More than a hundred stage lights rested on the floor of ACT Theatre’s Allen Theatre in downtown Seattle. The stage floor had already been transformed into a cobblestone design, and the actors lounged in sweatpants and khakis in the front row seats and on the stage between rehearsals. The costume and wig shops were busy, hands and threaded needles flying over fabrics and hairpieces.
It was the first week of rehearsals for ACT Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol,” which opens Dec. 7, and the theater was coming alive for the first time in 20 months.
In its 46th year this December, ACT’s “A Christmas Carol” is a holiday tradition for many in Seattle, and, in this production, the spooky effect of Jacob Marley rising out of the floor (or sometimes out of Ebenezer Scrooge’s bed to surprise the audience) to warn his old friend Scrooge about his cranky ways has become a part of the tradition that some viewers anticipate every year. Last year, theatergoers missed out on the visual delight when, due to the pandemic, ACT produced an engrossing audio version of the play instead.
This year, as the holiday classic returns to the stage with an in-person audience for the first time since 2019, we got a behind-the-scenes look to see what it takes to make ghosts rise out of the floor and humbugs change their tune, and to create haunting holiday magic onstage.
Ghosts from the depths
In just a handful of weeks, the hundred lights that were on the floor would be hung above the stage in the Allen Theatre, costumes and wigs would be sized and fitted to their actors, and everyone — technicians, costume staff, actors, stage managers — would have memorized a detailed choreography dictating the timing and location of every stage exit, costume change, dab of a sweaty forehead and push of a button backstage.
Or, more accurately, understage.
Because the Allen Theatre is a theater-in-the-round, with its stage at the center of the room surrounded by the audience on all sides, there are no walls for set pieces to disappear behind. So instead, those set pieces must either go up or down.
Underneath the stage in Allen Theatre there is a dark room with low ceilings and narrow passageways where technicians operate several pneumatic and hydraulic lifts. On the floor, masking-tape arrows direct foot traffic, including one that says “head!” warning of a jutting pole at head-bonking height, wrapped in what looks like a pink pool noodle.
James Nichols, master stage carpenter, and Nick Farwell, stage operations supervisor, run the show in this tiny dark room, watching a small TV screen for the cues and operating all of the equipment.
At showtime, they operate four pneumatic lifts around the edges of the oval basement room and one big hydraulic lift system in the center to bring essential set pieces (and even cast members) from the dark below into the bright lights of the stage.
A pull of a lever in this basement room brings a ghostly Marley out of a trapdoor in the floor of the stage to begin the journey of scaring Scrooge out of his holiday grumps. The lift system under the stage in the Allen Theatre is loaded in every year specifically for this show.
Ready for the show, the lift currently holds in its reserve chamber the ornate chaise of the Ghost of Christmas Present and the tomb that will eventually shake the notorious crank Scrooge to his core. They will each shift onto the main platform to be lifted up to the stage when it’s their turn. For now, the main platform is empty, awaiting the person who first turns this Christmas story into a ghost story — the arrival of the ghost of Jacob Marley.
Transforming the cast
This year, actors R. Hamilton Wright and Amy Thone will don the tattered robes and disheveled wig to become Marley, playing the character on alternate nights. (They also alternate in the role of Scrooge.)
To transform the whole cast into these classic characters, the costume and wig departments at ACT put in hours of fine work with needles and hooks for weeks before the show, getting measurements from a cast of 20, resizing and fitting old costumes, creating new costumes dreamed up by designers and directors, and giving old wigs salon treatment to make them show-ready.
Breaking with previous years due to the pandemic, there will be no cast members under the age of 12 this year. (Tiny Tim, typically played by 7- to 9-year-olds, will be played by 12-year-old Ty Ho.) For the costume department, that has meant dramatically resizing costumes usually meant for much smaller kids or making new costumes altogether. Creating new costumes — like the new, beautiful flowing dress for Spirit 1, the first of the three Christmas ghosts — is a much longer process. Starting from a simple drawn design, the costume shop creates a mock-up out of cheap cotton and muslin and goes through many rounds of fittings and fine-tunings before it’s show-ready. The same goes for the wigs.
Ever wonder how actors’ hair stays so perfectly in place and shining after sweating through a 90-minute play? Two words: wig oven.
That’s right, the wig shop boasts a “wig oven,” as costume shop manager Amanda Mueller calls it. It’s essentially a cabinet that can hold the mannequin head wig stands and works like a salon-style hair dryer. Once a week, wig master Joyce Degenfelder undertakes the eight-to-10-hour task of washing, styling and resetting all of the wigs and facial hair. (Think Scrooge’s iconic mutton chops.)
Ever wonder how Mr. Fezziwig’s ponytail gets its curl? How Marley’s hair stands straight up? Degenfelder has tricks for each of them. Fezziwig’s ponytail gets a wire insert curled just so between shows. Marley’s wig is often hung upside down to let gravity do its work.
All of that is before the show even opens. On show nights, the costume and wig departments go into action four to five hours before the curtain opens, washing and pressing costumes, combing and setting wigs. Then, during showtime, the costume crew waits backstage with costumes laid out in the order they’ll need them, helping actors into shoes and out of beards sometimes at record speed.
As costume shop manager, Mueller oversees it all, from dusting off the costumes and bringing them out of storage every year to the details on show night of which costumes go where, on whom, and when.
“Most of the actors are playing more than one character. It’s a costume-heavy show,” said Mueller. “It’s a choreography. Because we do the show every year, components of it operate like a machine.”
“From isolation to community”
What becomes 90 minutes of immersion in another world for audiences starts with weeks of 12-hour days full of creating and adjusting costumes and wigs, building lifts and hanging lights. Then, during each show, an equally impressive dance happens backstage as technicians and drapers, stage managers and actors move with timed precision to make the story unfold seamlessly onstage.
And, as Thone says, “The play isn’t done until you have that final element — the feedback, the audience.”
“They see it for 90 minutes or two hours,” she said. “The performance is the very tip of the iceberg and underneath is this vast submerged island. … I love the invisible work, it’s craft and it’s chaos and it’s love. I find it very satisfying, very moving.”
For several of the show’s crew, this will be the first time they’re doing a show for an in-person audience in almost two years, and they’re a little nervous.
“We’re coming back from the global death of the entire entertainment industry for a long time. Globally it was just gone. Now it’s slowly growing back,” said Farwell, the stage operations supervisor. “It’s just good to be back with my other family.”
ACT artistic director John Langs says that’s why the story of “A Christmas Carol” seems particularly apt for the strange times we’re all living in.
The journey for Scrooge is “one from isolation to community,” said Langs.
Still, this year’s “A Christmas Carol” may look different than usual because of these strange times. Rehearsals are going forward with social distancing, masks, weekly coronavirus tests and, in some cases, limits on the number of people involved. Those changes in the behind-the-scenes work, said Langs, could mean the story itself will look different, too.
“Everybody’s coming at it anxious. Everybody’s coming at it traumatized,” said Langs to a chorus of awkward laughter.
“We’re all sort of awkward ducklings walking into this space again saying, ‘We used to do this. We loved it. We challenged it. There were some things wrong with it. What are we going to do now?’ What is our show going to look and feel like because of how we’re rehearsing? We really don’t know.”