fast encroaching on the majesty, however, replacing the ceaseless panorama of the sky with a Hyatt Regency box, but still, for now, the Hipp remains.

Moses wandered in the desert for 40 years, yet he never crossed into the promise land. I arrived in Gainesville in 1983, walked into the Hippodrome theatre and thought I’d gone to heaven. Then 40 years went by. I had about given up.

There were auditions in the fall at the Hipp for the New Works Festival and A Christmas Carol. Why not? If I got the Christmas Carol gig, I fantasized, not only would I get to work with the one and only Gregg Jones, my comrade, but it would pay. We were desperate for money, and this would mean paychecks from Thanksgiving till Christmas.

My son Mike McShane is a pro now, a pro’s pro. How do I know? Because he’s making a living in the theater in Chicago. He knows how things work. In the theater, usually, at auditions, the person or persons making the casting decisions know whom they’re going to cast before the auditions begin. They’re not idiots. They’re not going to put on Romeo and Juliet and just hope the perfect Juliet shows up unbidden at auditions. In fact, they know exactly who’s going to play just about every part – because they’ve been thinking about this for a while.

So, to start with, I didn’t think I’d get the part. I’d auditioned at the Hipp a few times before. Last year at the New Works Fest, Bobby McAfee wrote a play with a Shakespeare slant practically with me in mind – and I didn’t get the part.

This time, I got lucky. I scored the role of the villain in a new play called The Ultimate Cheeseburger. It would be a week’s work, with pay, with a staged reading at the end. Nothing was said about Christmas Carol, but this was a swell consolation prize, so I prepped for The Ultimate Cheeseburger with gusto.

Then, a week or so later, Proust reminded me that you almost always get what you want when you stop wanting it, and I got word I had been cast as Actor #8 in A Christmas Carol.

It took me 40 years to get here, even if it’s a one-shot deal, I’m in it now, and I’m writing it all down.

I am embedded.

My son Mike played three roles in Christmas Carol at the Hipp in 1996, Young Scrooge, personified Ignorance, and the Turkey Kid, the little boy at the end of the story, after Scrooge has reformed and wakes up and it’s Christmas Day, Scrooge tells this little boy to run and buy the prize turkey for the Cratchit family. It’s a speaking role!

Mike had the thrill of sharing the stage with the great Rusty Salling. Rusty made Scrooge the centerpiece of his resume. Rusty had been with the Hipp from near the very start. He wasn’t one of The Six, but he might’ve been the seventh.

As Moon Man on the Aisle, I wrote about Rusty and interviewed him 25 years ago. He had played Scrooge eight times then.

“It’s about an hour to put Scrooge on, and an hour to take him off,” Rusty said of the make-up job then. That part would get easier with age. As for Scrooge, “I do love the character. Scrooge really gets put through the wringer, so there’s the opportunity to play practically the entire range of human emotions. As any actor will tell you, villains are the most fun to play. Here’s a villain who eventually turns into a saint. What more could you ask?”

Rusty started as Bob Cratchit.

Gregg started as Marley in the Mary Hausch version of the script.

Rusty would go on to play Scrooge for another 17 years, till 2014, not long before his death. That’s when Gregg Jones took over the role from his friend. He’d been playing Marley to Rusty’s Scrooge for years before that. They played Carol together for close to 500 performances.

Jesus!

New Works Fest

Niall McGinty is our director. He is a very smart guy, a very good actor, unconventionally handsome, and he works hard. He’s also married to one of my best students in 8th grade language arts at Westwood Middle School. I’m so happy they found each other. He’s thoughtful, considerate, knows what he’s doing, projects an air of confidence. He’s been doing this for a while, and he enjoys the process.

The play turns into a murder mystery. Because it’s a new play no one knows what’s going to happen, how the audience will react, whether they’ll think it’s funny or serious. Chekhov famously thought Three Sisters was a comedy and was on the brink of quitting playwriting because the audience didn’t laugh, they cried.

Stanislavsky told him he’d written a great tragedy.

Tolstoy, his friend, told him, helpfully, whatever you do, don’t write any more plays.

Jena Rashid’s play The Ultimate Cheeseburger is a workplace drama. She has something to say. That’s good. Every great play that has ever been written has been written by someone with something to say. To write a good play, you don’t necessarily have to have something to say. Ask Neil Simon.

He’s dead.

Turns out Jena’s play is a comedy, and based on the audience reaction, a hit.

A Christmas Carol

Adapted by Niall McGinty from Charles Dickens

Bah Humbug to dashing through the snow and sleigh rides in Florida. Staying true to the weighty themes of the original novel while delivering a gripping story, cheerful holiday music, and genuine laughs for the whole family, A Christmas Carol at the Hippodrome Theatre is one of Gainesville’s favorite holiday traditions.

We encounter A Christmas Carol as a child, and it scares us with the presence of death. The ghosts don’t represent the afterlife so much as they reflect the present reality of death. Marley appears for the sole purpose of establishing the cold hard fact that he is as dead as a doornail. Not that anyone doubted it, but doornails don’t act like this.

“The reality of other people survives their death for only a short time in our minds, and after a few years they are like those gods of obsolete religions whom one offends without fear because one has ceased to believe in their existence.”  Proust

Dickens’ narration is formally similar to Tolstoy’s in War and Peace. He knows all. He knows what Scrooge thinks and feels.

The weight of money hangs over this world.

Marx in 1843 was just getting warmed up. Nietzsche was just being born, Mark Twain too. They would all pay homage to Dickens.

Francis Wheen identifies ‘a Dickensian texture’ in parts of Capital, a texture which can be partly traced to the fact that both Dickens and Marx present a society characterized by the ‘personification of things and the reification of persons.’

