In the Bleak Midwinter: Reflections from Kevin Moriarty - Dallas Theater Center
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2017 REGIONAL TONY AWARD®

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IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER: REFLECTIONS FROM KEVIN MORIARTY

The assignment seemed simple enough. “Let’s create a theatrical production of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’ holiday classic, for Dallas audiences.” This was hardly new for any of us at Dallas Theater Center. In 1969 we produced A Christmas Carol for the first time. In the years since then, we’re told and retold the story many times. Each artistic director, inspired by each of our theatrical spaces, from the Kalita Humphreys Theater to the (now defunct) Arts District Theater to the Wyly Theatre, has brought a fresh interpretation to the piece, and Dallas audiences have embraced the production as part of their annual holiday traditions.

And yet, this simple assignment – to do what we’ve been doing for decades – quickly started to seem anything but normal. It’s 2020, after all. Since March, theater performances worldwide have been shut down by a pandemic. In the past seven months, Dallas Theater Center has canceled seven of our planned productions, shuttered our theater spaces, and cut 40% of our operating budget, as all of our ticket income evaporated in an instant. We’ve managed to keep our production, administrative and artistic staff employed since March, one of the few theaters of our size nationwide that’s been able to do so, but only by relying on donations for concerned audience members and by making massive cuts to the rest of our budget. In a lifetime as an artist, I’ve never seen a crisis like this for the arts.

“We’ll do whatever we need to do to stage A Christmas Carol during the pandemic,” I said to our staff and board. “Just tell me the restrictions we need to work under to ensure the safety of everyone involved and we’ll find a way.”

These are some of the instructions
they gave me:

  • No singing or dancing.
  • Only 2-3 actors on stage at a time.
  • All actors must stand at least 6 ft apart at all times.
  • No kids in the cast.
  • Extremely limited interaction between backstage crew and actors (for instance, actors need to do their quick costume changes without the wardrobe crew touching them or their clothing).
  • 8 total actors in the cast – only the members of our Brierley Resident Acting Company.
  • No spectacle, special effects, large scenery, pyrotechnics, or flying. Which basically means: no ghosts!

No problem!” I overly-enthusiastically responded to mask the terror that was quickly growing inside me. “How are we going to tell this story with those restrictions,” I wondered. Our typical production of A Christmas Carol, set in the Victorian era, includes a large cast, many children, special effects, flying ghosts, song and dance numbers, and multiple, intricate costumes and wigs worn by each actor throughout the show.  But none of that was now possible during COVID.

Oh, and one more thing. No audience. For me, this was the biggest blow of all. I love movies, TV and reading, all of which are incredibly enjoyable as solitary activities; but what I love most about theater is the live-ness of it all. I love being in a crowded audience, surrounded by strangers and friends alike, all sharing a simultaneous experience. Laughing together. Gasping in shock. Bursting into cheers. There’s truly nothing else like it, and I love everything about it. In fact, as a director I almost always lean into the uniquely theatrical experience of the actors and audience being in a shared space. In our traditional production of A Christmas Carol we do everything we can to immerse the audience into the play, rather than having the audience sit in isolation staring at a stage in the distance. (Of course being able to create theater in the ever-changeable Wyly Theatre helps!) But this year: no audience. 

Well, that sucks. (Sorry, but I’m not sure there’s a more accurate way to describe my feelings about COVID.)

The options were: close down the theater, put our staff onto unemployment, and tell our community that we’re going to go on pause until we can return to work under something resembling normal conditions next year. (This would have been the “sensible” thing to do, and the course of action that most of my colleagues advised me to take.) Or substitute creativity and pluck for the necessary time and money that we didn’t have. (This was the risky and slightly crazy course of action, which most sensible people told me to avoid.)

We chose the crazy option. We’re theater people, what did you expect? We hired a talented team of filmmakers, assembled our production staff and acting company, and got to work. We asked ourselves, “What’s at the heart of this story that needs to be told this year for our community? And how can focus on lifting up that message, rather than focusing on spectacle?”

We quickly realized that in a time of social isolation, many of us were struggling with fear, loneliness and, frankly, despair. The story of A Christmas Carol, like the holiday that it celebrates, is an antidote to those sicknesses. It offers hope instead of fear; community instead of loneliness; and joy in the face of despair. In any version of the story, Scrooge has made a mess of his life. Childhood trauma, difficult economic circumstances, and broken relationships have led him to be “secret, self-contained and solitary as an oyster” by the time the story begins. And yet, Dickens reminds us that, though powerful, neither our past nor present must determine our future. There is goodness around us if we can allow ourselves to see it. There are opportunities to heal the afflicted if we are willing to move from isolation to an embrace of community. We can connect with family, whether biological or chosen, if we are willing to be vulnerable enough to open ourselves up to human connection.

