Heart on a Shtick: Jessica Blogs on Charles Dickens

At a recent coffee date with a friend whom I hadn’t seen in over 5 years, he said that, “We couldn’t change the past, but had control over our present, which would impact our future.”  This couldn’t have been said to me at a more perfect time.  Having just had an emergency appendectomy the week before diving into another Scott Palmer Christmas show, I knew I had to just focus on the here and now, and rest up for what I knew would be a fun, but challenging experience.

When I think back to my audition for my first ever Bag&Baggage Christmas show, little did I know that in five years, I would devote four of my holiday seasons to Scott Palmer’s creative holiday adaptations.  Having played Lana North Berkshire for three years in a row, you’d think I would have a strong grasp on what I was getting myself into when agreeing to be a part of, “Charles Dickens Writes A Christmas Carol.”  I had these Christmas shows down!  This would be a walk in the park.  Or, so I thought…

I quickly learned that this would be vastly different than my previous holidays spent with Bag&Baggage.  A new space, a new retelling of a much loved tale, and a new group of talented actors by my side, some of whom I hadn’t had the pleasure of working with before.  I quickly learned that this show and experience would be very different than our KBNB farce-filled fun from previous years.  One similarity to my other work with Bag&Baggage was the large number of characters I’d be playing.  Out of six shows with the company, only one of them had me portraying one character.  As Lana, I was challenged with creating the voices and physicality of anywhere between 5-10 characters during each show.  Then, as Margaret Lofty in the Drowning Girls, I was tasked with creating another set of vocally and physically different characters.  Early on in rehearsals for this year’s Christmas show, I remember thinking, “Gosh…what I wouldn’t give to just be able to focus on one character during a show – and really nail that one character’s obstacles, intentions, tactics, and everything else…” Then, as we began to analyze the script throughout rehearsals and really play with the characters and relationships within the mind of Dickens and the world of Scrooge, I realized how lucky I was to be able to develop such vastly different roles, and what a fun exercise this is for an actor!  I mean…why play one character, when you can play 6? 

We were able to explore the physical world of each character by understanding how they walked and moved through the space, what their stance looked like, where they carried their weight, and how they interacted with others.  Then, we used pitch, tempo, dialect, and more to create the vocal characteristics of each role.  Sometimes we didn’t quite nail them, but we were able to keep playing and making adjustments until it landed and felt right within not only the context of the show, but also when compared to the other characters we each played.  Would the audience looking in on our performance know when we were portraying, “Actor 4” and when we were “Mrs. Dilber?”  This process of creation was quite a different beast when it came to working in The Venetian compared with The Vault because the close proximity of the audience allowed the nuances to be picked up, and this required us to be a bit more precise, clean, and specific in our choices.  We cracked each other up so much in rehearsals, and I also learned so much from watching the amazingly talented actors come up with their own characters.  The key was to stay grounded and genuine in our choices.

“Heart on a shtick.”  This became a phrase we’d hear often, as Scott repeated it to us almost daily, and our actor brains reminded ourselves to stay grounded amidst all of the comedic elements of the show.  We needed to focus on being genuine, establishing tangible, relatable characters and relationships, telling the story, and not on being funny for comedy sake.  This was very different than The Three Stooges and Carol Burnett-style of slapstick comedy, boob jokes and all, from previous years.  We were challenged with finding the compassion behind these characters, and I very quickly learned how heartbreaking the story of Scrooge really was, before the famous transformation of him choosing to live “in the past, present, and the future.”  This was not a story I grew up with, and it wasn’t until recent years when watching, “Scrooged” that I realized that was the story of A Christmas Carol.  Yep.  That’s true.  However, it was through working on this specific production of, “Charles Dickens Writes A Christmas Carol” that I realized why so many people love this story so much.  At times, it is funny, at times, it is heartbreaking, but the biggest takeaway is how inspiring it truly is.  We may not be able to change the past, but we can definitely learn from it, use it in the present, and let it influence our future.   

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