For the third time, Katie McFadzen is bringing the one-woman version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” to the Valley—this time to an outdoor stage the Herberger Theater is building to provide safe access to live theater during the pandemic.
The script is an adaptation that McFadzen and original director Matthew Wiener did together several years ago. McFadzen plays all the characters, sometimes having three-way conversations with herself. The original production was 88 minutes. She says she is hoping to trim it to 70 to 75 minutes because Arizona is chilly in December.
The production, brought to the Valley by Childsplay, where McFadzen has been an associate artist since 1993, runs Thursdays to Sundays November 28 to December 23, with tickets ranging from $32 to $39.50. A talkback follows each performance.
Wiener is the former artistic director of the now-defunct Actors Theatre of Phoenix. That theater did a musical version of “A Christmas Carol” for 20 years, so Wiener was very familiar with the story.
McFadzen said they talked through the novella to figure out what should stay and what should go. He tackled the first draft and then they collaborated on narrowing it down.
It was the first time McFadzen had been involved in a production of “A Christmas Carol,” because she had always written it off as a story about a bunch of men. What she discovered instead surprised her.
“As I started to read and work on it, I found more universality,” McFadzen says. “It is a universal story. It is about change and people’s ability to change. It’s about finding the hope. For me at this moment, when I look at the world and I think it is in great need of change, I think this is a wonderful story to tell. Change can happen, and it’s OK.”
She shifted the masculine focus to make it more universal in her adaptation. Whereas Dickens frequently refers to men or mankind, she chose words like men and women or humankind. She shortened some of the language while retaining its poetry.
“I wanted to make it more gender-neutral in places, more accessible, so I really focused on that element,” McFadzen says. “One of the things we did going in was to not change the gender of the characters as written by Dickens. I’m definitely a woman playing another gender, which I’ve done many times in my career.”
Instead, they called Belle a woman instead of a girl and removed language that today would be considered racist.
“We worked to find places where we can represent and avoid stereotypes and things that are offensive to people,” McFadzen says.
She says Dickens was a wordy writer and often used 25 words to say what could have been said with three.
“Finding those places to trim down and get the gist of what is happening (was our focus),” McFadzen says. “There were a few places where we could just cut something, but then other places where the language is so beautiful and Dickens creates such beautiful images that we say, that’s got to stay.”
The show will be performed on an outdoor stage the Herberger is building so its resident theaters have a safe place to perform. They’ve dubbed it the Herberger Theater Center Pavilion.
Childsplay, like all theater organizations, was deeply affected by the pandemic and the resulting shutdown. McFadzen says they had to cancel a production, but then they shifted to entirely online for their remaining programming.
This included their summer academy.
“It was more successful than I thought it could ever be,” says McFadzen, who noted that many of her colleagues were concerned about how to teach theater online.
“It was surprisingly effective.”
They then shifted to offering four one-person shows with a grant provided by the National Endowment for the Arts and additional underwriting to send those shows out free to schools.
But with the Herberger building the outdoor stage, Childsplay can get back to doing live theater, starting with “A Christmas Carol.”
The Herberger has laid down artificial turf and installed fencing. The stage is covered, and the seating will accommodate around 160 people, with the actual arrangements changing for each show. The house will be set up based on the size of groups reserved. So, if a group of six comes, they’ll have six chairs together. If a person comes alone, he or she will have a single seat spaced out from the others.
“It’s an interesting experiment,” McFadzen says. “It is an interesting pivot. I think it is just great that they’re giving people an opportunity to produce theater that’s live.”
McFadzen will be at least 12 feet from the audience. Entrances and exits will be arranged in one direction to help protect distancing.
“Being outside is always safer,” McFadzen says. “I would encourage people to just get out and find some joy in the holiday season. There hasn’t been a lot of that in the past few months. It’s a time to be with your bubble—whether it is close family or a group of friends. The audience will wear masks, and I feel pretty confident it will be a safe environment if people follow the rules.”
She is looking forward to bringing this story back and playing the wide variety of characters. She says she enjoys all 20 characters, some more caricatured than others. She highlights the ghosts because they are entities rather than humans, adding to the interest in presenting them.
For each of the characters, she changes herself physically and adds something to her voice. Her costume was specially designed for her as a feminine masculine look.
But it all comes down to Scrooge.
“Scrooge is the most delightful,” McFadzen says. “He is Scrooge throughout the show, but by the end, he’s a completely different person full of life and joy. To have that arc and make that transition is joyful and delightful, and I feel honored to do it.”
While she and Wiener put together this adaptation of the 1843 classic several years ago, McFadzen says the story is still relevant.
“It is a story about redemption and people’s ability to change, and in changing there is hope,” McFadzen says. “Looking at this character as a person who is capable, with influence from outside entities, of changing and becoming a better human—I think there are strong parallels and metaphors to what is happening in the world today.”
Childsplay’s “A Christmas Carol,” Herberger Theatre Center Pavilion, 222 E. Monroe, Phoenix, various times through Wednesday, December 23, herbergertheater.org, tickets start at $22.50.