Are the ghosts real?

Of course, they are. Inspired by Dickens’ notion of Christmas.

The religious right’s paranoia over Merry Christmas versus Season’s Greetings or Happy Holidays is absurdly misplaced – because the essential meaning of Merry Christmas is Season’s Greetings or Happy Holidays. The Christmas spirit is only nominally about Christ.

It’s not exactly as if Dickens or Niall or the production has taken Jesus out of the story – He’s still there, but in the background. A Christmas Carol has a Christmas theology as opposed to an exclusively Christian one. And Christmas isn’t only Christmas Day, it’s the Christmas Season, it’s a time of year that God blesses, or at least Fred wishes aloud that God would bless it.

There must be God in the story, I suppose. But there are ghosts too, the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, spirits not of the dead but of the Time. Christianity can’t account for that. On stage, Scrooge and the Ghosts are alive but invisible to the people in the past, present, and future.

Time is personified.

Scrooge is looking for something good in death – because he knows for sure that’s where he’s headed – maybe, even probably, tonight.

“It is not because other people are dead that our affection for them fades; it is because we ourselves are dying.” – Proust

The story happens at night – all in one night, perfect for dramatic purposes.

To be split up like this, to watch younger you in a dream, from the perspective of older you, does this ever happen in real dreams? No. It’s a dramatic invention. And it’s brilliant.

Wait till you see how it works like a charm in performance on this little boy in the front row during one of the school morning shows.

The impact of Dickens’ words on the page is entirely powerful enough. It got me. Dickens got me. I was sailing along, reading the story again, a story I had read aloud to my 8th graders at least half a dozen times, knowing what was going to happen next, but then that future was revealed that would happen if things proceeded on their present course, and Tiny Tim is dead and buried in a pretty green place, and Bob breaks down “My little, little child,” and like a cloudburst tears were on my cheeks.

Then Bob gathers his family together, their first Christmas without Tiny Tim, and he remarks that this is their first parting.

We shall all part from one another.

Costume fitting with Erin Jester. She used to be a reporter for the Gainesville Sun, the education beat, and she wrote an article about my book Hall of Fools. Then she dropped her journalism career, reversed field, and joined the theater. Good choice. We often hear that the theater is dying, but surely newspapers are going first. Erin followed her bliss. She also followed Marilyn Wall, the Hipp’s legendary costumer and one of The Six. That’s Marilyn’s prize turkey that Mike and all the Turkey Kids after him have brought onstage for Scrooge to give the Cratchits. And that’s Marilyn Wall Way you crossed when you got to the Hipp, as the street outside has been named by the City – so that at least here in Gainesville there’s a place where Main Street and Wall Street meet.

I am outfitted in my base costume, black trousers, suspenders, a high-collared white long-sleeved shirt, a seasonal green and red-speckled tie, a brown tweed vest, brown 19th century high-topped shoes, a green long-coat for Fezziwig, a blue and black-checked long-coat for Topper, and a raggedy one for the street Merchant.

Erin thanks me for coming in on my day off. My pleasure. I’m trying every way I can to win the respect of the Hipp. On-time is late, know your lines, pay attention, think.

On-time is late. The first rehearsal starts at 3. It is 2:41pm and I am ensconced in Row C, Section B. The set is under construction. We performed the New Works Fest on the set for Running Mates.

A gentleman has entered to play the piano. He is Paul Helm, one of the two stars of the musical Murder for Two, which is running concurrently with Christmas Carol, and he will be our music director. This is the part I’m worried about – singing and dancing. I’m just pretending. Can anyone tell I’m pretending? This is going to take some acting.

Playing by the numbers. There are eight actors in the cast, five men, three women, known in Niall’s script as Actors # 1 through #8. Greg, playing Scrooge, is #1. Niall, playing Bob Cratchit, is #2. Tom Vazquez, age 28, completing his studies in the UF Theatre Department, playing Scrooge’s nephew Fred as well as Scrooge as a young man, is #3. Kelly Atkins, whom I first wrote about in Moon as the star of Trailer Park Musical, with showstopping talent and has the chops to play Marley along with Mrs. Fezziwig, is #4. Patrick Horn, from New York, is #5, playing the Ghost of Christmas Present. Savannah Simmerly, playing the Ghost of Christmas Past to give it a pretty ethereal twist, plus a Merchant and Fred’s Stout Sister-in-law, is #6. Karine Dieuvil, also wrapping up her studies at UF, playing the challenging contrast between both Bob’s wife and Scrooge’s lost love, Belle, is #7. And last, but not least, well, maybe least, is yours truly.

Laura Shatkus, a member of the Hipp company, is the director. She’s a Lugan from Chicago like my old high school chums Jim Martinkus and Caz Basinskus, and she’s acted in Christmas Carol before at the Hipp, although not Niall’s version.

Ana Munoz is the stage manager – as she was for the New Works Fest. I’m glad. She’s nice, late 20’s maybe, her jet-black hair has a wide streak of bright blue that dares you to say something. Her pronouns are she and they.

The assistant stage manager is Miranda Campos, who was a prize student of Ted Lewis at Buchholz High, and a star at the Gainesville Community Playhouse before scoring the ASM gig at the Hipp.

Laura and Ana consult with Niall and the video of last year’s show to get the blocking and staging right.

Rehearsal. Going onstage without a script. Going onstage without glasses.

I knew my lines before rehearsal started. They weren’t much to learn, a few snatches of narration, and then the three characters I would play had only a couple of lines each. Then there were the songs, and I learned them too. I thought I was ready, and I was, as ready as I could be. Then I found out how hard it was going to be.

