AJC.com | Alliance Theatre builds a drive-in ‘Christmas Carol’ in Summerhill

Every year the Alliance Theatre production of the Charles Dickens novella, “A Christmas Carol,” with dozens of cast members, big sets and elaborate costumes, is its biggest moneymaker and crowd-pleaser.

In the era of COVID-19, things had to change. So, artistic director Susan V. Booth, scenic and costume designer An-Lin Dauber, and co-adapters Leora Morris and Ben Coleman brainstormed.

Could they still do the show by moving it outdoors? How could they perform outdoors in the winter? How could they keep the cast safe?

What they came up with is an outdoor presentation of a live, drive-in radio play, in a football stadium parking lot at Summerhill, with only four cast members in a stark, post-industrial set.

They needed separation between the actors and a cover in case it rained to protect the actors and the sound equipment. This meant building a stage with a roof, and a screen on top. But a screen big enough to be seen from the back row and a projector strong enough to produce the image would be costly. And then what about a 40 mph wind that could turn that screen into a sail? “What kind of engineering is going to make that happen?” asked Schleifer, who has to count the beans for these productions. “We can’t afford it.”

Then, either Morris or Dauber (or both) came up with an idea that would solve many problems at once. Put the actors each in their own shipping container, with the open end facing the audience. They would be nicely separated; they’d have a roof over their heads, and they’d be able to lock their stuff up at the end of the day.

“COVID has imposed not just a fourth wall but a 20‐foot‐deep fourth wall for all of us,” said Morris, speaking from her home in a rainy Vancouver, Canada. “We wanted to find ways to create intimacy. Piping our voices into people’s cars was a way to do that. You’re witnessing something far away, but it feels like you’re wrapped in it. It’s in the car with you. It’s inviting you to commune with it.”

Consequently, the screen became less important. Instead of seeing the story, the audience would hear it, while small screens project the storytellers’ faces, along with a screen showing the acoustic gymnastics of sound effects expert and percussionist Stuart Gerber.

Raymond has been part of the Alliance’s “A Christmas Carol” productions for years, but this version, which gives him nine different roles in addition to Scrooge, will test his skills as a voice actor.

Coleman is a British musician who performed with Atlanta bands Judi Chicago and Noot d’Noot and has worked creating soundscapes for theatre, dance and the visual arts.

Morris served as a Yale Directing Fellow at the Alliance after graduating from the Yale School of Drama and then stayed with the Alliance for several years as the resident artist in education.

Speaking from his home in Denver, Colorado, with blue skies above and snow below, Coleman said the experimental quality of the show drew him to the production. “I wouldn’t be nearly as interested if this was a more conventional staging. I appreciate the fact that the Alliance is willing to take this risk. Something wonderful will come out of this.”

The show will cost less to stage, but it still won’t break even, said Schleifer. He added, “What’s important to us right now is to stay relevant.”

Like many arts organizations, the Alliance has been streaming shows online, including “A Very Terry Christmas,” a one-woman show which kicks off the season Nov. 27. This production of “A Christmas Carol” will be its first live event since the beginning of the pandemic, and one of only six live productions in the country approved by the Actor’s Equity union, according to Schleifer. They won approval because of the company’s stringent protocols protecting the actors and the audience.

IF YOU GO

  • Two parking spaces are dedicated to each vehicle. Patrons may sit outside their vehicle or stay inside.
  • Food delivery is available by ordering in advance from Hot Dog Pete’s (470-369-6777) or Hero Donuts and Buns (470-369-6800).
  • Coolers, alcohol (for those age 21 and up), binoculars, blankets, tarps, cameras without a detachable lens, cans, coolers, face masks, prepared foods, lawn chairs and water bottles are permitted.
  • Cameras with a detachable lens, fireworks, flags, glass bottles, grills, illegal drugs, inflatables, large vehicles, pets, signs, banners, tents and weapons are prohibited.
  • No audio or video recording allowed.

7 p.m., Dec. 4-23. Parking lot opens 5 p.m. $50 per car.

Tickets at alliancetheatre.org.

Georgia State University’s Center Parc Credit Union Stadium, 755 Hank Aaron Drive, Atlanta.

The production will also be streamed on Alliance Theatre Anywhere beginning in early December. $20 at alliancetheatre.org.

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By Bo Emerson, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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