Greg Oliver Bodine, Jason Grossman & Sharon Fogarty
A Couple of Christmas Classics
A nytheatre voices cyber-interview
Greg Oliver Bodine and Jason Grossman perform their respective one-man adaptations of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life in rep at Manhattan Theatre Source this December. A Christmas Carol is adapted by Greg Oliver Bodine and directed by Shana Solomon. It’s a Wonder (One-Man Show) Life! is adapted and directed by Sharon Fogarty.
Two holiday themed shows and each is a one-man show. How did you get together at Manhattan Theater Source to present Christmas Classics?
Grossman: Greg Bodine and I originally met some 10 years ago and got reacquainted about 2 years ago at Manhattan Theatre Source. I believe Greg came up with the idea last year to combine forces after realizing we had this unique one man Christmas show thing in common. Then a few months ago, Ed McNamee, Daryl Boling and Fiona Jones (the George Bailey-like Directors at the space) suggested that It's a Wonderful (One Man Show) Life! and A Christmas Carol would complement each other well in their Christmas Classics format. It's been three years since Sharon Fogarty and I have mounted the show.
Bodine: If memory serves, I believe Jason is correct – I had finished performing a two-evening showcase of my adaptation of A Christmas Carol at Manhattan Theatre Source last December through its Playground Development Series. Afterwards, Jason and I talked about how much fun it would be to perform It's a Wonderful (One Man Show) Life! with my play in repertory at some point in the future. I think I might have even mentioned it to Sharon, either during or just after my showcase – at the time, she was producing/performing her play, How To See In The Dark, and we shared the space at Theatre Source for a few evenings. It also helped to get really good feedback from two producers at Manhattan Theatre Source: Daryl Boling and Ed McNamee – they both saw A Christmas Carol last year, liked it enough to offer a longer run this year in a yet un-named holiday festival format, and got the ball rolling – I immediately thought of Sharon and Jason’s play, and the idea of doing a Christmas play festival was born.
Fogarty: Both plays involve one man playing dozens of roles, both involve a single character who, shown by a spirit, must take inventory of his own life and both have levels of intensity, humor and warmth which seem necessary and healing during emotional holiday times.
Jason’s show is a rendering of the film It’s a Wonderful Life and Greg’s is a reading of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. How and why did each of you choose this particular piece?
Bodine: My decision to tackle a solo stage adaptation of A Christmas Carol came about through a combination of curiosity, a love of Dickens’ language… and absolute personal desperation! First, I had always been intrigued with the theatrical challenges of doing a one-man show – as Jason will tell you, it can be frightening. I mean, it’s just you up there, without other actors to cover your lines if you go up, without a stage manager standing in the wings to cue you through potential trouble spots…you’re basically on a tightrope, alone and without a net. The sheer amount of text to be learned and performed can be daunting in and of itself. Finally, I had to ask myself some hard questions: “Would this be fun to do?” Yes. “Would it be hard to do?” Yes. “Would it be terrifying?” Possibly. And the last question: “Would the satisfaction and joy of sharing this wonderful story trump my fear and doubt about performing it?” (I wrestled with this one for awhile) Ultimately, the answer was ‘yes!’
The story of A Christmas Carol is obviously told from a Christian perspective, but I think Dickens’ message of hope and redemption transcends differences in faith, sect and denomination -- it’s a universal, beautifully crafted tale, and it essentially deals with very human issues of fellowship: charity, benevolence, mercy and forgiveness. I wrote, developed and performed A Christmas Carol in late 2003 as an eleventh hour substitution for another play I had planned to perform as part of a grant I received from NYSCA and the Long Island Arts Council. When I ran into a brick wall with Equity over getting a showcase waiver to use a friend (and union actor) in the production outside of NYC, I abandoned the idea and brainstormed about how I could do a show and still fulfill my grant obligations. The answer was to adapt and perform my own one-man production of A Christmas Carol. I love the story; I had seen it reincarnated in numerous film versions (the two movies starring Alistair Sim and Patrick Stewart are my favorites); and I was singularly impressed with an adaptation I saw performed in the solo format by an instructor of mine from grad school. So, in October the decision was made to go forward for a short run that December. I remounted the show in 2004, touring it at half a dozen Long Island libraries before bringing it to New York to ‘try it out’ at Manhattan Theatre Source.