The way the story was being told was through constant movement, energy pulsating in color, light, sound, music, and song and dance, spectacle, with actors providing the third dimension. Living, breathing (sometimes seemingly not) figures, striving not to be figurines.

Laura did a masterful job of staging and directing, following faithfully the blueprint set down by the previous productions of Niall’s script, which rescues Dickens momentarily from the clutches of modernism by setting the whole premise squarely in the middle of the 19th century and suffusing it with song and sound.

Commanding the troupe of kids in itself is cause for applause. Eighteen young people, age 7 to mid-teens, each of them bright, talented, willing, and cooperative, if not always quiet, but what do you expect- they’re kids, and they had to be “wrangled” as they say.

Two intense weeks of rehearsal and then a month of performances, 28 of them. That’s a lot to ask of a teenager, let alone a 7-year-old.

Laura terms our task The Re-mount, also to be known as the Frankenstein Production.

We’ve blocked our way past Fezziwig, so my major stuff is over.

(Or so I thought.)

In The Game Game, a play I wrote with Robert Dean Mowry in Key West, we taught ourselves not to be anywhere else but in the moment. We each had to play a dozen different characters – anybody who might pop up on TV while someone was just flipping the channels randomly. If you tried to think ahead to what came next, you were lost. The same if you reflected even for a moment on what had just happened, or, worse, what had not happened but should have.

This is a lot like that.

I haven’t played a part like this since Caucasian Chalk Circle, the first play I did in Chicago. I played three supporting roles. The approaches to that play and this are similar. Niall calls it “devised staging”. Physical architecture, moveable blocks, crates, utilitarian set pieces, actors playing multiple roles.

Brechtian.

Caricature?

Over the top? Bob Cratchit coughs and surreptitiously blurts out “cold!” when he’s freezing in Scrooge’s counting house. The real Bob Cratchit would never do that.

Wait till Gregg gets here Tuesday, and you’ll see over the top.

Are we acting in a cartoon? No, but we are acting for children, school children, and families, and Dickens was indeed immensely comical. That was why W.C. Fields loved Dickens. His style fit perfectly, knowingly comic.

Niall’s take is spot on.

Maybe Charles Dickens wasn’t picturing anything as comical in Scrooge’s counting house – at least not to this extent, but only because he didn’t have the chance to play it out the way Niall does. The way he plays Bob Cratchit demonstrates how well he and Dickens collaborated on this script.

Back in my Chicago days, I spent some time acting and writing with a group The Truck, Inc., touring and performing Chekhov and kid stuff in elementary and middle schools all around Chicagoland. The kids liked Chekhov as much as the kid stuff. Kids know what’s good.

Gregg is out of town for the first few rehearsals, and Mars Petersen, his understudy, is playing his part admirably as we painstakingly trace our steps through the blocking. Mars and Ana are partners offstage and work like a team onstage.

The rehearsal hall doesn’t provide the perspective needed to stage scenes from the point of view of the two opposite sides of the audience. So, it has to be imagined. Also, the rehearsal hall is the exact opposite, a mirror image, of the stage. Meanwhile, on the second floor, Bob Robins and Warren Goodwin, Bill Boothman, and Amanda Nipper are overseeing the theater’s transformation from the Running Mates set to Mihai Ciupe’s utilitarian curiosity shop for Christmas Carol. After a week in the rehearsal hall, everyone is anxious to get on the stage to try things out for real.

The backstairs wind down from the third-floor offices and rehearsal hall to the stage on the second floor.

Laura knows the story well, has studied up on it. She’s invested in each character, the people in the story as well as the play. Who they are on the page and who they will be onstage.

“Unfortunately, we’re not doing organic blocking,” Laura says, “I wish we were, but we’re just going with what we’re given.”

Laura is directing eight adult actors and 18 young ones. Give her a hand. I haven’t begun to learn the kids’ names or what roles they play. There are two casts of young actors, the green team and the red team, but for some performances they’ll all get to play.

This is the money shot. Directing Tiny Tim: “God bless us everyone.”  Yes! There are two Tiny Tims and they both nail it. One is Chaya, the other is Lena, who happens to be Kelly’s daughter.

My sides are proving useless onstage because what needs learning as much as the lines is the blocking.

Just tell the story. We’re just trying to tell a story.

But, of course, we’re not just trying to tell a story, otherwise it would not be of such huge import whether one were slightly to the left or holding the cup in the wrong hand.

We’re figures in a painting.

Patrick Horn, who plays the Ghost of Christmas Present and one of the two Solicitors who try to squeeze a Christmas donation to the poor out of Scrooge, is a ruddy-faced, red-haired, stocky, hardy, jack-of-all-trades kind of guy, belts out a song, gives everything full voice, full energy, knows his lines, volunteers for everything – all the lifts, all business of scene change. He’s a New York actor and a helluva nice guy, with a resume that includes steady work at Circle in the Square, which happens to be Gregg’s favorite of all the New York theatres he’s made it his business to know

Gregg arrives, Ana and Laura brief him about the Frankenstein biz and the remount. Gregg knows the lines, but the blocking is as much of a challenge to him as everyone else.

Rusty and Gregg teamed up as Scrooge and Marley for a run of so many years that they practically turned the story into a buddy pic.

Dramatically, and from an actor’s point of view, you only get to be tightfisted, ill-tempered, and quick with the come-back Scrooge for about two and a half scenes. After that, you’re either scared or remorseful, while you watch other people act.

Gregg has been Scrooge for a while now. It’s a great gig, a good part, a great part if you do it right.

What’s right?

