The Other Side of ‘A Christmas Carol’

What you don’t see on stage can be as fascinating as what you do

Dec 8, 2017 at 3:15 pm
click to enlarge Andrea Shell makes sure every performance of the Playhouse's "A Christmas Carol" runs smoothly. - PHOTO: Hailey Bollinger
PHOTO: Hailey Bollinger
Andrea Shell makes sure every performance of the Playhouse's "A Christmas Carol" runs smoothly.

If you’ve seen the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s production of A Christmas Carol, you’ve probably been impressed. It’s a glorious, magical show. I’ve attended just about every year since 1991. But I recently saw it from behind the scenes. As impressive and entertaining as the holiday favorite can be for the audience, it’s equally fascinating to sit in the booth above the Marx Theatre stage, from where Andrea Shell “calls” the show. Another treat: to be in the trap room below the stage and see the magic happen.

I attended a student morning performance on Dec. 6. The Playhouse produces A Christmas Carol for nine full houses of kids from local schools. Tech staff comes at 8 a.m. and actors at 9 a.m. to prepare for a 10 a.m. performance. On Dec. 6, an unexpected busload arrived; school officials had mistaken the date. They couldn’t return another day, so students filled in empty seats, while others stood against an aisle wall. Others watched the action on TV monitors in the lobby; after intermission they traded places. It took some finagling, but the Playhouse team rolled with it and made it look easy.

Before the show, Shell, the production’s stage manager, gave me a backstage tour through passages, stairways and hallways beneath the Marx’s seating and stage. At one point a booming voice over a loudspeaker announced, “Welcome to Humbug-Land!” 

We wandered through the honeycomb of tech offices and areas where actors relax when offstage (Christmas Carol has a cast of 28). The costume shop is there, wedged in near the small dressing rooms. Space is tight. I glimpsed Greg Procaccino, who plays Scrooge’s deceased business partner Jacob Marley, applying make-up for his ghostly arrival. He’s been Marley for 27 years, having just booked his 1,000th performance; he’s only missed three times. 

Waiting in Shell’s cramped office, I was surrounded by five actors practicing “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” Lively Benny Mitchell, an eighth-grader from Mariemont who portrays Scrooge as a boy, was one of them.

As buzzing adolescents filled the theater, I climbed up flights of steps to the booth Shell shares with master electrician Steve Saalfeld (another 27-year veteran of Christmas Carol), who controls the lights. As stage manager, Shell is the ringmaster of everything technical. Wearing a headset connecting her to a half-dozen others, she calmly cues lights, sound, motorized set pieces and more, coordinating with two assistants backstage who ensure actors and props are in place when needed. 

A Christmas Carol is an elaborate production. The set features two rotating “towers” — one contains Scrooge’s counting house and flips around to be the home of Bob Cratchit’s family; the other is Scrooge’s desolate apartment and his nephew Fred’s pleasant Victorian home. Periodically rolling on is Scrooge’s four-poster bed, from which he is beckoned by ghosts of Christmases past, present and yet to come. Two mechanized lifts push furniture and actors up through trap doors at various moments.

One lift malfunctioned about 10 minutes into Act I. Shell announced that a pause was needed; Scrooge left the stage and house lights were turned on while techs feverishly tried to ascertain the problem. An electrical relay had failed and could not be fixed on the spot, so Shell told the audience action would resume without the lift. That required stagehands to deliver a piece of furniture or two to the stage, but it never slowed the production. 

The Playhouse team kept its cool and did what needed to be done.

I had a headset so I could hear Shell’s measured delivery of cues: “Stand by Electric 35.” Pause. “Go 35.” She orchestrates lights, music, moving scenery and sounds like door knocks. I could hear occasional crosstalk between the techs about families and colds and other mundane matters between cues, but most of the time it’s strictly business. Across the two-hour production containing more than 700 cues, all happened right on time.

For Act II, I moved to the trap room beneath the stage. It’s like being downstairs from a noisy apartment — thumping footsteps, creaking scenery and more. When something needs to be moved up to the stage, several people spring into action: The platform is loaded with a profusely decorated Christmas tree or Scrooge’s tall desk. On Shell’s cue, technician Jon Pullen activates the lift from his keyboard as stage fog is generated (usually with a stagehand fanning a sheet of cardboard to make it spew from the open trap), and the piece ascends. Fans clear the room’s fog away quickly, and moments later the item slides back down to be quickly cleared for another item.

An especially dramatic moment occurs when Scrooge’s possible death is portrayed with actor Bruce Cromer cringing on a tombstone emblazoned with “Ebenezer Scrooge.” The trap opens and the lift begins to descend; all the techs in the trap room scream as if they’re the demons of hell welcoming a lost soul. Cromer rides down, frazzled from the dramatic scene, takes a few swigs from a proffered water bottle and gets lifted back up into the bed that’s moved onstage, where he will awaken on Christmas morning, a changed man ready to celebrate the joys of the season.

As the cast takes their bows, Shell’s voice thanks everyone behind the scenes for the good work and reminds all, “Two (performances) tomorrow, 8 a.m. call.” They’ll be back at it in less than 24 hours. Students remain for a question-and-answer session with the cast, and Shell stands by to answer tech queries, including “What’s the snow made of?” (Recycled, shredded white trash bags.)

The technical underside of this production is every bit as captivating as the story that’s told onstage. Charles Dickens, who conceived his beloved tale in 1843, could hardly have imagined the supporting drama and wizardry required to bring it to life onstage in 2017. The Cincinnati Playhouse makes it look easy, and that keeps audiences returning year after year. 

A Christmas Carol is onstage through Dec. 30 at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, 962 Mount Adams Circle, Mount Adams. Tickets/more info: