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Courtenay Little Theatre’s December productions have been an annual holiday tradition for hundreds of Comox Valley families for nearly 20 years.
Determined to deliver that holiday tradition in some way despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Courtenay Little Theatre approached the Sid Williams Theatre Society with an idea to co-produce a staged reading of A Christmas Carol as a virtual holiday event.
The cast and crew all felt compelled to be part of something to maintain a semblance of holiday tradition and keep the connection of theatre and its spirit alive in some way during a time of public health restrictions on social gatherings.
It was personal too.
“Theatre is a huge part of my mental health, so I wanted to be part of an effort to keep it going during this different season,” actor Andria Young said, “I missed it too much, so it fed my soul to be a part of this production.” Fellow actor Wes Buckle echoed that sentiment, “To combine the creative and the educational while in lockdown is a great way to counter cabin fever.”
Director Catherine Hannon highlighted her personal connection to the piece, “my English grandfather gave recitals of A Christmas Carol one hundred years ago in Sheffield, England, so I’m continuing a family tradition.”
The project also offered the community theatre troupe the capacity to explore new formats.
“I loved the moment when we realized that rehearsing over Zoom actually worked so well! It was like a light in the darkness,” Young recalled.
For Hannon it was a series of many firsts. “How to adapt, stage, and shoot a theatre piece for cameras, how to audition and rehearse over Zoom, and how to edit the footage using a program I’d never used before. And all these new experiences had to be figured out whilst under the strictures of COVID-19 safety protocols,” she noted.
The project had a much shorter time frame than Courtenay Little Theatre’s typical holiday productions.
After only a couple weeks of Zoom rehearsals, filming took place in November over three different evenings at the theatre.
Many of the technical aspects for a recorded event differ from those required for live events. Pivoting to livestreaming and video production came with a learning curve for the Sid Williams Theatre’s technical team and they were enthusiastic about the opportunity to practice those new skills on a theatre piece like A Christmas Carol.
The theatre’s video production equipment includes three high-definition cameras that can be positioned at various points in the auditorium to capture different camera angles. Hannon and Courtenay Little Theatre’s sound designer Terry Penney spent the early part of December cutting together the raw footage from the three cameras to create the finished product.
For the cast of seven actors who portray twenty-five different characters, the impact of COVID-19 safety protocols were felt pre-production and while performing.
On stage actors were spaced at least six feet apart and were limited in their ability to get close to each other and engage normally in dialogue.
Acting involves so much physicality and interaction between players, it was a test for the cast.
“[A big challenge is] performing for the camera, rather than an attending audience. The missing exchange of energy between audience and performer was definitely noticed by all of us,” actor Jon Faris shared, “Doing a reading in which we were less able to face and interact with the other players made things extra challenging.”
Cast member Chris Taylor felt his biggest challenge was, “having to find a way to find different ‘voices’ for multiple characters with a minimum of physical movement.”
COVID-19 safety protocols had an effect backstage too.
The number of crew members backstage during filming was limited. There were no wardrobe or hair and makeup teams, and just a single stage manager. Actors applied their own makeup and ensured their costumes were properly adjusted. They also had to forego dressing room space in the theatre and instead used their cars in the parking lot. Actor Larry Stevens joked he “had quite a bit of fun with the makeup.”
Despite the many obstacles, the cast and crew has put together a heartwarming holiday production to remind us of our human connection while being physically apart.
“This is a local production, created by people from the Comox Valley for our neighbours, under strange and daunting circumstances, because we wanted to keep our community arts spirit alive and kicking, despite the pandemic,” Hannon emphasized.
The entire production team hopes the audience will enjoy the timeless message of redemption and compassion with their families and be able to share the viewing experience virtually with distant family and friends too.
“Spirits will be lifted, heart cockles warmed, and Christmases un-humbugged!”
The staged reading features the work of actors Wes Buckle, Jon Faris, Shannon Skender, Larry Stevens, Chris Taylor, Jeannine Taylor, and Andria Young, with piano accompaniment and musical direction by Lynn Hodge.
A Christmas Carol is adapted and directed by Catherine Hannon, produced and stage managed by Shari Jakubiec, with costume design by Gail Limber, and sound design and post editing by Terry Penney. Lighting, recorded sound, and camera work provided by Sid Williams Theatre technicians Patrick Emery, Marcos, and Andrew Taylor.
A Staged Reading of A Christmas Carol is available for streaming on four different dates – December 23, 24, 26, and 27. Streaming tickets are free, but donations are encouraged. The donations will benefit both Courtenay Little Theatre and the Sid Williams Theatre Society. In pre-pandemic times, the annual holiday production provides critical financial support for both organizations to operate throughout the year and any contributions to the virtual event are gratefully accepted.