A Covid Carol

Just Like Scrooge, You Won't See Manual Cinema’s Twist on A Christmas Carol Coming

Dickens’s classic tale is being brought to life virtually through puppetry and live music, not to mention a modern-day spin.

By Kaitlyn Miller December 4, 2020

Whether you’re looking to feel festive or want to kick the Scrooge-like mindset that can come with celebrating Christmas during Covid-19, no story sets the seasonal mood better than Charles Dickens’s holiday classic, A Christmas Carol.  

And this year, Houstonians are getting the chance to see this story presented like never before, thanks to the Society for the Performing Arts. The local arts organization has connected with Chicago interdisciplinary performance collective Manual Cinema to bring its Emmy Award-winning adaptation of that famous ghostly galvanizing tale straight to Bayou City homes.

Though you’ve likely seen Dickens’s literary masterpiece play out on movie screens, storybook pages, or on the Alley Theatre’s stage, Manual Cinema takes the tale we know and love and transforms it into a visual art piece. Combining live narration, advanced video animation, and projection techniques, with paper puppets, live actors, and shadow puppetry, this performance is already one of the most creative takes on the Christmas classic, possibly ever.

We're not even kidding. Check out the trailer below and see for yourself: 

But Manual Cinema’s ingenious innovation doesn’t stop there. After living through the pandemic, the Chicago company wanted to ensure that the universal challenges felt by everyone around the world were acknowledged in its performance.

“It was important for us to stage the show in the present,” the MC creative team shared in an email. “We were able to shine some light on how hard things are right now and hopefully provide some catharsis since we are all going through so many challenges right now.”

Scrooge and Marley.

How are they shining this light, you may ask? By telling the tale through the character of Aunt Trudy, a grieving widow who recent lost her storyteller husband to coronavirus, attempting to channel the Christmas spirit while celebrating a socially distant holiday alone. During a Zoom call with loved ones, she begins to perform her late husband’s annual Christmas Carol puppet show. Slowly but surely as she delves deeper into the story, the power of the tale begins to take over, and the innocent puppet show turns into a haunting journey for all those watching. 

By marrying the classic tale with this modern plot twist, the show's virtual platform feels far more natural to audiences streaming from their laptops or living rooms—who hasn’t become all-too-familiar with Zoom calls at this point?

“It felt like a logical thing to embrace that as a framing device visually and narratively,” said the MC team. “This was a way for us to contemporize the story while also using the amazing language from the book.”  

Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present in Manual Cinema's A Christmas Carol

And just when it seems as though the show couldn’t get any more intriguing, what with all-too-real subplot and multitudes of artistic creativity, hearing how many challenges the company had to overcome to produce this show makes it that much more impressive. 

To properly follow CDC guidelines and Covid-19 safety protocols, the company created show pods, small performance spaces allowing no more than two people to be in close proximity for the performance. This meant the company's usual team, made up of five to six puppeteers, a multi-person music ensemble, and designers, had to shrink to just two puppeteers and two musicians with a remote design crew working separately.

Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Finding a new balance between live and pre-recorded music, narration, and puppetry to overcome the performers’ physical separation in the final product was not an easy task, but after two months of tireless work, the team came out of the rehearsal process with nothing but gratitude. What’s made the process even more rewarding for the MC team is the fact they still get to connect with audiences despite the show’s virtual format.

“This show was such a challenge to put together,” they admitted, “but we also felt so lucky to be making work while the performance industry, and many other industries, have been decimated by the pandemic.”

Dec 5, 12, and 19. $20. Online. More info and tickets spahouston.org.

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