Taking a closer look at Madison theater
Dec 18, 2013
02:19 PM
Stage Write

Storytelling Through Scrooge

Storytelling Through Scrooge

PHOTO COURTESY OF CTM

Ridge as Scrooge: "There's always a chance for redemption, as long as you wake up."

James Ridge has been living in the crinkled and miserly skin of Ebenezer Scrooge for three holiday seasons now, having played the iconic Dickens character in Children’s Theatre of Madison’s annual production of A Christmas Carol since 2009. You’d think by now he’d know the soul of literature’s most famous curmudgeon almost as well as his own. And he does—but he’s also not above mixing things up a little.

Partly at the behest of CTM artistic director Roseann Sheridan, and partly of his own volition, the American Players Theatre vet went back to the Scrooge-ian drawing board for this year’s Carol (playing in the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater through December 23). And he came up with some new and interesting takes on the character.  

The process was inspired, says Ridge, by his spending much of the summer playing the legendary Carol author in APT’s Dickens in America. If you’ve seen it, you know that the play, which imagines a public reading/performance late in the author’s life,  closes with an extended reading from—you guessed it—A Christmas Carol. The experience had a palpable effect on Ridge, who was struck by the ways the Dickens in the play wanted to make the most of his farewell show—not unlike the way Scrooge is moved to rewrite his unhappy legacy.

“I learned a lot doing Dickens in America all summer,’ he says. “ I learned as an actor, and in a deeper way, as a storyteller, that my job is to make myself as vulnerable to the story and my audience as I possibly can.” 

As he approached Carol, that meant revisiting the text, and deconstructing everything he thought he knew about Scrooge. “I wanted to be in love with the story, rather than daunted by ‘here we go again,’” he said.

Ridge turned his thought to rehearsing the part anew, to working with a cast he describes as committed and willing to take chances. Even though he admits he felt a responsibility to be a leader in cast rehearsals—not surprising, given his acting credentials—he also had to open himself up to taking chances. He began by meeting the play with a storyteller’s eye.

“The best energy comes when you’re willing to embrace the ridiculous, to say ‘I don’t know,’” Ridge says. “When I don’t know how something’s going to turn out, it’s scary, but it always results in the best process.” 

Audiences will see the results in the small nuances—for instance, Ridge’s Scrooge has just a little less manic energy when he calls out to the boy in the street after waking on Christmas morning. This year, CTM’s show lets Scrooge spend more time with the ghost of Jacob Marley, who’s usually served up as one of the play’s scarier touchstones.

“You get to hear what’s at stake,” says Ridge. “The idea of living with remorse. There’s a difference between guilt and remorse, and what a devastating emotion remorse is—it’s irreversible, beyond repair.”

Ridge’s Scrooge also spends more time with the Ghost of Christmas Past, learning deeper lessons from Ebenezer’s lonely childhood. All of the facets of the show and Ridge’s performance come back to the same thing—a focus on storytelling and connecting with the audience.

“Righteousness, truth, responsibility for one another—that’s what’s at the heart of A Christmas Carol, ” says Ridge. “The play is like the perfect homily—a story that reminds us, through Scrooge’s journey, that we have all kinds of good things in our past. But we sometimes lose sight of good opportunities in our present. That’s at the heart of why we like to hear this story every year. There’s always a chance for redemption, as long as you wake up.” 

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About This Blog

Once upon a time—okay, it was the mid-'80s—a boy saw a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the annual summer Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, and a spark was ignited. Decades later, that spark’s only grown stronger, burning brightly every time the lights go up and the actors begin to tread the stage.

I’ve spent a long time—okay, more than 15 years—watching and writing about Madison’s theater scene. Now, more than ever, it’s clear our bustling burgh is packed with vibrant theater companies doing important, cutting-edge work, whether it’s original and daring content, stunning musicals or thought-provoking stagings of modern and classic plays. Stage Write is a place where we’ll talk about those plays and the people who make them happen, maybe look behind the curtain a little and gain some new perspective on how and why it all comes together. Theater has the power to transform, to educate, to show us who we are and where we’re going in a way no other medium can. Hey, look: The curtain’s rising.

– Aaron R. Conklin
Follow Aaron on Twitter @arconklin

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