Q&A: A Christmas Carol

Meet the Cratchits: Oliver Dennis, Deborah Drakeford and their daughter Charlotte Dennis chat about Soulpepper’s beloved holiday production

The Cratchits: Oliver Dennis, Charlotte Dennis and Deborah Drakeford. Photo credit by Rhys Fulton Doyle.

‘Tis the season to celebrate the longevity of Charles Dickens. This month, Toronto audiences have the chance to catch Soulpepper’s acclaimed production of A Christmas Carol, directed by Michael Shamata, and starring the award-winning Joseph Ziegler as Scrooge, at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. The play is cherished by many, including cast members Oliver Dennis, Deborah Drakeford and their daughter Charlotte Dennis, the lovable real-life family who portray the famous Cratchit clan on stage. Here, we chat with the three performers about their experiences working on this show.

Theatromania: Tell us about working on Michael Shamata’s production of A Christmas Carol. What has been the best part of this experience so far?

OD: It’s almost become a tradition in itself. Deb and I first worked on Michael’s adaptation 18 years ago and are working on our nineth production of it. One in New Brunswick at Theatre New Brunswick, one in London at The Grand, and this is the seventh with Soulpepper. It’s a beautiful adaptation that is very intimate and direct. The show begins with the actor playing Marley and the Ghosts (John Jarvis) welcoming the audience and setting up the story as a ghost story so already the audience is on the edge of their seats.

The best part of the experience is rather difficult to describe. It has to do with the challenges and rewards that come from revisiting a part that I have played nine times. Learning how to keep it fresh—telling the story for the first time, each time—is a valuable lesson. And, over time, peeling away the layers of actor stuff that you don’t realize that you carry with you when doing roles for the first time (things like pushing to get your character agenda across, the anxiety of being successful, ego, missing nuances, the list can go on and on). You can just settle in and think the thoughts of the character, live the part. I have been lucky to have revisited several parts over the years and it’s a very full lesson.

DD: Having the luxury and privilege of looking at this play, at this story, again is such an honour. Learning from what we’ve done in the past, I am able to continue to peel away and dive deeper and deeper into the roles. Michael’s adaptation is so beautiful, theatrical and dark. And doing it in the round keeps it immediate and intimate. Also, the other players in this piece are such a wonderful group to hang out with!

CD: I have been coming to Michael’s production of A Christmas Carol for 10 years and it has really been an honour and pleasure to have been a part of it for the past two years. Michael’s adaptation of such an iconic story is the most beautiful I have seen. Michael is such a special director, he has a way of guiding us into discovering new things about our characters. I feel very privileged to have worked with him. It has also been so wonderful to collaborate with actors who I have been watching from a very young age, and they have been so great in welcoming me into the fold.

Theatromania: Tell us a bit about each of your characters. Can you relate to them?

OD: I play Bob Cratchit and Dick Wilkins (an apprentice friend of young Ebenezer Scrooge). I think everyone knows the story of Bob. He works for very little money at the offices of Scrooge and Marley. He has a little family (four children in this production) and is married to Anna Cratchit (my real life wife Deborah Drakeford (how lucky is that!)). His son, Tiny Tim, is very ill and is very likely to die if he doesn’t get help. It is very easy to relate to Bob. He is a kind of everyman. He is taken advantage of by “the man” but still hasn’t lost his sense of gratitude for what he does have.

DD: I play two wives: Anna Cratchit and Scrooge’s nephew Fred’s wife (whom I have affectionately named Freda). With Cratchit, I get to play opposite my real life husband Oliver, which is very fun. Cratchit is a beautiful character: her life is difficult with raising a family on very little income and having a very ill child in Tiny Tim. She is fearful and worried and can come across as harsh because of that fear and worry. I definitely can relate to her in that constant worry—not that I live in a state of that, as she does, but my family, my children and their safety and well being and happiness is always somewhere in me. That old saying of “you’re only as happy as your unhappiest child” certainly applies. But I get to experience the lighter side of life too with Freda. She is full of hope and joy and forgiveness and takes delight in simple things: family, friends, a good game. That way of living is something I aspire to.

