And ‘On’ and ‘On’ it Goes: ACT’s ‘A Christmas Carol: On Air’ and SF Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker Online’

“If TV has taught me anything, it’s that miracles always happen to poor kids at Christmas. It happened to Tiny Tim, it happened to Charlie Brown, it happened to the Smurfs, and it’s going to happen to us!”
– Bart Simpson, Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire, written by Mimi Pond

Five years ago, I wrote about how the advent of consumer streaming technology was changing the face of theatre as we know it. I contemplated the potential pitfalls and suggested ways to circumvent them. All told, I’d like to think it was an optimistic piece about how cutting-edge technology would permanently make theatre more accessible from now on.

This past week, I took part in two experiments of this new theatrical landscape, courtesy of two SF institutions. Though most of us may have spent the year watching Zoom calls of staged readings and sketch comedy, that’s a bit too low-key for the ACT and the SF Ballet. Their annual Christmas shows are full-blown traditions that expect regular sold-out houses – something that just isn’t in the cards this year.

So, how do two of the most renowned theatres in the country “bring home” two of The City’s most famous “going out” experiences? They adapt.

For ACT, the solution to remounting their annual production of Charles Dickens’ famous fable lied in a performance format nearly as old as the tale itself: the radio drama. The stage adaptation by former artistic director Carey Perloff was itself adapted for an audio production by Peter J. Kuo. During the pre-recorded “curtain” speech, current AD Pam McKinnon describes the new version as the perfect soundtrack to have on in the background whilst cooking holiday dishes.

Said curtain speech is given during a pre-show not all that different from that used by Shotgun in their two most recent shows. This includes a screen-right typed-out live chat that scrolls as the pre-show screen plays screen-left. Specifically, the screen was showing a slideshow of holiday photos from ACT staff members as yuletide classics played. In addition to intros by McKinnon and Exec. Dir. Jennifer Bielstein, there was also a rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” by the ACT Youth Ensemble. All of it was aided by on-screen captions, as was the show proper.

From their 2018 production. (Kevin Berne)

The actual show begins with the sound of Scrooge (a returning Jim Carpenter) anachronistically saying that he only took part in this production under the duress of being paid handsomely for the privilege. Upon hearing carolers in the distance, he “humbugs” himself away, transporting us to… the modern day. We find ourselves in the home of a woman who takes Christmas parties very seriously (she has an eight-page itinerary for the evening!) and insists that her guests do the same, whether they want to or not. This includes reading Dickens’ seasonal tome in its entirety.

To the surprise of the guests, they get into the story – literally. Reading the book transports them to Victorian-era London where, in addition to reading Dickens’ prose aloud, the contemporary folks appear to have a level of fourth-wall-breaking interactivity with the characters. And that’s how both they and we experience A Christmas Carol.

The paradox isn’t lost on me that I begin my review of an audio drama by recollecting the spartan visual elements. (After all, it’s A Christmas Carol; I don’t need to recount the plot.) The titles and intro vocals play over a wallpaper-like tapestry. When our party-goers are transported into the story, we’re given the first of Lysandra Nelson’s illustrations, this one of the exterior of Scrooge and Marley’s business. This image holds until subsequent scene changes replace it with Scrooge’s hearth, a London street, and the graveyard of the final act. Each image is sparsely animated (some falling snow here, a smoldering fireplace there) so as to not truly draw focus, hence McKinnon’s “background” suggestion. It returns to the tapestry during the intermission (a mere five minutes) and conclusion.

The real star of the show is Jake Rodriguez’s soundscapes. I see I have in my notes that I was so taken with them during the “Marley’s Ghost” scene that I actually found the narration of the party-goers to be intrusive. Rodriguez’s sounds have frequently set the scene for shows by ACT and the Magic, but this show has him doing all the heavy lifting, so to speak. He succeeds admirably at the task.

Jim Carpenter as Scrooge in their 2016 production. (Kevin Berne)

Though the actors playing the party-goers were a mixed bag (I’m guessing they weren’t all used to audio-only performance), Carol alumnus Jim Carpenter brings his usual pitch-perfect irascibleness to the famous Christmas curmudgeon. It’s no surprise as to why the company asks him to come back year after year. And though most of the cast fair well, the standout to me was newcomer John Chukwudelunzu as Scrooge’s unshakably optimistic nephew Fred. Even with no visual element to drive the performance, I found myself looking up from my notebook every time Chukwudelunzu spoke. He gave Fred the perfect level of cheer without making him grating. I look forward to the day when I can see this young man perform live.

Kuo’s adaptation of Perloff’s adaptation is equally effective, though it suffers the same problem in its slavish devotion to the source material. Perloff’s version has always slumped during the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come sequence, as the need recreate every detail Dickens listed brings the play to a screeching halt and robs it the scene of its horror. There’s a reason why everyone from Mickey Mouse to Bill Murray expedites this sequence and emphasizes the terror of the Ghost.

