Behind one of the city's most beloved and longest-running holiday traditions.
The Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s A Christmas Carol celebrates 42 years at The Pabst Theater this season. We look back at how the production began and how it evolved over five original adaptations of the Charles Dickens novella, according to two representatives of Christmases past and two of Christmas present.
Tonen (Sara) O’Connor: Managing director, 1974-1995
James Pickering: Actor, original cast member, played Scrooge a record 14 years, the last in 2011
Deb Staples: Actor, joined production in 1990, current Ghost of Christmas Past
Mark Clements: Artistic director, 2009-present
Beginnings of a Tradition
Tonen (Sara) O’Connor: The idea came from [artistic director] Nagle Jackson in 1975. Nagle came home from shopping and walked past the Pabst Theater. It was snowing. It occurred to him that that gorgeous 19th-century theater was ideal for a story like A Christmas Carol.
James Pickering: I remember the first time we walked through the joint. Everybody said, “What a great place to tell this story.” The whole rehearsal process was exciting because everybody knew what a gamble it was.
O’Connor: It was more expensive than any other production we were doing. It was a huge step.
I was able to convince the [Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce] that adding A Christmas Carol Downtown would be a big boost for the city, particularly at that time of year. They arranged to loan us $30,000 as start-up cash.
Deb Staples: I was 20 years old and an intern [when I joined the production in 1990]. It was my first Christmas away from home.
It was very affirmative for me at the beginning of my career. I was also playing all sorts of extras in it, which was joyful and something I would do to this day.
A whole spool of company members got the flu, so I went on for the Ghost of Christmas Past, which is what I’m actually playing this year. It was a real rite of passage for me.
O’Connor: [Throughout the years, ticket sales] went up and down. We never knew why. But as far as we could tell, a great number of people were returning, and over the long haul, people who remembered the show were bringing their children.
Staples: It was a big deal for the kids, mine in particular. My youngest [child, Amalia Cescarini, who played Tiny Tim in 2014 and 2015] still gets together with her friends from the cast in that show.
Pickering: Nagle’s was definitely a narrative. Even the set was designed like the pages of a book.
O’Connor: [Jackson’s] was very close to the text. It involved narration to bridge things. We used a lot of orchestra, which was a huge plus from my standpoint.
Pickering: When Amlin Gray’s version came along in 1984, he wrote a socially conscious play, where the difference between people with money and people who didn’t have money was pronounced. The warnings and the messages that Dickens sent out were extremely apparent in Amlin’s play. Some more nasty things happened. What happened to victims … could be kind of scary. It all ends happily, but there are casualties along the way in that version.
O’Connor: In some ways [Gray’s version] was my favorite. Dickens was a ferocious social commentator. All of his novels deal with the evils of English society at that time, particularly the defense of the poor. Those elements are all there in A Christmas Carol, but you have to make sure they’re shown. The dark scenes contrasted very beautifully with the bright scenes.
Pickering: Then we commissioned the late Romulus Linney [a Philadelphia-born playwright and novelist] to write an adaptation. It was a case that the set wears out so you got to have a new version [of the play and the set]. Unfortunately, I don’t think Mr. Linney carried out that challenge very well. So, for three years we did a version we didn’t want to do and we tried to manipulate it into something that we did want to do.
[The then artistic director] Joe [Hanreddy] had realized by that time, “If I want this thing to say something, if I want it to have the message I want it to have, I need to write it myself.” Which he did. He came up with a wonderfully powerful and very musical version [co-written with Edward Morgan]. We opened that in 1998. We felt like we were back on track.
O’Connor: The Hanreddy/Morgan production was close to my heart simply because I was able to get permission for a group of prison inmates at Fox Lake Correctional Institution to perform that version. They understood what it was about. To me, it’s always important to not lose the through line of Scrooge’s change, his redemption.
Pickering: There are a number of actors who’ve passed away who were in the show. I sometimes feel their presence anyway, but I feel it particularly strongly [during the performances], simply because it’s a ghost story – Dickens says it in his introduction. While you’re performing the play, you have to believe in ghosts.
Mark Clements: The very first day I arrived at work [in 2009], the question was “What are we doing with A Christmas Carol?” I’ll be honest with you. I was a little bit cynical: “Why are we telling the same story every year on the same set?” But actually there are some stories that need telling. We live in a polarized time politically and socially. This story goes back to a set of core values without being preachy. It allows people to hit their reset button about forgiveness, rebirth, redemption.
Staples: There’s unbridled joyful human spirit in it. The lack of cynicism is awesome.
Clements: It was important to me to have a version that was truly family-friendly. There’s nothing worse than taking kids to something where there’s considerable effort and money involved and they have a miserable time. I was trying to think of [how to] tell this story and be scary enough to keep the kids’ attention.
Staples: If you need to go on a dark, scary ghost story and hit bottom to come back up, this is a great story that will help you do that. ◆
Tune in to WUWM’s (FM 89.7) “Lake Effect” Dec. 1 at 10 a.m. to hear more about the story.