Grossman: I had written some pretty mediocre comedy sketches many years ago based on the film (one was about a pizza parlor called It's a Wonderful Slice, another was It's a Wonderful Vice in which George Bailey decides he prefers a wonderful life of boozing and debauched mayhem). Needless to say, the pieces did not go over very well, but Sharon noted my impressions and suggested producing a one-man show. Soon enough she created an amazing draft for a one-person adaptation of the film including original choreography. We tweaked it and added some favorite lines (she hadn't written Nick the bartender in yet) and came up with the final script. One thing that took some time was how we were going to simulate the memorable gym floor/pool scene. Through a bit of trial and error, Sharon came up with a brilliant solution and then designed our Bedford Falls to recreate the desired effect.
Fogarty: (remembering it a little differently) A director/friend of ours, Jerry Mouwad from IMAGO, heard Jason "doing" the movie one time and suggested a one-man show. Also, Sharon could not stop Jason from impersonating the movie around the house so she put him on stage!
Once you have chosen the piece to do as a solo performance, how do you go about adapting it so it can be done by one person?
Fogarty: Being huge Capra fans, our project became very influenced by his camera angles, timing and the overall warmth and emotional strength of Capra's work. We were kind of too creative at first, filled with very original ways to present, etc., but soon found ourselves cutting anything that wasn't a sincere tribute to the film. In fact, we became a bit obsessed with it not being a parody. Working from Capra's original shooting script, we made sure to keep the essential story elements as well as famous memorable lines such as:
Mary Bailey: "George, why must you torture the children?"
Nick: "...where do you get off calling me Nick?".
Zuzu: "...every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings".
IAWL fanatics would kill us if these lines were left out! Karolyn Grimes, the actress who played the original Zuzu, seemed to pick up on our dedication and came to see us on tour in Seattle, Washington. Broken ankle and all, Karolyn made it out to the show, loved it, wrote about it in her newsletter and invited us out to dinner and to her home and Wonderful Life Museum which is filled with incredible memorabilia from the film including George Bailey's sketch of lassoing the moon! By the way, she's still as angelic as she was as Zuzu all those years ago.
Grossman: It's a Wonderful Life has always been my favorite film and I had been unintentionally preparing for this show since I was little, seeing the film countless times every holiday season. I would parrot lines from the film all the time driving my father crazy. Years later, Sharon and I put this project together. It's still hard to believe.
Bodine: This was an interesting challenge for me as a writer. I was mainly concerned with how to keep the story active and engaging, while keeping as much of Dickens’ language intact as possible – the novel itself is written with ample, descriptive exposition. So, I guess the trick was to make Dickens himself a character (as narrator) in order to tell the tale, and in some parts, comment on it. There was a fair amount of editing and formatting involved, but I did have the advantage of adapting the play from an already abridged version of the story that Dickens revised specifically for his public readings.
What is there in a solo performance that wouldn’t be gotten in a regular multi-character play?
Fogarty: Possibly the most interesting thing about watching a solo multi-character performance is that it allows the audience to focus on and seek information from only one actor. If the actor can isolate and become each character convincingly, the transition from character to character is entertaining in itself. However, we discovered that impersonation alone for this concept does not work. To remain engaging, the actor must maintain excellent imagination and truth like any good storyteller.
