20. REPORT ON AN APPALACHIAN CHRISTMAS CAROL, 2018
As promised, here’s the report from this year’s An Appalachian Christmas Carol. In short, it went extremely well. In long, it’s complicated. But I suppose that’s why I’m writing all of this down; to mire through the complexity in search of that elusive simplicity. Be forewarned, dear reader, that this newsletter breaks my usual word limit by quite a bit. In fact, this wades into the territory of overlap between a newsletter and a blog on process. I try and keep them separate, but alas, I just couldn’t this time around. Read as much or as little as you like but do skip to the bottom for a special holiday present.
Samuel Beckett, one of my longest muses, was said to be pleased if audience members both walked out in the middle and applauded at the end. I have always aspired to this, which is why 2018’s An Appalachian Christmas Carolwent extremely well. That said, confronting the dissention is necessary. It cannot be simply written off or I’d be a hypocrite to the conversation I am trying to spark. Let’s dive in.
The moment I knew something was off was not vocal or even visual. My eyes are constantly on the puppets and crankies, but there was a particular group during the Friday performance that simply felt off. The energy was stunted, and my mind imagined tensely crossed arms. As I finished the marionette on the second crankie and the audience slowly moved toward the smoke house, I decided to follow them down the hill. Sure enough, certain members of the audience separated themselves from the group. At one point they were standing a good twenty yards away from our actor as she gave the show’s central monologue and it was reported back that they did not finish their path through the slave cabin. Later, I was told that when a site employee asked a gentleman in the parking lot how they enjoyed the show, he replied something to the tune of, “It was incendiary. How can we move forward if we keep looking backward?” Given that this is precisely the work of the AMC—dealing with the now by looking to the past—there’s not much I can do with this besides hope something nagged in this person’s mind later that may evolve into further thought. There have been similar responses in the survey sent out by the site. A couple disapproved that the show was made political and was not historically accurate. More than anything this makes me sad. The easy answer is that all art is political, but that’s not a true response to these feelings. The complicated answer is we told a human story that can make people uncomfortable. To be fair to these audience members, they clearly came to the site with a certain expectation that not only wasn’t fulfilled but was turned on its head. This takes me into the most complicated aspect of this report: the invitation and contract.
To our credit, we proactively tried to be more transparent this time around. Last year, we didn’t mention our intention to highlight the lives of the enslaved people in our press literature. More than anything, we were a bit fearful of premeditated responses to our work and therefore, we were just trying to fly under the radar. But then the vandalization occurred last year and something shifted in us. We decided to be explicit in our intentions—I even went on the radio with them. But you can’t force folk to read and listen to everything you put out there. This event replaced a long running candlelight program that had little to do with Vance and quite a bit to do with religion. That program had developed a community over the years and it is clear in the survey responses that this community is upset. That’s fair and to be expected. I’m glad they gave us a shot and not surprised that they won’t be back.
Then there’s a presumed contract that came into existence when we decided to adapt Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. As a kid, my relationship to this story was defined by Mickey Mouse and the Muppets and it wasn’t until when I went back to read the original story that I realized how incredibly dark it is. So, I understand this disconnect, though I’m not sure what, if anything, there is to do about it. One audience response even went so far as to state that our piece should be more like A Christmas Carol. I think this person would be genuinely surprised at how much of our script is a direct cut and paste off of the original. All that said, it does strike me that we many need to change the pre-show experience. We decided to screen the Muppet’s Christmas Carol in the Visitor Center on loop to give people something to do while they waited for their tour. Was this decision slightly subversive? I admit this it was, but I also love that movie, so the subversive nature of the choice seemed good spirited. However, I now realize it may have hurt more than it helped and there may be a more constructive choice for pre-show. Something to marinate on.
There’s a lot to unpack in this next one and I find it very valuable. Another audience member that seemed surprised by the invitation and contract (though not angry), reported that they were told about the AMC and our mission at the end and wished they had known that information at the beginning. They said they spent the first half of the show trying to figure out the storytelling. They opined that it was not kid-friendly, though their kids were okay with it and they personally enjoyed it. In the end, they seemed to have a real appreciation for the event but regret that their invitation seemed incongruous to their experience. I can only make assumptions that what brought them was the Christmas Carol aspect and possibly the toy theatre aspect. What they missed in the invitation—our mission and our purpose in this story—is out there to find, but it does take extra effort and I can’t fault them for missing it. However, I am wary of the solution to announce at the beginning, “We are X theatre company and our mission is X, so please enjoy the show with those things in mind.” As a consumer of stories, I don’t like being told how to consume. That said, an immersive, site-based, promenade, toy theatre experience is abnormal storytelling to the majority of our potential audience. People don’t know how to be an audience to this experience. Many of the complaints I’ve heard are explained in the script, but if one doesn’t know how to listen to the storytelling, they’ll miss it. Shakespeare knew this, which is why you find such repetition in his complete works. I’ve gone from annoyed dismissiveness on this point to passionate understanding, but I still lack a solution.
How do we prepare the audience to consume this experience in a way that they hear the complete story? This year, we supplied a program that spelled out the historical significance of each vignette, hoping that if they needed it, it was there. I wrote my first director’s note in a decade, albeit short. (You can find the program on the Past Shows page). The only hint at a solution that I have right now is hearing one of the volunteers commenting that they understood it better each time they watched it. Obviously, we can’t request each audience member commit to repeated viewings. But perhaps there is something in the preshow that can help. With the current Muppet movie in question, is there a way to use that time to teach the audience how to listen to our storytelling? Something else to marinate on.
Finally, there is still work to do on the story itself. I had a wonderful conversation with a local puppeteer who enjoyed the story and she had the same criticism many have with the clarity of the second act. This is the part of the story in which we try and use the Tiny Tim section of the original piece to illuminate the freedom of an enslaved person, followed by the era of Reconstruction and the subsequent Jim Crow laws of the south. This is told through voice over from the Ghost of Christmas Past, a crankie placed in the garden that tells the story of a seed that grows into a sunflower only to be besieged by the elements, and this year’s addition of a marionette puppet that is the personification of that seed. It was that last element that I had hoped would clarify the story, but it seems to have muddled it further. I once had great success with a Punch and Judy puppet travelling in front of a crankie, which is where the idea came from to create a marionette. Looking back on that, I realize that Punch and Judy puppet actually interacted with both the crankie and other puppets on its own plane. In the case of the garden scene, the crankie is telling the metaphorical story of the marionette, but they do not directly interact with each other. My hunch is I need to add in (at least) two more puppets for the marionette to interact with on her plane—what they are exactly will require more marinating. Finally, our Ghost of Christmas Present needs to move somehow. I love the improvements we made to his wreath face—the mustache, the sunflower eyes, and the berry cheeks—but whether it’s a nutcracker jaw or something else, it’s the final piece of static puppetry that begs for movement. Lots to marinate on, but the good news is we have a year to do it.