It’s sort of like James Bond. There’s the character in the book, then as he is portrayed on stage or screen.

Gregg gives it all he’s got every moment he’s onstage.

I play no scenes with Gregg. We have no dialogue. When I play Fezziwig, I interact with Scrooge as a boy, but Gregg as old Scrooge merely looks on, invisible, alongside Vee, as the Ghost of Christmas Past. The same goes in my scene as Topper, when he looks on with Patrick as the Ghost of Christmas Present.

Savannah Simmerly, lithe, versatile, acrobatic, a triple-threat – actor/singer/dancer. Her friends call her Vee, and I call her Vee, how cool is that?

Vee and I play a very short scene as two merchants in the London slums. Vee is astonishingly pretty, so she was genuinely ethereal as she was flying about as the Ghost of Christmas Past, but here, as Merchant and later as Stout Sister at Fred’s party, she makes you forget that and laugh at her moxie and timing.

Kelly and Patrick, as opposite merchants, have a go at cockney. They are funny. Vee and I are frozen, listening to them. They’re going through Scrooge’s stuff to sell. Kelly says, “Let me know the value of it,” and somehow the emphasis is just right.

Ana, the stage manager, is completely on top of things, got it under control, knows the answer, don’t feel bad about asking, a guiding hand, a watchful eye, attention to detail, all within the rules of Equity, an eye on the clock for the scheduled breaks and end time, working seamlessly with Miranda, her assistant, and Laura, the director, a functioning triangle.

It’s like being in the circus. My sides have been replaced with blocking notes – 12 moves, as complicated as plays in an NFL huddle. Everything to be handled as precisely as acrobatic moves on a flying trapeze.

Sunday turned into a day off. Tech was originally scheduled for today. It’s been moved to tomorrow 3-9pm.

Here inside the Hippodrome are all those camera-led one-shot tracking scenes through the insides and backstage of the Broadway theater in the movie Birdman, all that labyrinthian, subterranean, rising Escher-like with winding stairs in a secret tower like in The Name of the Rose from dressing rooms and cabaret in the basement to scene shop, cinema, bar, art gallery, and elevator (the same from 1911, the only one like it left in Florida), on the first floor, bypass all that, because you have to keep climbing to get to backstage on the second floor, and if during the play you have to make the “crossover” to get from backstage to the front of the house to make an entrance from one of the voms, you have to keep climbing more and steeper stairs till you get to the third floor, where you can hustle past the offices and costume shop and rehearsal hall to the stairs at the front of the building where you can descend to the second floor to make your entrance.

Turns out, due to unforeseen complications, Karine will be unavailable for the opening, so, with a week to rehearse, Lena Sakalla has stepped in. Fort Clarke class of ’08. She catches on fast, to say the least. And she and Karine work like a quarterback and his back-up so that each can enter the game and execute the same plays. But it’s not a game; it’s the life of a play and Belle and Mrs. Cratchit especially are crucial to its psychological and emotional content.

Susan Schuld is the dialect coach. She’s studied exactly where and how accents are produced geographically, socially, and most importantly physiologically. She did her coaching of me over the phone, old school – both of us being boomers and neither of us adept Zoomers, and we were both pleased with the result. My Narrator, Fezziwig, and Merchant each have a different Dickensian speech.

Susan was one of Tom’s prized teachers, both honest and caring. As for her dialect work, top-notch, giving me two excellent pointers – one for my Narrator on that wonderfully Dickensian simile describing Scrooge as “Solitary as an oyster”. Susan said my guy would say “Solitree”.

As for my Merchant, there was the line I had after being informed that Scrooge had died: “What was the matter with him?” Susan suggested I say: “What was the matter wiff him?” Perfect. “What has he done wiff his muny?”

Two Rules of Theater: Always do the simplest thing – or, do something you already know how to do.

“There’s no such thing as simple. Simple is hard.” Scorsese

Action v Intention.

Laura approaches each actor with these two questions: What are you doing and why? If you know the answers, you are mastering the scene. If you don’t, then figure it out.

This show never stops moving, so get out of the way.

The need for you to open you heart. This what moves Scrooge through the play. He doesn’t know it. It’s being revealed to him. That’s what all the rest of us are doing. Everyone is trying to get Scrooge to open his heart.

Laura’s directing resume includes directing operas! Mike spent a season doing tech with the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico, and he tells me the key to presenting an opera is attention to the stage picture. Opera singers aren’t necessarily actors, so you have to place them and pose them in the most dynamic way to intrigue an audience with their presence – make sure there’s always something exciting to look at. Onstage it can be like piecing together a movie, frame by frame. But we’re getting there, and the precision with which Dickens’ plot is executed will be absolutely thrilling, I have no doubt

Karine, a black woman from Haiti, is playing Belle, young Scrooge’s lost love, and Mrs. Cratchit, Bob’s wife. She is a fine young actress, lithe and beautiful, with a commanding stage presence, lending a diversity to Niall’s vision of the story, a universality, perhaps not dissimilar from the notion of black Jesus among some churches. It’s not a denial of history, or of Dickens’ realist approach to the narrative. Bob Cratchit didn’t marry a black woman. Karine is not playing a black woman, nor is she playing a white woman, although she is playing a woman in London in 1843.

It is akin to the task Gregg and I performed with Warhol Caldwell’s company, Legal Acts, at the UF law college this fall, representing different witnesses in mock trials. It only requires a minimum of abstract thinking. As actors, as characters, we are who we say we are, and these are genuine words, thoughts, and actions.

It’s Brechtian, like the street scene where an accident has occurred, and a witness demonstrates and recounts what happened.

Except that the accidents are of deep psychological and emotional, life-altering significance.

