SANDY — This Christmas season marks 33 years since Hale Centre Theatre began running “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. Charming Utah audiences with beloved characters, heartwarming messages and theater-in-the-round staging, it’s no surprise that the production is the theater’s longest-running play. But Dickens’ 19th-century classic will receive a few changes this year, as it will show in Sandy’s Jewel Box Theatre at the Mountain America Performing Arts Centre for the very first time.
The Jewel Box Theatre’s 467-seat proscenium thrust stage debuted with “Forever Plaid” in September, and is one of two stages that cost a total of $80 million to fund. Director John Sweeney, who has overseen the production of “A Christmas Carol” for 14 years, said he is looking forward to bringing the character Ebenezer Scrooge to life in the new surroundings.
“I’ve always had this idea about having a bridge going through the town, and different entrances that could be used in the setting,” Sweeney said. “Then during the scenes in which Scrooge is with the ghosts and seeing the different parts of his life in the past, present and future, he could be up on that bridge … and looking down into seeing what is going on.”
It’s a slight change that Sweeney said should engage audiences more with Scrooge’s story, since the protagonist’s back won’t face the audience, as it would at times in a theater-in-the-round setting. According to Sweeney, a disc that turns in the middle of the stage also hides set elements that will spin to the front when needed, making the transitions between scenes more smooth.
But the Jewel Box Theatre’s new setup is not without its challenges.
Since the thrust design allows the audience to be seated around three sides of the stage, characters have to allot their attention to each portion of the crowd at the same time, Sweeny said. Additionally, the thrust layout isn’t as all-encompassing as the theater-in-the-round, which Sweeney said alters how he imagines the staging.
“Now we have to pay a little bit more attention to which is our upstage foot, which is our upstage arm … and how will I turn in this situation, so that it’s natural, but at the same time that most people are still able to see me?” he said. “I think for me personally, I’m always looking at visuals and trying to create paintings and pictures in my mind on the stage, and one of the things is that now it’s a flat canvas ... versus completely in the round.”
David Weekes, who has been playing the part of Scrooge with HCT for 14 years, agreed that rehearsing in the Jewel Box Theatre has been more of a balancing act than usual.
“It has been a little tricky for me because a lot of things have been in muscle memory,” he said. “But when you’re used to performing in the round and you suddenly have a thrust stage, it’s very different.”
Granted, 14 years of playing Scrooge does make taking on the role a bit easier — after reading through the entire play once at the beginning of each season, Weekes said he’s pretty well memorized his part. But he says that even after all of these years, the part still pushes him as an actor — and as an individual.
“I try to become a better person as Scrooge is trying to become a better person. I always look forward to that,” he said. “I think the most important message of ‘A Christmas Carol’ has always been redemption and change. People can be forgiving and people can be forgiven. And if we are willing to change and willing to forgive, our lives will be much more full and blessed.”
Sweeney stays true to the story's message by attending different productions of the play and revisiting the prompt copy of the book — which includes Dickens’ own handwriting and ideas in the margins. And considering that Hale Centre Theatre’s 2017 “A Christmas Carol” has already sold out many of its 52 performances, Sweeney noted that the tale is just as relevant today as when Dickens originally wrote the piece.
“It’s maybe even more meaningful now,” Sweeney said. “I do think that each and every year at the holiday season we get that opportunity to recharge and redeem, and then we can take that into the new year. And then maybe September, October time frame, maybe a little bit of Scrooge has gotten back into us and it’s about time to see the show again. I think it is a great way to recharge each of us individually and look at our lives and ways we can do better.”
If you go …
What: Hale Centre Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol”
Where: Hale Centre Theatre, 9900 S. Monroe St., Sandy
When: Dec. 1-23, dates and times vary
How much: $38-45 for adults, $20 for youths in kindergarten through 12th grade