The true spirit of Christmas runs through Berkshire Theatre Group's "A Christmas Carol"
PITTSFIELD — When it comes to Berkshire Theatre Group's annual community production of "A Christmas Carol," past is present in more ways than one for Hoosac Valley High School sophomore Hanna Koczela.
It's not only that the 16-year-old daughter of Cheshire residents Rebecca and Michael Koczela is playing The Ghost of Christmas Past — her dream role, she says — for the third consecutive year. She has grown up in the production, beginning in 2009 playing the role of little Dorit Cratchit — which she reprised in 2011 — and Scrooge's sister Fan in 2010; maturing into The Ghost of Christmas Past for the first time in 2013.
"When I was cast for the first time as the Ghost of Christmas Past, it was something totally new," she said in an email, "because, up until then, it had been college students in the role.
"Now, I am more confident and comfortable. As my roles matured, so has my performance. I have really grown up with this show."
She's not the only one to have made a journey with Eric Hill's stage adaptation of Charles Dickens' beloved classic, which opens in its 10th anniversary edition 7 p.m. Saturday at The Colonial Theatre, where it is scheduled to run through Dec. 22.
Hill, who not only adapted Dickens' story for the stage but is co-directing the production with BTG associate education artist Travis G. Daly and plays Ebenezer Scrooge, began his journey with Dickens' enduring tale back in 1988-89, when he was artistic director of the long since defunct StageWest in Springfield.
"When I first did this at StageWest," Hill said in a recent joint interview with Daly at The Colonial, "it was written for a cell phone-free world."
When Hill returned to "A Christmas Carol" 10 years ago in BTG's first go-round with the material at the intimate Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge, Hill came at the story a bit differently.
The world had changed. His adaptation is crisp, to the point but, at the same time, without missing the nuances and the story's essential messages about what Hill considers the heart and soul of Dickens' story — kids, compassion, redemption, transformation.
"This is an adaptation," Hill said emphatically. "It's all Dickens. I didn't write it.
"Look, this really is a story about transformation and if you keep that in mind you can't go wrong.
"The story is about the children. It's a good ghost story. It's about time travel and it has fantastical elements."
While the technical demands have increased since the show was moved five years ago from the Unicorn to the more expansive Colonial, the production Hill and Daly have crafted is not about theatrical bells and whistles.
"You can't get too fancy with this," Hill said. "There is a story, there is a text and if you stay with that you can't go wrong."
That's not to say there haven't been technical "upgrades," as Hill and Daly call them, to accommodate the larger Colonial stage and auditorium.
"Each year we try to upgrade a little more," Hill says. "This year's Ghost of Christmas Future, for example, will be fuller, bigger."
Still, Hill says, "if you don't understand the joy of this story you don't understand Christmas, the real Christmas, which is not about stuff."
Hill and Daly agree that they have been blessed with a high level of performances from the show's non-professional community actors. Many of them, adults and younger actors like Hanna — and now Hanna's younger brother, Adrian, who plays Younger Scrooge — are returnees over several years.
As these veterans have seasoned with experience, their responsibilities in the production have grown, Daly says.
"We have a wonderful core group of talented actors," said Daly, "who can play multiple roles, go deeper into their characters, take leadership roles in the cast."
Past and present, Hanna knows what that's like. When she auditioned for "A Christmas Carol" six years ago with a rendition of "Silent Night," she had had very little stage experience.
She attributes her own growth and maturity over the years she's been in the show to "the adults around me. I watched them and learned from them."
Now, she says, "I see the new cast of young children and I know that I have to be the good example and work hard to be a role model for them.
"I had such great role models when I was starting and I want to make sure the new children have the same experience."
Hill acknowledges his own growth over the 10 years he's been doing "A Christmas Carol."
Scrooge, he says, has become more realistic, "more real to me, less a cartoon.
"I think kids should be entertained by Scrooge, not scared by him. The idea," Hill says, "is to be more and act less.
"You are responsible as Scrooge to be the window into the rest of the play. You have to be an open conduit into the play.
"Most of all, you can never, never, never take any audience for granted. (This role) demands your best effort every time."
What: "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens. Adapted for the stage by Eric Hill. Directed by Eric Hill and Travis G. Daly
Who: Berkshire Theatre Group
When: Saturday through Dec. 22. Evenings — Saturday, Thursday, next Friday and Dec. 19, 20, 21 and 22 at 7. Matinees — Sunday and Dec. 19 and 20 at 2
Where: The Colonial Theatre, 111 South St., Pittsfield
Tickets: $37 (adults); $27 (children 16 and under)
How: (413) 997-4444; online at BerkshireTheatreGroup.org; in person at Colonial box office
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