Amber Law is Erin Jester’s assistant costumer, and she is backstage to assist in the dozens of costume changes. She is sweet and helpful and highly competent. She has everyone’s costume ready at hand for a fast change, attentive to every heartbeat backstage.

Warren Goodwin, the Hipp’s technical director, has an unruly cat he inherited that wakes him at 4 every morning, but he doesn’t get up till 5, just lies there, angry at the cat, yet gracious enough to keep him, and, yes, even like him, though the cat has no appreciation for the fact that Warren is overseeing the technical operation of a multimillion-dollar proportions, so Warren just goes about his business.

The dressing rooms in the basement have stations for 10 actors in rows along three walls of mirrors and long tables. Our base costumes, period 1843, are hung in a long closet opposite the mirrors. All the other costumes are backstage for quick changes.

Gregg lightens every moment in the dressing room. Tonight, he gets all the fellas to join in The Sopranos version of A Christmas Carol.

“Bah f-ing humbug!”

“You don’t f-meaning it, Uncle!”

Ever present, rarely glimpsed, is Gregg’s fart-maker, a small mechanism he keeps hidden and triggers on unsuspecting person or persons. Again and again. And again.

“Aren’t you even gonna say excuse me?”

Gregg recalls the night Tennessee Williams was drunkenly reeling on the front row during the opening night performance of his play Tiger Tail while Jennifer Pritchett acted before him, and Tenn proclaimed: “That’s not what I wrote”. When it very well was what he wrote.

Mind you, this was before The Hipp had scored the federal building, and when Tenn got a gander at it, he said, “It looks like you’re moving from the outhouse to the courthouse.”

And there was the night, during Sylvia, when Gregg happened to be playing a woman and his wig happened to come off and Nell Page tried to put it back on him and it fell on the floor and when he bent down to pick it up to pick it up, he remembered he was wearing a skirt. Actually, he remembered it when everyone started laughing. Laughing more, that is. They’d been laughing since the wig started slipping – that’s what had tipped him off that something was amiss.

Niall is taking pix in the dressing room, staging comical poses in costume to promote the play. Modest to a fault, he is after all the playwright, and his Bob Cratchit is both affectingly and wittily rendered. His every move, from his entrance – a neatly executed heel-drag off Bob’s sprint into Scrooge’s counting house in an effort to get there on time – is calculated and heartfelt.

There are five of us in the men’s dressing room: Niall, Tom, Gregg, Patrick, and me. We get a 30-minute call to get into costume.

Stories from the theater department.

There are teachers who see it as their task to debilitate.

Tom ran into those before he could escape academia’s clutches. It humbled him. He had been informed that his acting was all surface, no depth. But then he went on to f-in graduate!

“I’m a clown, what can I say?”

Two things: Tom is not just a clown, and who says clowns have no depth?

I offer the example of David Shelton’s acting class, which I attended with Malcolm Gets and James Randolph and Michael Johnson, in which one day we were each to present a monologue.

“Who’s going first?” Dr. Shelton asked, and we all sat there for a long moment nervously.

Then Shelton stood up and walked out. “None of you gets the job,” he said, “because none of you as has the balls.”

Effective lesson.

You step out of the dressing room into the Rusty Salling Green Room. Alongside the green room, is the laundry room, and then, surprisingly, the subterranean cabaret.

Greg tells us he was visited by the ghost of Salvador Dali in the basement of the Hipp. He had gone there to meditate in the cavern, worried, playing Dali, whether he was getting Dali’s accent right – because it was a combination of two different cultures. Gregg had researched Dali heavily, and he bonded with him, especially his creative spirit.

And Dali told him to keep doing what he was doing. And the way Dali spoke to him, well, that was the right accent.

Gregg pauses before the framed photo of Rusty as Scrooge: “We’re doing it again, Rusty, so, thanks again for blazing this trail I’m on. I am honored to follow you on it.”

Or words to that effect. It’s always hard to remember exactly even what Gregg has just said because you’re always diverted in the moment by the instinct to laugh, knowing he is so adept at saying the most ridiculous things with absolute sincerity and seriousness, or saying the most sincere and serious things in a way that makes you think he’s kidding. When he is onstage, however, the two forces fuse with such intense focus that he can incline an audience toward laughter or tears with precise deliberation. Now, before Rusty’s photo, he says with all conviction, “Rusty, you’ll be glad to know the day has finally come when we’re doing the play without make-up.”

That’s one thing, when Gregg plays Scrooge nowadays, he doesn’t have to pretend to be old. I think Gregg is one year older than me, but he may be one year younger. Either way, neither one of us has to pretend anymore to be old. Not that there’s anything wrong with being old.

The urinal in the restroom across from the Rusty Salling Green Room is the very one installed in 1911.

The gray stairs, 18 of them, wind up to the first floor, where the art gallery, bar, and cinema are, but we’re not stopping here. We have 26 more winding steps to go to get to the stage on the second floor.

The spectacle all comes together in the opening. It goes without saying that there’s no curtain with a thrust stage. The play begins with sound and lights. Our troupe takes the stage, singing Carol of the Bells, and then we gather around Kelly, who has fetched a big black book from the curiosity shop shelves. Kelly opens the book and the pages magically come alight and the stage explodes in a flurry of precisely choreographed action, the young people streaming in from all sides, and the story commences its telling. Gregg and Vee ceremoniously march forward with eight missals – little black books bearing the title A Christmas Carol.

“I wrote that,” Niall says to me in cockney.

“’At’s right,” I say. “It’s very good.”

In my mind, I am the veteran player-manager of this acting troupe. I told this to Niall, and he told me that in his mind he was the playwright.