CD: I play Martha Cratchit and the small role of Dora during the Fezziwigs scene. Martha is the eldest daughter of Bob and Anna Cratchit (who are played by my parents which is rather exciting!). She is the eldest of four children and tries to help her struggling family as much as she can. For me she is a very relatable character in that she deeply cares about her family but it also helps that I’m raised by the same two people on stage as I am off stage.

Theatromania: If you could play any other character in this play, who would you choose?

OD: Who wouldn’t want to play Scrooge? The journey he takes from blindness to his fellow man to his rebirth as a man who “lives with Christmas in his heart all the year long” would be a great privilege to play. Joe Ziegler’s portrayal, though, could not be improved upon, so he’s got the part sewn up.

DD: I sure would love to play those ghosts. All of them: Marley, Past, Present, Yet to Come. Yummy. But I have been observing Johnny Jarvis play those for years now and can’t imagine anyone else doing that. He is so delicious in all of them.

CD: That is a tough question, I was thinking a one person show and I’d play all of the Christmas Carol characters. I think it should be something Soulpepper should invest in… But if I did have to pick one I’d have to pick Belle. She’s such a beautiful, good hearted character that has an incredibly heartbreaking story. Her journey is something I’d love to explore.

Theatromania: What are some of your favourite holiday traditions?

OD: Well, A Christmas Carol is chief among them. Charlotte is a Christmas hound and would start playing carols in the beginning of November if I let her. We have many family traditions among ourselves and our extended family but I feel funny about sharing them as they are our traditions and might sound silly to others. We have several party traditions that we look forward to every year from some very generous hosts. Love those!

DD: We have a number of family traditions that I hold sacred and therefore will keep secret! We do the same things year after year, and what I love the most about them is that it is about spending time with each other, just the four of us. We also travel to see our families as much as possible and there are a few very special gatherings that dear friends host that definitely says “Christmas” to us!

CD: I am a Christmas fiend. I would listen to Christmas music and keep the tree up all year if I could! But I have a great family who understands my need for Christmas cheer around the house. We have a lot of wonderful traditions as well. On December 6th we celebrate Elves Day, which is sort of like an early Christmas but instead of putting out stockings we put out our shoes. And on Christmas Eve my brother and I receive a pair of pajamas from our parents to wear to bed and we watch The Grinch.

Theatromania: What do you hope audiences take away from this performance?

OD: I hope the audience takes away what they came for. This is a story for which people thirst. They want to hear the story of redemption and rebirth. It uplifts them, gives them hope. You can actually sense it before the show starts. People KNOW this story, and they come anyway. Families, couples, singles. They come year after year. Why? They come to feel, with each other, as a community, the gladness of a full heart.

DD: This story is an important one. I love that Soulpepper revives it every two years because I believe that people want to see it, want to hear it, want to experience it again, want to be reminded. To watch Scrooge travel from a very dark place in his life to light, full of warmth and joy and humanity is so beautiful. No matter where we are, what we may face, there is an opportunity for all of us to view things differently, in a more positive way. And getting help in getting there (as Scrooge does through the ghosts and through the forgiveness of his nephew) is a wonderful reminder that reaching out can elevate us all.

CD: This is a beautiful show, it’s not just a fun loving Christmas show, it has real messages of humanity and love that I think people need to be reminded of from time to time, and what better time to do it than at Christmas? I hope people will share the experience and pass that message of love along to their loved ones and so on and so forth.

Catch Oliver Dennis, Deborah Drakeford and Charlotte Dennis in A Christmas Carol, on stage until December 29 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. Visit Soulpepper.ca for more information and to buy tickets. Read our review of the 2011 production here.

Also at the Young Centre, Wednesday December 12 to Saturday December 15 is The Word Festival: celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. This year’s festival features Miriam Margolyes’ one-woman show Dickens’ Women; a marathon reading of Dickens’ classics; and, of course, Soulpepper’s A Christmas Carol.



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