Bodine: The demands of performing a solo version of A Christmas Carol are numerous and unique. I portray Charles Dickens while on his 1867 American Reading Tour. I think the key to making a successful transition from page to stage is having a fantastic director…and I found one in Shana Solomon. Under her skillful direction and attention to detail, I alternately play some fourteen different characters, switching sharply between Dickens, Scrooge, Marley, Bob Cratchit, Fezziwig, Tiny Tim, Mrs. Cratchit, the three Ghosts and a host of other male and female characters -- each with their own physicality, accents, vocal nuances and focal points of concentration. I think Shana has really helped me to harness the story’s language, warmth and humor to show Scrooge’s emotional journey from embittered, lonely, old miser to a generous, caring human being at the story’s conclusion.
Grossman: (from my perspective) Headaches and possible multiple personality disorder. But, seriously, I think we've taken a classic beloved film and created our own work that stands on its own.
What do you enjoy most about doing a solo performance, and have you done others before?
Bodine: I enjoy breaking the Fourth Wall, which I do completely in my show. I thrive off the audience’s energy – I know some actors who are terrified by the prospect of directly addressing an audience. But when I’ve got things cooking on stage and people are with me, really listening and hanging on my every word…well, it’s a feeling that’s hard to beat. A few years ago, I started to write a one-man show on Errol Flynn called Laughing Cavalier, but it’s still very much a work in creative purgatory… I did perform a solo play by Daniel MacIvor called Wild Abandon in grad school. Technically, A Christmas Carol is my second one-man production.
Grossman: I've done stand-up. I've jumped out of an airplane. I had never done a solo performance of this kind before. It's pretty scary. And it doesn't get any less scary. This is by far the most ambitious project I've tackled as a performer, and it's incredibly thrilling. I'm such a fan of the film and all the wonderful actors (James Stewart, Donna Reed, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, Sheldon Leonard). James Stewart's work in the film is pure genius. We're paying homage to this magnificent work by Frank Capra and company and as a fanatic I'm overjoyed that I can celebrate the film and bring it to life in a sense. It's also quite family-friendly so everyone can see it. We've done the show in a number of theatres here in New York, Seattle and Victoria, British Columbia. The press has been generous to us and Karolyn Grimes has helped us promote the show.
Fogarty: As a director, I love the energy shifts in an actor transforming from character to character. It's kind of creepy, like channeling. Combining that element with normal directing tasks such as staging, timing and dynamics is invigorating, especially when working with Jason as he's such a strong actor and can impersonate everyone!
Both pieces are very familiar to most audiences. Do you believe this familiarity will affect the way the audience will react?
Fogarty: Yes, people are laughing and crying at every show, sometimes because of the familiarity or because of Jason's versatility, sometimes because of the nostalgia or the compassion for the suicidal do-gooder, George Bailey. Christmas is an emotionally difficult and chaotic time and perhaps we cling to tradition as if it could provide some anchor in reality. I think this is why people re-watch the same movies every Christmas. Capra made a career out of reminding us of this human fragility. Our one-man dedication pays tribute to Capra and his truth that "No man is a failure who has friends."
Grossman: It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol are both classics in quite distinct ways, and luckily for Greg, Sharon and myself, most people are familiar with them. However, this also means we have a high standard to reach. We can't get away with glossing over an important moment in the story. I just pray that most people will understand I don't do the prettiest Donna Reed impression.
Hee Haw, and Merry Christmas!!
Bodine: Well yes, I believe the uplifting, positive messages of both pieces have universal appeal because they are so familiar – there’s a bit of the holiday nostalgia/comfort factor involved here as well -- I agree with Sharon and Jason. And as Sharon has said, Frank Capra made a career out of reminding us of our human fragility. I think the same could be said of Charles Dickens. Indeed, for both Ebenezer Scrooge and George Bailey, the same truth applies -- "No man is a failure who has friends." Yes, most people are already very familiar with Dickens’ classic tale and there is certainly no shortage of lavish, large-cast productions being done every year in the United States and abroad. I think what sets my one-man adaptation apart, however, is its ability to rely on the power of the text -- shared simply, directly and intimately through great storytelling. It’s closely based on the abridged version that Dickens used on his second Reading Tour of the U.S. in 1867, and I decided to use that historical footnote as a premise and jumping-off point for the play.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
November 24, 2005