It’s not just Niall’s script that’s a marvel – that’s to be expected; Charles Dickens wrote practically every word, with Niall adroitly selecting and arranging them. What is a marvel is Niall’s vision of the play, not just the story, his premise, concept, as it works itself through and around the story, the acting troupe touring the countryside, bringing its play to this stage now. For the audience, they have not gone back in time to 1843; 1843 has come to them.

Gregg has just two lines as Narrator at the very beginning of the play – but he is clearly someone else than Ebeneezer Scrooge. He’s a working-class actor. Gregg, as just another actor in the troupe, checks the shelves in the curiosity shop where the troupers are loading their props and costumes, and he recognizes a friendly rat and taps him on the nose – and gets bit.

In a moment, Scrooge will be alive among us.

The troupe gathers around Gregg. He’s being costumed onstage. The ensemble is setting up a reveal, and I’m going to light the fuse.

“Solitree as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed noise, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait, turned his eyes red and his thin lips blue, as he spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice”:

Gregg explodes into character! “Bah!” And he is Scrooge: “Humbug,” neatly caps it.

Kelly projects an aura of magnificence – it’s what makes her Marley such a powerful fright. Her stature combined with the imposing Marley costuming and chaining, along with her operatic voice, make for a monstrously terrifying apparition.

Elaine Shoaf’s puppet that haunts Scrooge during Marley’s ghostly appearance is hugely grotesque and gargoyle-like, a demonic leering skull, all the more terrifying for its unintentional resemblance to Rudy Giuliani, and a giant clutching hand waved about with gymnastic strength and skill by Patrick and Vee. The school kids do indeed scream!

Amanda Nipper’s sound design is spellbinding, harmonious, enchanting, evocative, seamlessly joining scene to scene, and moving as a symphony from beginning to middle to end, incorporating the songs so that they motivate the singers and turn the soundtrack into a concept album. I never get tired of hearing it.

Bill Boothman works through each cue with his sound check before every show, and you can hear the steady progression of the plot, like listening to Sgt. Pepper.

Bill is a lanky, seemingly taciturn master electrician, conversant in Nietzsche and Emily Dickinson, climbing a ladder to the topmost lights, running tech, making things work.

The complement of costumes, props, lighting and set create stage pictures that come alive with a rush of humanity and all the energy and excitement of school children.

The attention to detail has paid off. Tom Miller says so.https://millerworks.weebly.com/blog/tom-miller-reviews-a-christmas-carol-at-the-hipp?fbclid=IwAR1jp6WiemfL5zNIaxw0lEhgNAi2Tu0z72NzDPWP7gXPRTfP5uiq-sL_Trc

The show has opened. Two shows Saturday – with Tom Miller at the first show, complimentary of Laura’s direction – and a show Sunday night. Three shows already. They’ll come hot and heavy now. Next one Tuesday 10am. Bob Robins says to get ready for a packed house of screaming kids.

My Truck experience will come in handy.

Robert P. Robins and I were classmates in the theatre department at UF back in the 80s, when he was studying under Doc Wehlburg to become lighting maven of the southeast. He’s been creating lighting designs that are works of art at the Hipp since then, through all those Christmas Carols, including this one.

When I got the part, Bob was surprised to learn it would be my debut on the Hipp stage after all these. “You’ll be a great Fezziwig,” Bob said kindly.

“Sure I will,” I told him, “You know why? Because I’m happy.”

At the first rehearsal Laura asked each cast member to tell us one thing they liked about A Christmas Carol. I said I liked the cold. I like how it’s cold all the way through, but on Christmas morning, when Scrooge opens his bedroom window and it’s cold outside, it’s a brand new day and a brand new life for Scrooge, and it’s exhilarating.

When Gregg arrived a few days later he said what he liked about the whole experience was how  it lasted all year long, how it changed lives, how grown-up people come up to him and say I was Turkey Kid, or I was Martha Cratchit, or Tiny Tim. It happens all the time. All year long.

This is a star vehicle and Gregg makes it well-earned, well-deserved, the play not only revolves around him, he revolves around it. There’s only a blink of an eye when he’s not on stage, and during that he’s both making a cross-over and a costume change. He is the heart of the play and he never for an instant allows the energy to fade, it beats, it is alive, and Gregg travels, afloat, on a cathartic journey. Who would not love in real life in the span of a single night to move from deepest misery and hardened despair to rapturous joy and a world so fresh and friendly and new so as to make one feel “quite a baby”?

He is so angry, so miserable, so hateful, and then frightened not out of his wits but back into them.

Scrooge, on the mention of Fan’s death, the pause, the lower register of “Good afternoon” to curtly but somberly end the exchange, the emotion genuine, just as it will be at the very end of the play, after Scrooge’s change of heart.

The kids backstage are saying Gregg’s lines along with him – and getting a little ahead of him.

Gregg, fooling around, says he doesn’t think he’ll be able to do the show today. I tell him not to worry – the kids’ve got him covered. They’ve been saying his lines along with him backstage. And not just Gregg’s lines, everybody’s, as if the play were being enacted simultaneously backstage and onstage.

Gregg almost never leaves the stage. It’s an hour and a quarter at world class speed – meaning pacing appropriate to a pulsating melodrama. Gregg is 72, but his physical conditioning is superb – on a par with, well, mine.

Gregg showed the same energy all through rehearsal.

With his wife Dena and sons Dylan and Ari and his grandbaby in the house, Gregg pulls out all the stops – and the beauty of it is I know they’re in the house, they know they’re in the house, but no one else in the house knows it – and Gregg makes it special for them not by going over the top or milking it, but by making Scrooge’s journey from misery to ecstasy indelibly true. He makes it special for them by making it his best performance yet, not that it won’t be better tomorrow night.

