A Christmas Carol is making a triumphant return this season to Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. Charles Dickens’ memorable story, as adapted by Michael Wilson, is being performed from November 15 through December 30, 2018. Craig Wallace leads the cast as Ebenezer Scrooge, a miser who undergoes a transformation in his understanding of Christmas after visits from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. I interviewed actors Gregory Maheu and Yesenia Iglesias, cast this year as Bob Cratchit and Mrs. Cratchit, to learn more about their careers, rehearsals, and why they love A Christmas Carol.
What’s one lesson you received from a drama instructor, director, or mentor that has stuck with you in your careers?
Maheu: My aunt has always been a huge influence on me as an artist. She is a painter and sculptor who spent a good portion of her adult life ordained in the Tibetan Buddhist faith. Her lessons on the practice of self-reflection and our discussions, when I was a child, on compassion and the cycles of suffering have been of significant influence on my career.
With regards to my career, that has been invaluable for my mental health. Actors lead lives constantly judged on looks, talent, experience, or professional relationships, and our self-worth is often tied to whatever project we are working on in that moment. It’s useful for me to remember and reflect on life as a whole, and to try and evaluate it without prejudice. I continually strive towards being a better actor and member of the theatrical community, to love myself and learn from successes as well as failures.
Iglesias: During my first year of grad school at the University of Washington, I took a clowning class with Jane Nichols, a world-renowned performance instructor and director famous for her energy, wit, and tough love. I was having a hard time with our very first assignment: a solo performance introducing ourselves as our clown entity. The performance was meant to be short and sweet, and consisted of a small “magical” act or funny physical demonstration of our clown.
I couldn’t come up with a single thing to demonstrate. The assignment seemed so broad and unspecific on the surface. After several of my classmates performed, I sheepishly walked onstage, stood there for about four seconds and did the “robot”… horribly. And then [I] just walked off stage.
Suffice it to say that Jane was not impressed. She stopped the class, stood up, and declared, “Some of you are content with being mediocre. Be not content with mediocrity. It’s not funny.” Those words soon became like a mission statement for my professional life: In all things, be not content with mediocrity.
Which role(s) have you previously played in A Christmas Carol?
Maheu: This is my eighth year with the Ford’s Theatre production. I first joined it in 2011 as Young Marley, then played Scrooge’s nephew Fred for a number of years. This is my first year as Bob Cratchit.
Iglesias: I played Beggar Woman/Mrs. Fred’s Sister (whom I adoringly named Theodosia) in 2016 and 2017, prior to playing Mrs. Cratchit this year.
Prior productions no doubt have their memorable moments for you. Do you have to sort of wipe part of the slate clean in your mind to keep yourself focused on this one and the creative opportunities it yields?
Maheu: This production of A Christmas Carol is the only stage version I know. I’ve seen a couple of the film versions, but spending eight years with this one has had a way of cementing inflections and choices in my mind and, to some degree, the creative team’s as well. The balancing act has become maintaining the intention and direction of the original production while keeping the storytelling fresh and unique to the cast that we have.
Iglesias: It’s my first year playing the role of Mrs. Cratchit after being the role’s understudy (for actress Amy McWilliams) last year. This year I’ve approached the role as Yesenia, and [did] not perform in a way Mrs. Cratchit has been done in the past. While the role is iconic and recognizable across continents, my unique experiences and perspective do offer fresh variations and nuances that add to the overall narrative of the Cratchits.
A Christmas Carol has been a Washington tradition since 1979 and Dickens’ story has been around for 175 years. How do you see yourselves specifically adding to that line of tradition?
Maheu: Dickens spent much of his life engaging in discourse about social responsibility. Something that has kept me coming back to the Ford’s production is its dedication to do[ing] the same. Every year the company chooses a local nonprofit that benefits Washington, D.C., residents in need, and collects donations for it at the end of the performance. This year we’ve chosen the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, who works in Washington to provide activities, snacks, and fun for children at emergency and transitional housing sites in D.C. To me, that feels like the most important tangible and practical tradition of the story.
Iglesias: First, I want to say that I think Ford’s has done an amazing job of intentionally trying to cast the show as a reflection of the country as we see it today. And as the first woman of color to officially take on the role of Mrs. Cratchit at Ford’s Theatre, I hope my portrayal adds to the conversation about diverse representation onstage. We have not changed the text in any way.
I hope audiences don’t feel that our diversity distracts them from elements of the story, but rather illuminates areas not otherwise thought of before. And most importantly, I hope our Christmas Carol encourages audiences to have conversations about the universality of the play’s themes as seen through the lens of such a diverse group of characters.
What approach have you taken with director Michael Baron in rehearsals? How are you bringing the best out of yourselves through the rehearsals?
Maheu: Michael has done a great job of re-investing us in the text and allowing us to find ourselves in the characters each year, which isn’t necessarily the case in a remounted production. With the children in particular, it is useful to have roundtable discussions of the scene before we even put the story it on its feet. It’s amazing the knowledge and perspective children bring to the scene work.
I think bringing the best out of oneself as an actor really requires you doing the homework and continuing the investigation of the text in your downtime. Other than that, being fearless, open, and available is paramount. It is a nice reminder to watch the children work and be reminded of the basics.
Iglesias: Michael Baron stays busy as artistic director at Oklahoma’s Lyric Theater, but we had him with us for a few days to guide us through his original vision of this adaptation. We got to interact with the young company, sit down to analyze the Cratchit scenes, and talk about ways to explore new revelations about the play and our roles. He offered key insights into the message of the play and his original intention for some of the storytelling, and provided great background information about the adaptation.
The greatest gift was that he gave us the freedom to make the show our own, and helped us remove some of the pressure of feeling like we had to replicate the tale as it had been told.
Is there a scene or aspect of this production that you really love?
Maheu: One of my favorite scenes in the play is Marley’s visit to Scrooge’s bedroom. It is truly spectacular and sets the magical tone of the story. The performances and the technical elements come together to make a moment alone worth the price of admission.
Iglesias: I absolutely love that Ford’s Theatre facilitates a collection for a local charitable organization during our run. Toward the end of December, the receiving nonprofit’s director attends the show, is called up onstage after the curtain call, and finally discovers how much Ford’s has raised. Every year the audience applauds and rises to their feet in a genuine moment of love and solidarity. It’s a beautiful sight to witness.
This year we’re collecting on behalf of D.C.’s Homeless Children’s Playtime Project. We’ve learned that the money we collect can make the difference in the financial security of the organization we choose, and it fills me with great pride to know we are passing the message of hope and charity along to our D.C. community.