Hartford Stage reinvents ‘Christmas Carol’ as free, online ‘Community Carol’ (featuring Julia Rosenblatt, Theater Arts Program Coordinator)

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Hartford Stage will perform a whole new “Carol” this Christmas while its theater remains shuttered due to the pandemic. Unable to stage its traditional “A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas,” Hartford Stage has gathered some of the most recognizable actors from that show and created a new, free, virtual piece, “A Community Carol,” which premieres Dec. 17 and streams online through Dec. 21.

Living up to its title, “A Community Carol” was “collectively created,” according to Rachel Alderman. “The plot and the text are from Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol,’ but the way you will experience the story online is from the collective talent and imagination of all of the artists involved.”

Alderman, who has overseen the live show for several years, is credited with adapting and directing the piece.

The pandemic has interrupted a show that has happened every December for over two decades, and Hartford Stage wants to acknowledge that gap with “A Community Carol.” The show refers to its main cast as the “returning ensemble,” a dozen actors who’ve appeared in the show at least since Alderman has helmed it, and in some cases have been with “A Christmas Carol” for over two decades.

The main cast consists of professional actors in the Actors Equity union. But Hartford Stage’s “A Christmas Carol” is also known for providing roles for student actors at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School and a throng of adorable local children. Those traditions have been carried on to “Community Carol.”

The new show goes even further, finding room for appearances by Hartford Gay Men’s Chorus, renowned “Night Fall” puppeteer Anne Cubberley, Reverends Cathy & Heather Rion Starr of the Unitarian Society of Hartford and others. Julia Rosenblatt, the co-founder of HartBeat Ensemble who teaches theater at Capital Community College, consulted on the script.

“When we realized we couldn’t do what we normally do — financially as well as for health and safety reasons — we could step back and ask ourselves a question,” Alderman says. “What do we value about the fact that we do ‘A Christmas Carol’ every year? The essence of the answer is the connectivity, the community joy and the warmth that we share from doing it.

“We wanted this to be a light in the darkness. What will this look like in such crazy circumstances? That was the seed. We wanted to capture that.”

Alderman says “A Community Carol” deals with contemporary themes of racial injustice and other social concerns, “using Dickens’ language, which will seem different anyway because it’s on Zoom. The lines resonate differently. The word ‘contagious’ is used to describe laughter, and it just jumps out at you.” (The original Dickens line is “It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humour.”)

“There are lots of different roads into the story,” Alderman continues. “The premise is that our ensemble has gotten together to read ‘A Christmas Carol’ in a Zoom reunion. As they begin the story, larger forces begin to interfere.”

The tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s spiritual transformation, from a curmudgeonly skinflint to a gleeful philanthropist gamboling in the snow on Christmas morning, is enlivened for “A Community Carol” with special sections that take different forms than the central reading. Besides Cubberly and her team doing the Marley section, Capital Community College is overseeing the party sequence from when a young Scrooge is apprenticed to the jolly Mr. Fezziwig and the Hartt students take on the “future” section. The child performers, known as the “Youth Ensemble,” were prompted to share stories of their own, submitted as short videos.

Since the whole show is pre-recorded, Alderman says “we were able to look at all the different tools we have and ask ‘What’s best for this moment?’”

Some plans were rethought as the pandemic worsened. “We were going to film one caroling segment outdoors, with social distancing. But then the numbers ticked up and it did not seem appropriate. You adjust.”

“There’s a lot that’s familiar and there’s a lot that’s new. This is all about going with the flow.”

A Community Carol runs Dec. 17-2. Admission is free, but viewers must create an account and “purchase” tickets through the Hartford Stage website, hartfordstage.org/communitycarol. Donations are encouraged. Those who donate $25 or more will receive a special candle that can be used for the “community candle lighting ceremony” at 7 p.m. on the show’s opening night.

Christopher Arnott can be reached at carnott@courant.com.

https://www.courant.com/ctnow/arts-theater/hc-ctnow-preview-hartford-stage-community-carol-20201203-naggrmwpavaznfpoivn72ltj2e-story.html