Still, the production is both a fine remix of local holiday tradition and a nice way to introduce it to those who aren’t local. What technical details are emphasized work well enough (though the on-screen captions were always a-second-or-two ahead of the audio), but the show’s asking price may be a bit too steep during this of all years. Having said that, I don’t at all regret the time I spent listening to local talent recite a classic.

GRADE:                                             B+

ACT’s A Christmas Carol: On Air is scheduled to run until the 31st of December on the ACT website.
The show runs roughly two hours with a 5-minute intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

Whereas other companies have been content with the “gift” of putting full performances online, SF Ballet took it a step further and put as much emphasis on the “wrapping”. Which is to say that the virtual showcase of their annual Nutcracker production has taken the “virtual” element to heart and hired Blueprint Studios to recreate the War Memorial Opera House to go along with the show.

Granted, they took a few liberties: as someone born and raised in San Francisco who’s worked at the Opera House quite often, it was a bit jarring to see animated snow outside of the Van Ness entrance and in front of City Hall. Still, it was a welcome sight after my not having set foot there since the company’s last production.

Like all the images, the entrance was photographed with a 360-degree camera. It’s preceded by instructions in the form of a colorful holiday card. Giant digital wreaths and red ornaments hang from the balcony as two large Nutcracker figures “guard” the entrance. Inside, the lobby is adorned with more digital accoutrements, including a tree, wreaths, and Nutcracker standees that are flatly illustrated to perfectly resemble cardboard cutouts.

This is where we our first interactive elements, as the guestbook allows access to the show’s digital program and activity book – both of which have animated pages. An advisory sign near the door to the auditorium features a QR code for the Ballet’s “face filters” (N-95 masks) on Instagram.

The outside (© San Francisco Ballet)

The auditorium has the most digital decoration (including Nutcrackers guarding from the balcony) and features the most interactivity, with the orchestra icon leading to a video featuring Music Director Martin West. In it, he lets the orchestra members recreate their favorite musical passages from the show. A “Behind the Curtain” option leads you “backstage” to virtual cul-de-sac of snow-covered SF Victorians. Click different features opens videos of dance lessons from Wendy van Dyck, and a podcast about the history of the Nutcracker and San Francisco’s unique connection to it.

Mind you, all of this is before you even head back to the auditorium and click on the stage curtains. Fully animated, they swing open to see the old, familiar “Compliments of the Season…” card. This kicks off the video stream for the Ballet’s 2007 production of The Nutcracker, as it was shown on KQED that year. I won’t bother to detail it because, as with A Christmas Carol above, everyone knows the plot and the show isn’t all that different from the 75th anniversary production I saw last year. It’s still the same great show, just on my HDTV instead of a stage in front of me.

And that’s why Nutcracker Online, as they’re calling it, wins out over the ACT show: the former putting in that extra effort pays off. Every year, the Ballet puts on a special scaled-down production of the show for children’s hospitals. I don’t know if they plan to continue it during this Year of COVID, but Nutcracker Online is a fine alternative for both the able-bodied and the limited alike. Accessibility is something all theatres – nay, all venues and formats – need to practice better, and this extra step of adding immersion is a relief after having been cooped up in our homes for most of the year.

The auditorium (© San Francisco Ballet)

In fact, what few criticisms I have were that it could have gone further: I would have loved to explore the Opera House beyond the few fixed points of the front door, the lobby, the auditorium, and “Behind the Curtain”. They should go “open-world” and allow viewers to explore the full exterior of the Opera House, as well as all of the inside balconies and the downstairs banquet hall. Also, if there were Closed Caption or DVS options, I wasn’t able to find them.

Still, it was a fine way for SF Ballet to bring their signature annual show to the World Wide Web.

GRADE:                                             A-

SF Ballet’s Nutcracker Online is scheduled to run until the 31st of December on the SF Ballet website.
The video of the ballet proper runs 1 hour 34 minutes (as it’s pre-recorded, the intermission is not part of the runtime).
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

I have no idea when I’ll be able to see these companies’ shows again in person. Two of the last shows I saw live were SF Ballet’s Midsummer and the ACT’s Toni Stone, both of them mere days before everything shut down. It was only supposed to be a few weeks – a month at the most. That was in March. I’d like nothing more to watch another live show in the midst of an equally appreciative audience, but I’ll gladly wait until the vaccine is more widely and readily available. It’s not “infringing on one’s rights” to put public safety ahead of potential profit.

Until such time as I can literally breathe easy within the walls of a theatre, ACT and SF Ballet have found decent work-arounds. More than that, they’ve both found great ways to continue their traditions during a year when holiday cheer is really needed.

Categories: Theatre

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