Berkshire Theatre Group's 13th presentation of 'A Christmas Carol' kicks off this weekend
PITTSFIELD — Like the tale it's based on, the set of Berkshire Theatre Group's "A Christmas Carol" has endured and broadened with time.
"The production grows every year," said Eric Hill, who himself has grown with the play. Once regularly cast in productions from here to Milwaukee as young Ebenezer Scrooge, he's portrayed the older protagonist for more than a decade.
A few years ago he also handed the directing torch fully over to Travis Daly, who says the cast of mostly community actors "is one of the largest we've had," featuring nearly 60 players, including more than 40 local schoolchildren.
The 13th presentation of the Dickens holiday classic is now running through Saturday.
When the production debuted in 2006 at the Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge, the cast size and budget for the production were "modest," scenic designer Carl Sprague recalls. They barely had enough paint to finish it.
The main pieces of the set are simple, yet reflective of the streets of mid-Victorian London where Charles Dickens wrote his novella, "A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas," published in 1843.
A scholar of Dickens' work and of Victorian literature, Hill says his stage adaptation for BTG aims to stay true to the novella's setting, which he describes as "cold, damp and filled with struggle. ... The buildings became this physical dark force that felt like it could swallow you up like the fog at any given time."
This feeling is embodied by Sprague's tall, asymmetrical and imposing structures. The set pieces are painted a soot-black shade, evoking the coal-fueled Industrial Revolution. Yet these scenes are full of texture, from smooth, cylindrical smokestacks to carefully sculpted faux masonry and casement windows of varied arcs and lattices.
"The textures are everything. That first year, I didn't expect it would be something to run for five, 10 and now 13 years," Sprague said. "All of that scenery is just cardboard and drying compound and globs of glue."
After Berkshire Theatre Festival merged with the Colonial Theatre in 2010 to become Berkshire Theatre Group, the set was moved from Stockbridge to Pittsfield in 2011. "It was probably the biggest piece of surgery I've ever done for a set," Sprague said.
The set, once designed for an intimate theater with a thrust stage, had to be retrofitted for an opera house with proscenium arch.
But Sprague, along with lighting designer Matthew E. Adelson, who has also worked on this production since its inception, made it happen and have worked each year with other members of the artistic company to maintain its essence.
"Now it's got a little more integrity," Sprague said.
Adelson agrees. "The year we moved to the Colonial allowed for more bells and whistles," he said.
Stage manager Caroline Stamm said that the show has somewhere between 150 and 175 different light cues.
"Light is important to our design because it was crucial to London during the 1840s," Adelson said.
London's mythical "fog," he reminds us, "was the result of burning coal for light and heat."
Against the shadowy set, the eye is drawn to wherever there is light, be it from a tarnished widow or single flame. "It's about the angle and intensity of where the light comes from — the side, back and above — to help sculpt the actors and the set," Adelson said.
That includes both illuminating Scrooge's reality as well as his otherworldly visions into his past, present and what's yet to come.
"My favorite effect is the exciting, swirling, rushing sound that engulfs Scrooge and the stage, transporting him back to his bedroom after his final encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Future concluding with a tremendous gong that shakes the very theater itself," sound designer J Hagenbuckle wrote in an emailed interview response.
This current show has 106 sound cues called by Stamm, with more than 270 programmed cues in the theater's computer-operated sound system.
Hagenbuckle says that along with the cast's live performances of Christmas carols, the sound design consists of effects such as thunder and wind, traditional Christmas music, solo violin music, chimes, bells, gongs, electronic music underscoring and reverb effects.
Last year, he and Adelson worked with Daly, the director, and actors to re-design and choreograph the entrance of the ghost of Jacob Marley, who now emerges onstage through a mist of fog, haze, brilliant light and clanging chains.
This year props master and production coordinator Amanda Warriner has added some extra sheen and glow to the Ghost of Christmas Present's scenes, with freshly fluffed and decorated Christmas trees, new linens for the feast and a refurbished throne. For better or worse, about a pint of glitter is used each show, coating the stage every time the festive spirit waves his wand.
"My goal this year is to take what's existed on the set for the past 10 to 12 years and breathe new life into it," she said.
What remains the same is the story itself, of how a person is capable of redemption from living a life of greed and breeding contempt.
"Everyone loves the story of the defrosting of a cold heart," said Hill, reflecting on his character. "Like a light burning in a dark window, you can sense there's still an interior warmth."
Jenn Smith can be reached at email@example.com and 413-496-6239.
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