Stuart Carden started as the new artistic director at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre in September 2019. So he was just a few months into his new role when performances got underway of the annual production of "A Christmas Carol."
He greeted audiences each night, and it served as an introduction.
"Experiencing the tradition that is a 'Christmas Carol' at KC Rep and experiencing for the first time what this story and tradition means to our community," he says, "was really powerful."
So when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Carden knew he needed to keep the tradition going. The question was how?
Carden says he and the staff discussed a dozen possible versions — trying to find a way to bring actors and audiences together.
"And as recently as August, we were still trying to thread the needle on a safe way to do a one-person version in the Spencer Theatre [on the UMKC campus]," he said, "But it became clear that because of the impact of COVID and the rising cases, we were not going to be able to do any type of in-person."
The Rep decided on a virtual production instead with readings from the 1843 novella by Charles Dickens. It will be available for streaming Nov. 23 through Dec. 31.
Carden rehearsed by Zoom with a small group of actors. Then, they filmed over two days — one actor at a time with lots of COVID safety precautions — at the Vaile Mansion, a Victorian home and museum in Independence, Missouri.
The setting is intended to make people feel as though they're invited into a festive holiday party, Carden said, with fireside storytelling that audiences can watch on a screen.
Some elements will be familiar, like music from harpist Peggy Friesen, and the faces and voices of veteran Kansas City actors Walter Coppage, Gary Neal Johnson, Vanessa Severo, and Bri Woods.
Each actor performs a chapter, or as Dickens called them, staves.
Like many Kansas City actors, Gary Neal Johnson has performed multiple roles in the Rep’s "A Christmas Carol" since his first in 1982.
But for the past 20 years, he’s played Ebenezer Scrooge, the miserly businessman who’s transformed from a penny pincher to a philanthropist with the help of three spirits.
Johnson says the role is so ingrained that it was challenging to act to a camera.
"Television is quite different than stage acting where it has to be bigger because you have 30 rows to reach," he said, "and they need to be able to hear it."
For Johnson, it’s his first acting job all year and he feels lucky to be digging into characters, and doing the work.
But with venues closed and seasons canceled, many actors, designers, costumers, and musicians find themselves idle over the holidays.
In recent months, a new organization called Theatre Community Fund of Kansas City has teamed up with local theaters to host food drives, including ones at outdoor performances at Union Cemetery and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
On a weekday morning at the Unicorn Theatre, actor J. Will Fritz dropped off bags of donations. The seats inside the Unicorn's Jerome Stage are covered in plastic. Large metal shelves are lined with rice, pasta and lots of canned goods.
Actor Jake Walker, who's serving as the fund's executive director, worked closely with other theater professionals to launch Theatre Community Fund, inspired by similar efforts by the Denver Actors Fund.
"Because while the need is great right now because of COVID," he says, "artists always need this."
About 50 Kansas City actors each year earn a steady paycheck in KC Rep's "A Christmas Carol," with rehearsals starting up around Halloween, and performances wrapping up just after Christmas. Last year, Walker played Bob Cratchit.
"That is, kind of generally across the country in regional theater, that's the gig you want," he says.
Theater is a profession that relies on moving from project to project to project — risky, even before COVID.
“So we're hoping that the urgency of 2020 will help us be prepared for a long-term service for the community,” Walker says.
Three theater families, so far, rely on the food bank. And others are tapping it as needed. Even though it’s not how he envisioned this holiday season, Walker says he's making the best of it and "hoping to kind of help everyone remember that we have to take care of each other."
"It's a dark and hard time for artists and arts organizations, in this community and across the nation and across the world right now," says Carden, with KC Rep.
But even though, like many others in the community, they've lost a lot, Carden says, his cast is still finding hope and inspiration in the telling of Dickens' story.
"In a year of loss and a year of change and a year of re-evaluating our priorities, this story, it's always timeless and universal," Carden says. "And right now it feels wonderfully powerfully specific."