News Column

UW-L to stage classic 'Christmas Carol'

December 1, 2013


Dec. 01--Mary Leonard doesn't fret about the ghosts of productions past when directing "A Christmas Carol."

Leonard, who is directing the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse theater arts department's fourth production of the Charles Dickens classic, acknowledges competition from other activities and the plethora of Scrooge plays, movies and animations this time of year -- and God bless every one.

"There's something about this play and the tradition of seeing this transformation," said Leonard, an acting and directing professor who heads the department's performance program.

"I'm a lover of this play, and I think the audience loves to watch Ebenezer Scrooge go from an awful human being to evolve for the better," she said.

"It gives us hope and time to pause and reflect that we should be good to one another," Leonard said.

"Christmas can come very early and be very commercial. No matter what your beliefs are, it helps us reflect on being good human beings," she said.

The play, produced at UW-L in 2002, 2006 and 2009, will debut at 7:30 p.m. Friday in UW-L's Toland Theatre.

"I like to think of it as being our gift to our community and to our own students," Leonard said.

A large percentage of UW-L theater students are in the Mary Fields adaptation, and 10 children, ages 7 to 17, also have roles, she said.

"It's very big, with 54 people in the cast," she said. "It's the biggest production we have at UW-L."

The cast size is challenging, Leonard said, adding, "It's huge, trying to schedule 54 people all with different schedules and trying to get the little kids out early from rehearsal."

The child actors are assigned "college buddies" to guide them through rehearsals and the performances, she said.

The buddies are helpful, said 13-year-old Ian Scott, who is in the play for the second time. He played Tiny Tim four years ago and portrays the young Scrooge for this rendition.

"It's kind of like having a college friend," said Ian, a seventh-grader at Lincoln Middle School and the son of local actor and storyteller Michael Scott, who created The Old School Variety Show.

"I think it's cool to be back in the play again," Ian said. "Everything seems so familiar."

Tiny Tim was a more challenging role than young Scrooge, who is on stage only twice, he said. "Tiny Tim doesn't have many lines, but he is on the stage a lot," Ian said.

Ian's brother, Owen, is finding that out, stepping into his brother's shoes for the role.

"I like the college buddies," 8-year-old Owen said. "And I like to get to stay with my family all of the time" on stage.

"The hardest part is remembering when to say my lines," said Owen, a third-grader at Emerson Elementary School.

As Owen learns his lines, the UW-L students cast in the opposite roles of ill-mannered Ebenezer Scrooge vs. mild-mannered Bob Cratchit are picking up personal life lessons as they create their characters.

"It's a very good learning experience," said Seth Steidl, a junior from Wisconsin Rapids who plays Scrooge. "My philosophy is you can learn in classes, but the best is experience, and this role is a great opportunity for me to learn and grow."

Steidl, who played Jacob Marley in the play in high school, said Scrooge is a bigger test for his acting chops.

"Scrooge just gets a lot more stage time, and you get to see his character develop. There's a lot more to work with," said Steidl, a theater performance major, whose minors are archaeological studies and anthropology.

The most challenging aspect of the Scrooge role is toward the end of the play, Steidl said, when he must shift from being depressed and bawling after he sees his headstone to being happy and gleeful when he finds himself back in his bedroom with the rare chance for a life do-over.

"It's like bing, bang, boom," he said, "going from that real deep feeling to being happy the rest of the play. It's a complete change."

David Holmes, who portrays Cratchit, said the clerk's persona has rubbed off on him.

"I love Bob Cratchit," said Holmes, a junior from Oregon, Wis. "He has the spirit of a good person. He loves his family and doesn't complain about his job."

Cratchit's positive attitude in the face of Scrooge's abuse provides a model for his family and the world, Holmes said.

"Getting into the mindset of Bob Cratchit made me happier in everyday life, trying to be a nicer person," said Holmes, a theater performance major with a minor in design technical production.

The role requires him to portray "that person who can take a really bad day and turn it around," Holmes said. "He walks into a room and brightens it -- that's a challenge."

Steidl and Holmes hope to land acting jobs after graduation.

"I have very big aspirations to be an actor," Steidl said. "I'll look to New York or Los Angeles, in film or on stage. A lot of people make fun of me when I'm watching a movie when I say, 'I'm working,' but I am. I'm studying."

Holmes said he may head to Minneapolis or Chicago to seek theater work.

For now, though, they remain focused on Scrooge and Cratchit.

"This is a very real production of 'A Christmas Carol'," Holmes said. "It will make you feel."

Students sense the need to convey the play's intense meaning, Leonard said.

"They understand this is a play everybody grows up seeing on TV and in the movies," she said. "The message is always good and that of redemption."

The production will feature some special effects to provide a fresh feel, she said.

"Marley has a special entrance and -- I don't want to give a lot away -- Christmas Future is a little scary," she said.

"It's a joy to work on this show," Leonard said. "I never grow tired of it."


(c)2013 the La Crosse Tribune (La Crosse, Wis.)

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