(He does manage to a squeeze a huminahumina in there toward the end.)

Night at the Hipp. The porch is a clean well-lighted place. All of downtown seems alight from this vantage point.

All the while Gregg has been in need of a root canal. He’s scheduled for one on Thursday the 15th. He’ll do the show, have the root canal, and have the next day to recover before a double-header on Saturday.

If Gregg were paid three times as much as the rest of us, that’d be fair. He plays every performance like Michael Jordan. He leaves it all on the stage.

The Q & A. After each of the morning shows for schools, the audience asks questions of the cast, and Gregg acts as moderator, which means Gregg acts, so it’s essentially another show, and a sweet one. Gregg tells the kids how he got into the theater, and all his love for his art and the Hipp and the rest of us comes out. Niall gets his due as Dickens’ collaborator. Rusty is saluted.

The kids want to know: How did Marley die? That’s a good one. Dickens being dead, the question is referred to Niall, who takes it under advisement, perhaps considering another plot for he and Dickens to compose.

What made the goose disappear at the Cratchit family dinner? A demonstration of the disappearing goose is given, a stage magician showing his tricks.

How do we learn our lines?

Gregg gives a quick lesson in auditory, visual, spatial methods.

When Gregg asks the school kids a question during the talk-back, it’s always: What do you think is the meaning of the play? And invariably one of the most popular answers is: Family.

One of the most thrilling and tiresome moments in the theater is when you are backstage in the wings at “places” and you can hear the loud chatter of a full house out there, and you are in a dark quiet world, and all those people are in another world full of light and laughter, as different as night and day, black and white, and we know what’s going to happen, and they don’t.

Selah, who’s playing Fan goes to each of the kids nearby in the wings – Willow, Alena, Yosef – and then to Tom, Gregg, and me – pointing her index fingers at us and signaling that she wants us to meet her fingertips with ours, and when they touch to respond as if we’ve gotten a jolt of electric energy.

We do!

Yosef is 11, I think, and has grown into a sense of confidence. He was shy to begin with. Now he’s bigger and expressive – onstage and off. As we stand in the wings listening for our cue to enter for Pat-a-Pan, Yosef whispers to me: “How tall you think I am?”

“I don’t know.”

“You think I’m five feet?”

“Maybe.”

“Nope. Not yet.”

“Shhh…Listen.”

No actor could ever ask for a better theatrical experience than working with Gregg Jones, not just because he’s creative and funny and empathetic and knowledgeable, but because he’s so appreciative of the experience himself, not just of being in the theater, but of life. Luckily, it happens that I feel the same way he does.

Ana is stage managing from the booth, communicating via headset with Miranda and Amber.

Backstage in the wings, moments before lights up, Gregg and Tiny Tim  are doing the macarena – Gregg tells Tim he’s going to do it when he gets onstage.

The choice of thrust stage was beyond brilliant.

What prompted the brilliant choice of a thrust?

“Probably those two columns,” Gregg says, glancing at the stage.

The two support columns jutting up to the roof.

“You could have had a small proscenium, “Niall surmises, “but then you’d lose a third of the seats.”

The brilliant solution of the thrust was also clearly the best and most productive.

The three characters that Karine plays offer such depth and range, especially the contrast between Belle and Mrs. Cratchit. Belle releases Scrooge from their engagement. She loved him. She loved the young man he was, the one who worked for Fezziwig.

Karine, as Belle, is furious and heartbroken, parting forever from Scrooge, who has replaced her in his heart with a golden idol. She exits in tears. She steps offstage, the curtains part and she passes me standing in the wings and darts into Miranda’s stage-managing station, which is curtained for a complete change. Karine enters in Belle’s white dress and emerges mere seconds later in a blue frock as Mrs. Cratchit. She is still Karine as she passes me again, but as the curtain’s part she becomes Mrs. Cratchit.

Mrs. Cratchit has at Scrooge, denouncing him as “the founder of the feast indeed!” at the very moment that Scrooge, overcome with remorse, is pleading with the Ghost of Christmas Present for Tiny Tim’s life. She rails at Scrooge, but the Ghost, recognizing the progress in Scrooge marked by his empathy for Tim, sprinkles the Cratchit family scene with conviviality and fellow feeling, and Mrs. Cratchit’s tone softens into song: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”. Credit Niall, with exceptional timing and ear for the mood and tone of Dickens’ scene.

Kaine as Belle confronts Tom as young man Scrooge. He has told her he has not changed toward her, but this is absurdly wrong. He has become someone else, acquisitive, calculating, all that matters to him is profit.

The young man’s voice grows calcified into old Scrooge’s voice, and suddenly Tom’s voice blends with Gregg’s. The two characters merge. I can hear it in the wings.

Tom and Gregg play the Counting House scene like a pair of tennis greats, but volatile, McEnroe and Connors, say. Tom here has a youthful Stan Laurel quality, full of not only energy, but a dancer’s athleticism. Gregg counterpunches. He can mimic anyone, and Scrooge uses this weapon mercilessly on both Fred and the two Solicitors who follow him into the counting house.

“Why? Did you get married?” Scrooge demands.

“Because I fell in love,” his nephew answers.

No matter how Tom responded, and he responded 28 different ways, Gregg matched him exactly in pitch, tone, rhythm, and delivery. He whipped Patrick’s Solicitor with the same relish, down to the slightest guttural utterance.

Patrick gives a little squeak ala Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate when cowering as a Solicitor before Scrooge.

