Everybody knows the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and how his bah humbug spirit was transformed on one fateful Christmas Eve. As with any iconic character, though, Scrooge was first born in the imagination of a gifted author and brought to life through hard toil.
Charles Dickens, and the story behind the beloved holiday classic A Christmas Carol, is the subject of a new stage play, The Man Who Invented Christmas, written by Distinguished University Professor Les Standiford. The play was recently performed as a virtual staged reading directed by Associate Professor Phillip Church and featuring 16 FIU Theatre alumni.
The play reading will be available for a special one-week online screening from Nov. 28 through Dec. 5, as a fundraiser for the FIU Theatre Alumni Scholarship Endowment Fund.
The Man Who Invented Christmas tells the story of a 30-year-old Charles Dickens as he faces insurmountable debts and almost certain financial ruin. Although already an accomplished author, his latest books had flopped and whispers were circulating that the author’s once-promising career was over.
With doom closing in on Dickens, an idea took hold of him. Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future began haunting him until he had no choice but to risk everything to bring the story to life and rekindle the Christmas spirit in hearts and minds around the world.
“I believe the story of Dicken’s fight to create and distribute his heart-felt story is nearly as captivating as the original novel itself,” says Standiford. “No publisher was interested in the book and Dickens had to pay for its publication out of his own pocket.
Standiford, the founding director of FIU’s Creative Writing Program and a recipient of the president’s Worlds Ahead Faculty Award, first told Dickens’ story in the meticulously researched The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits. The book was named a New York Times Editors’ Choice and was adapted to a film starring Christopher Plummer and Dan Stevens in 2017.
But Standiford wasn’t done with the story. He decided to adapt it once again as a stage play.
“I thought a stage version could go a bit deeper into some of the human drama involved and provide an alternative for regional theater companies to put on at holiday time in place of yet another retelling of A Christmas Carol,” says Standiford.
Part of the development of any stage play includes a series of readings where the playwright is able to hear his characters come to life in the voices of professional actors and receive valuable feedback from those initial audiences. Readings are essential to the development of any play.
When the global pandemic made “social distancing” the new normal and forced theatres to shut down around the country, Standiford feared the development of his play would be delayed.
That’s when Phillip Church stepped in, gathering more than a dozen of his former and current students and putting together a virtual play reading through his theatrical company, What if Works.
“Our staged reading still adheres to the one-rehearsal one-performance norm which pretty much comes out of the professional playbook,” says Church. “Where we differed from a traditional staged reading was in adding some production elements to enhance the theatricality.”
Church enlisted the services of theatre alumnus and current technical director in the music department, Paul Steinsland ’15, to edit the play reading.
“We were able to get more creative with it than an in-person stage reading by adding things like sound effects, background music and images, titles, visual effects and motion,” says Steinsland. “Also, we had every actor use solid green as their virtual background so that they could later be inserted into different backgrounds along with other actors.”
The virtual nature of the play reading also gave Church an advantage he normally wouldn’t have, allowing him to include cast members that were scattered across the country.
Charles Sothers '03, who plays Dickens, found that to be a real plus in creating those authentic relationships.
“Working with so many FIU Theatre actors gave me a feeling of family,” says Sothers. “We all come from the same stock, right?”
Sothers also found inspiration in the creativity required to put this all together.
“I think it was ambitious in its scope,” he says, “getting many of us who are scattered from coast to coast to come together in these little boxes, these virtual environments, that would eventually be transformed into mid-nineteenth century England.”
Although the play reading is free, those who are able to should consider a donation to the FIU Theatre Alumni Scholarship Endowment Fund, which was created by the alumni of the theatre department as a legacy to support the future generations of FIU Theatre artists.
For Church, providing this screening as a fundraiser for scholarships was a no-brainer. “Charity and kindness is the bedrock of all Dickens’ work,” he says.