Inspired by those themes, we stripped down the story. Typically the story is told in three consecutive sections: past, present and future. We reworked the narrative structure, constructing it of multiple flashbacks and flash-forwards, with the past, present and future scenes intercut throughout, flashing through Scrooge’s mind while he lays on his deathbed. Typically the story is set in the 19th century, but we updated it to today. Typically Scrooge encounters the ghosts in his bedroom; we relocated his life-altering encounter with the otherworld to be in a hospital room – a literal moment of life and death for a man at a spiritual crossroads. We fleshed out the characters and added more backstory in the stage time that typically would be filled with singing and dancing. 

In fact, there’s only one song in our play, and it led us to our title. “In the Bleak Midwinter” is a Christmas hymn that is close to my heart. It evocatively portrays a world that is “hard as iron,” in which “frosty wind made moan” and “snow had fallen, snow on snow on snow.” A cold, desolate world, in which the people are under attack from a hostile environment. And then it introduces angels and archangels, wise men, and a loving mother into that cold world, each there to offer gifts to the miracle of God’s presence among them on earth. As the song ends, the lyrics ask, “What can I give him?” And the answer is, “Give him my heart.”

I regret that we are not able to share our traditional production, with all its splendor and joy, with you this year. And I am so sorry that we can’t gather together in person this holiday season. But in this bleak midwinter, we’ve still come together as a theater company to tell a story for and with the community we love and which we are honored to serve. We’re still here, and we’re still holding you in our hearts. We may only be able to connect with you in virtual space this year, but this isn’t the end of our story. We’ll gather together for many Christmases yet to come.

Like each of you, we’ll get through this pandemic by reminding ourselves of our shared values and using our gifts to serve our community. He may have to stand six feet away from every other character, and Tiny Tim may need to remain out of site offstage this Christmas season, but Ebenezer Scrooge will still be redeemed. Now, more than ever, we are honored to share his story with you.

Merry Christmas, friends.

I’ll see you at the theater.

 

 

 

 

 

PHOTOS: 1. Blake Hackler and Emily Burke; 3. Kevin Moriarty, Megan Winters, Emily Burke and Mikaela Brooks; 4.Christopher Llewyn Ramirez and Molly Searcy; 5. Christopher Llewyn Ramirez and Blake Hackler; 6. Blake Hackler, 7. Liz Mikel and Kevin Moriarty; Molly Searcy; 8. Liz MIkel and Blake Hackler.

The assignment seemed simple enough. “Let’s create a theatrical production of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’ holiday classic, for Dallas audiences.” This was hardly new for any of us at Dallas Theater Center. In 1969 we produced A Christmas Carol for the first time. In the years since then, we’re told and retold the story many times. Each artistic director, inspired by each of our theatrical spaces, from the Kalita Humphreys Theater to the (now defunct) Arts District Theater to the Wyly Theatre, has brought a fresh interpretation to the piece, and Dallas audiences have embraced the production as part of their annual holiday traditions.

And yet, this simple assignment – to do what we’ve been doing for decades – quickly started to seem anything but normal. It’s 2020, after all. Since March, theater performances worldwide have been shut down by a pandemic. In the past seven months, Dallas Theater Center has canceled seven of our planned productions, shuttered our theater spaces, and cut 40% of our operating budget, as all of our ticket income evaporated in an instant. We’ve managed to keep our production, administrative and artistic staff employed since March, one of the few theaters of our size nationwide that’s been able to do so, but only by relying on donations for concerned audience members and by making massive cuts to the rest of our budget. In a lifetime as an artist, I’ve never seen a crisis like this for the arts.

“We’ll do whatever we need to do to stage A Christmas Carol during the pandemic,” I said to our staff and board. “Just tell me the restrictions we need to work under to ensure the safety of everyone involved and we’ll find a way.”

These are some of the instructions
they gave me:

  • No singing or dancing.
  • Only 2-3 actors on stage at a time.
  • All actors must stand at least 6 ft apart at all times.
  • No kids in the cast.
  • Extremely limited interaction between backstage crew and actors (for instance, actors need to do their quick costume changes without the wardrobe crew touching them or their clothing).
  • 8 total actors in the cast – only the members of our Brierley Resident Acting Company.
  • No spectacle, special effects, large scenery, pyrotechnics, or flying. Which basically means: no ghosts!

No problem!” I overly-enthusiastically responded to mask the terror that was quickly growing inside me. “How are we going to tell this story with those restrictions,” I wondered. Our typical production of A Christmas Carol, set in the Victorian era, includes a large cast, many children, special effects, flying ghosts, song and dance numbers, and multiple, intricate costumes and wigs worn by each actor throughout the show.  But none of that was now possible during COVID.