I watch from the vom with Tiny Tim, who shushes me when I laugh at Bob Cratchit being put in his place by Scrooge.

It hits Scrooge hard when Fred upbraids him for never even having come to visit his own sister, Fan, before her death.

Gregg pauses, the gravity sinks in, and with a funereal solemnity, he intones: “Good afternoon.”

I’m onstage with Tom when he plays Fred. I watch from the vom when he enters Scrooge’s counting house, full of energy and joy, swirling about in his winter cape, doffing his top hat, which he hangs precariously on a short peg above Bob Cratchit’s head. It takes a delicate touch. Then he notices Bob is shivering and wraps his cape around Bob’ shoulders. Later, there are two scenes of the party at Fred’s house, and I’m in both of them as Topper. It’s the same Fred, joyful, comical, energized.

Then I’m backstage when Tom plays Scrooge as a young man being released from his engagement to Belle. If you could only listen and not see, you would never suspect that Scrooge’s voice was coming from the same actor who played Fred.

I’m onstage, sitting in the vom, for the Counting House scene. I have watched it in performance 18 times now, and each time I am not just a spectator, I’m my guy, as I’ve imagined him, the manager of the troupe, watching along with my proteges, the young troupers, and the audience of the 21st century theater where we have travelled through time to perform.

In the Counting House scene, Scrooge busies himself with his ledger, making entries with a quill pen. Today the quill got stuck in Gregg’s coat sleeve as he railed at the two solicitors and he just happened to reach out and clutch it before it could fly away from him, so then he used it as a pointer to cow the solicitors.

Rusty leaves his mark.

Scrooge is occupied with his books. The ledger is the same one that Rusty used and his quill scratchings are still evident. Gregg traces them while doing Scrooge’s calculations.

Gregg pays homage to Rusty throughout – a Rusty bit here, a Rusty bit there. Friends of Gregg and longtime Hipp subscribers who’ve seen Hipp Carols over decades stretching back to the previous millennium can note the iterations. “Well!” Scrooge exclaims, thrusting his hands toward the heavens, “if they had rather die, they had better do it!” It’s another echo from Rusty.

Those friends and fans of Gregg’s see him not only bring Scrooge to life, but Rusty too.

Stealing bits from Rusty.

“What day is this?” Scrooge asks the Turkey Kid.

“Christmas Day.”

(Off-handedly) “Christmas Day, well . . .  (slowly realizing) Christmas Day!”

Still nine shows to go, but we are heading down the homestretch. There’s a different tone now that the morning school shows are over. It will be families coming now – lots of them.

A little kid at one of the school shows, was sitting with his classmates in the front row, watching the scene where the Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge his younger self losing Belle. “Chase after her, you fool,” Scrooge implores, and the kid couldn’t help himself, he called out to Gregg: “That’s you.”

.

Kelly plays Fred’s wife. When Fred amiably defends his Uncle Scrooge for skipping his invitation to dinner, and inadvertently insults his wife’s cooking, Topper leaps into the conversation to protest: “Indeed, I think he loses a very good dinner!” Kelly does something very generous and creative. Fred’s wife has taken great offense at what Fred has just said, that his uncle’s not coming hasn’t lost him “much of a dinner”. When I defend her cooking, Kelly exclaims (she adlibs): “Thank you, Topper!”

This is exceptional. She has named me. In a play, if no says your name, as far as the audience knows, you have no name. I was not named in this scene till now. And now I will be Topper to the end of the play. Kelly Atkins did that for me.

Night at the Hipp. The porch is a clean well-lighted place. All of downtown seems alight from this vantage point.

There are five shows left. Tonight – in 42 minutes. Off tomorrow. A show Wednesday night. Two shows Thursday. Then the final matinee on Friday, December 23, Christmas Eve’s eve.

With the show at 7 tonight, it’s been a Karl Wallenda kind of day. Karl Wallenda, the great tightrope walker, who said, “Walking the wire is life; everything else is just waiting.”

Patrick sums it up, “Aint nothin to do but the thing to do.”

Backstage in the wings before the last show, Gregg tells Tiny Tim: “I dare you to go through those doors and knock down all those crates.”

“I’m not gonna do that.”

At the end of the play the stage picture shows a tableau with the ensemble upstage and Scrooge down front on one knee with his arm around Tiny Tim who observes: “God bless us everyone.”

Gregg looked around, and all the kids were crying.

Why?

“Because I won’t see my friends anymore. Maybe ever.”

Something momentous has happened. We were in it. Now we’re changed.

It flies by. Gregg observed: “We opened that book and the next thing I know I’m doing the crossover.”

Gregg’s favorite moment, he tells the audience at the talk-back, is when Scrooge realizes a whole new world, a new life, a new Time lies before him. That’s what he’s been aiming at the whole time, not just from the moment he stepped onstage, but from the moment he turned his back on the world in the wings and thought about what lay ahead of him, the journey that he was about to make as Scrooge, and he thought about Rusty and the Hipp and everything that led him to this moment in the dark, so that when he stepped into the light he would know exactly where he was going and why.

Scrooge: (with unparalleled exaltation) “What? My own bed? My own room? Happiest of all, the time before me is my own.”

The time before us is our own.

The time before you is your own.

It has been the time that is precious, not gold.

Notes:

  • Named for the Latin vomitorium, a “vom” is a specific type of entranceway in theatre. They signify an entrance/exit for the actors that emerges beneath seating. In ancient Rome, vomitoriums were corridors built beneath or behind seats of a coliseum, stadium, theatre, or arena.
  • Photos by Michael Eaddy
Advertisement

1 thought on “The Time before Us is Our Own

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s