Ghosts of Christmas Carols Past

Thirty-one years of giggles and gaffes at the Guthrie

THE GUTHRIE THEATER is experiencing its 32nd year of controlled backstage mayhem with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Actors and crew dash about in the dark, working to let audiences see the story of Scrooge and the ghosts untroubled by glimpses of the complicated behind-the-scenes choreography. And yet, occasionally, despite all that effort…

In 1987, Cooper D’Ambrose, age 4, was dismayingly energetic as the ill-unto-death Tiny Tim, even after repeated coaching along the lines of “No, Tiny Tim can’t run and pick up that apple. He has a hurt leg, remember?” On the night of the first preview, in front of a packed house, he ran down the aisle to watch favorite scenes in the show, to the bemusement of audience members and the helpless horror of the stage managers. A vigorous lecture was delivered immediately upon his return backstage.

Another Tiny Tim (although not T. R. Knight of Grey’s Anatomy, who played the role in 1979 at age 6) once leaned down from the shoulder of a disconcerted Scrooge to whisper “I think I’m going to throw up.” He then popped up to declare “God bless us, every one!”, and then hissed “Just kidding!” before they made their triumphant—and rapid—exit.

One year, the stage manager was presented with an outraged note from some angelic-looking young choirboys who were not required to stay late for the curtain call. It was hand-printed with eight heavily underlined signatures: “We feel it is unfair not to let the choirboys have a chance to receive the acclamation they deserve. I don’t get it. We all want to stay. What’s the problem? Have you had a parent call you or talk to you about this?” They were actors: they wanted their bow.

What stories will emerge from this year’s production? Director Gary Gisselman expects substantial rehearsal adventures as he moves the Guthrie’s largest show onto the new thrust stage. “This show requires actors to sprint through the backstage while swapping props and changing costumes,” he says, “in order to disappear as, say, a Cratchit child, and reappear seconds later as a destitute urchin. Back over on Vineland Place, we had it down. Actors could dash from the down-right exit to the up-left entrance in 25 seconds, and if we placed dressers and stagehands along the path to help them, they could even get a deep breath in before their entrance. The same path in the new thrust takes a minute and three seconds to navigate; that’s huge.”

One thing that will stay the same this year is the holiday food drive that asks audience members to bring a non-perishable food item to the show. The project began in 1982 in response to an anonymous note sent backstage. “Dear Mr. Scrooge,” it said. “Thank you for reminding me in a most dramatic way that change is possible. Please see that this gets to the Cratchits and Tiny Tims who need it most in our town.” Four $50 bills were tucked into the envelope. These days, several tons of food are collected in the Guthrie lobby and distributed by the Emergency Food Shelf Network. And that’s the best Christmas Carol story of all.

Peg Guilfoyle is author of The Guthrie Theater: Images, History, and Inside Stories (Nodin Press).