Oh, and one more thing. No audience. For me, this was the biggest blow of all. I love movies, TV and reading, all of which are incredibly enjoyable as solitary activities; but what I love most about theater is the live-ness of it all. I love being in a crowded audience, surrounded by strangers and friends alike, all sharing a simultaneous experience. Laughing together. Gasping in shock. Bursting into cheers. There’s truly nothing else like it, and I love everything about it. In fact, as a director I almost always lean into the uniquely theatrical experience of the actors and audience being in a shared space. In our traditional production of A Christmas Carol we do everything we can to immerse the audience into the play, rather than having the audience sit in isolation staring at a stage in the distance. (Of course being able to create theater in the ever-changeable Wyly Theatre helps!) But this year: no audience. 

Well, that sucks. (Sorry, but I’m not sure there’s a more accurate way to describe my feelings about COVID.)

The options were: close down the theater, put our staff onto unemployment, and tell our community that we’re going to go on pause until we can return to work under something resembling normal conditions next year. (This would have been the “sensible” thing to do, and the course of action that most of my colleagues advised me to take.) Or substitute creativity and pluck for the necessary time and money that we didn’t have. (This was the risky and slightly crazy course of action, which most sensible people told me to avoid.)

We chose the crazy option. We’re theater people, what did you expect? We hired a talented team of filmmakers, assembled our production staff and acting company, and got to work. We asked ourselves, “What’s at the heart of this story that needs to be told this year for our community? And how can focus on lifting up that message, rather than focusing on spectacle?”

We quickly realized that in a time of social isolation, many of us were struggling with fear, loneliness and, frankly, despair. The story of A Christmas Carol, like the holiday that it celebrates, is an antidote to those sicknesses. It offers hope instead of fear; community instead of loneliness; and joy in the face of despair. In any version of the story, Scrooge has made a mess of his life. Childhood trauma, difficult economic circumstances, and broken relationships have led him to be “secret, self-contained and solitary as an oyster” by the time the story begins. And yet, Dickens reminds us that, though powerful, neither our past nor present must determine our future. There is goodness around us if we can allow ourselves to see it. There are opportunities to heal the afflicted if we are willing to move from isolation to an embrace of community. We can connect with family, whether biological or chosen, if we are willing to be vulnerable enough to open ourselves up to human connection.

Inspired by those themes, we stripped down the story. Typically the story is told in three consecutive sections: past, present and future. We reworked the narrative structure, constructing it of multiple flashbacks and flash-forwards, with the past, present and future scenes intercut throughout, flashing through Scrooge’s mind while he lays on his deathbed. Typically the story is set in the 19th century, but we updated it to today. Typically Scrooge encounters the ghosts in his bedroom; we relocated his life-altering encounter with the otherworld to be in a hospital room – a literal moment of life and death for a man at a spiritual crossroads. We fleshed out the characters and added more backstory in the stage time that typically would be filled with singing and dancing. 

In fact, there’s only one song in our play, and it led us to our title. “In the Bleak Midwinter” is a Christmas hymn that is close to my heart. It evocatively portrays a world that is “hard as iron,” in which “frosty wind made moan” and “snow had fallen, snow on snow on snow.” A cold, desolate world, in which the people are under attack from a hostile environment. And then it introduces angels and archangels, wise men, and a loving mother into that cold world, each there to offer gifts to the miracle of God’s presence among them on earth. As the song ends, the lyrics ask, “What can I give him?” And the answer is, “Give him my heart.”

I regret that we are not able to share our traditional production, with all its splendor and joy, with you this year. And I am so sorry that we can’t gather together in person this holiday season. But in this bleak midwinter, we’ve still come together as a theater company to tell a story for and with the community we love and which we are honored to serve. We’re still here, and we’re still holding you in our hearts. We may only be able to connect with you in virtual space this year, but this isn’t the end of our story. We’ll gather together for many Christmases yet to come.

Like each of you, we’ll get through this pandemic by reminding ourselves of our shared values and using our gifts to serve our community. He may have to stand six feet away from every other character, and Tiny Tim may need to remain out of site offstage this Christmas season, but Ebenezer Scrooge will still be redeemed. Now, more than ever, we are honored to share his story with you.

Merry Christmas, friends.

I’ll see you at the theater.

 

 

 

 

 

PHOTOS: 1. Blake Hackler and Emily Burke; 3. Kevin Moriarty, Megan Winters, Emily Burke and Mikaela Brooks; 4.Christopher Llewyn Ramirez and Molly Searcy; 5. Christopher Llewyn Ramirez and Blake Hackler; 6. Blake Hackler, 7. Liz Mikel and Kevin Moriarty; Molly Searcy; 8. Liz MIkel and Blake Hackler.