When Tony Award-winning director Pam MacKinnon became artistic director for San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater in 2018, she inherited the company’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol.” ACT presented the show since 1975, and the adaptation by her predecessor Carey Perloff was a beloved favorite since its 2005 premiere.
Perloff’s advice on how to handle the show, says MacKinnon, was, “Make it come to life.”
Those words carry a new significance before the show’s 2023 production, which runs Dec. 6-24 and will be the last before the Perloff version (co-written with then-ACT dramaturg Paul Walsh) is retired. MacKinnon is collaborating again with award-winning playwright Craig Lucas (“Amélie,” “The Light in the Piazza,” “Prelude to a Kiss”) on a new version.
Such a pedigree piques interest in what is upcoming, though the current iteration isn’t likely to be forgotten anytime soon.
The pressure of meeting expectations is not lost on Perloff, who had to live up to some when creating her version.
After beginning her tenure as ACT artistic director in 1992, she inherited what she calls “a very beautiful, but rather bleak version of ‘Carol’ that had been running for decades.”
She also inherited a company in need of stability. Over the next two-and-a-half decades, she oversaw the restoration of the company’s famed Geary Theater (recently renamed the Toni Rembe Theater) as well as the creation of the satellite Strand Theater, a collection of world premieres (including “Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, A Musical”), and the molding of local talent through the company’s masters of fine arts and Young Conservatory acting programs.
Perloff drew inspiration for her take on Charles Dickens’ classic with those education programs in mind.
“[Paul Walsh and I] wanted to create a version of ‘Carol’ that celebrated the multigenerational aspect of ACT by penning strong roles for young professionals-in-training, as well as lots of participation by children,” she says. “We wanted this version to be joyful and more vigorous visually — and to have an intermission so the kids could pee!”
The cast also featured established actors. Ebenezer Scrooge originally was performed by British actor Giles Havergal, and Ken Ruta was among others portraying the character before Perloff cast Bay Area mainstay James Carpenter in the role. Then ACT regular Anthony Fusco also became a regular fixture as Dickens’ curmudgeon, as did Sharon Lockwood as Scrooge’s put-upon maid, Mrs. Dilber.
MacKinnon, overjoyed to have both actors back for the swan song, says, “We asked everyone who had done ‘Carol’ last year if they wanted to do it one last time. A vast majority said yes. Only a few good folks who no longer lived in the Bay had to say no. We held auditions for all the children’s roles and for any parts not filled by our offers.”
ACT veterans Fusco, Jomar Tagatac and Catherine Castellanos also are in this year’s cast of “Carol” favorites and novices alike.
Both MacKinnon and Perloff praise the show’s adaptability; MacKinnon recalls that Perloff emphasized that the show is “bendable.”
And both artistic directors made such bends, whether dealing with snafus (Perloff recalls a technical error that once had the Ghost of Christmas Past suspended in mid-air for the entire show) or to world-changing events.
When COVID lockdowns of 2020 were initiated, ACT produced socially distant theater. The result was a series of bold experiments, such as Christopher Chen’s Zoom play “Communion” and “A Christmas Carol: On Air,” Peter J. Kuo’s adaptation of Perloff and Walsh’s script into an audio drama with the blessing of both writers. It featured sound design by Jake Rodriguez, animated paintings of London by Lysandra Nelson, and the return of Carpenter and Lockwood among a roster of new performers.
“The radio version along with a book of games and recipes was how ACT decided to pivot in 2020 when we could not gather,” says MacKinnon. “Director Peter J. Kuo and dramaturg Joy Meads used a framing device of a gathering of friends and acquaintances who could not make it home for the holidays. It seemed at once timely and [timeless]. It starts as a simple reading of the Dickens and grows into the Perloff-Walsh adaptation complete with sound effects by Jake Rodriguez. Very smart and fun.”
So with the flexibility of the earlier version proven, why is now the time to retire Perloff’s iteration?
“Productions should not last forever,” says MacKinnon. “The Ghost of Future [costume] alone needs to rest. It is more needle and thread than original fabric at this point. The Dickens [story] is timeless, and a contemporary lens is excitingly needed. There are so many great adaptations from the Muppets to Alastair Sim. This story deserves to be heard anew.”
Though MacKinnon doesn’t go into detail about her upcoming redux with Lucas, Perloff, who hopes to see her version’s final run before it closes, agrees that the time is right for a change.
“It’s always sad to see a beloved production go, but also exciting to imagine a new one,” says Perloff. “Dickens’ novel holds within it infinite possibilities, so there should always be new ‘Carols’ and new ways of telling that story. I’m grateful ours had a long and happy run, and I look forward to seeing what’s next!”
For MacKinnon, the bold change of the staple represents a natural evolution. She says, “I love sharing stories, building community by working with powerful artists committed to uplifting and interrogating traditions along with audiences. I love an intergenerational audience and company. The Perloff-Walsh ‘Carol’ has changed through the seasons: rewritten here and there; newly staged here and there…. It has served the Bay so well. The audiences this year are in for a treat. The audiences next holiday season will be, too.”
The century-plus endurance of “A Christmas Carol” may very well be due to the epiphany gleaned by its lead character.
“We know from Ebenezer himself that change is hard but also worth it,” MacKinnon says.
American Conservatory Theater’s “A Christmas Carol” runs Dec 6 –24 at the Toni Rembe Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$130 at https://www.act-sf.org/whats-on/2023-24-season/a-christmas-carol/.
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist and performing artist. He has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner and more. Dodgy evidence of this can be found at The Thinking Man’s Idiot.