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Trinity Rep reimagines Charles Dickens’ holiday classic ‘A Christmas Carol’

With a middle-aged Scrooge and several neurodivergent actors, director Stephen Thorne says this year’s show “opens up opportunities for people to see themselves and their direct experience.”

Choreographer yaTande Whitney V. Hunter, left, director Stephen Thorne, center, and assistant director Gia Yarn, right, at work on Trinity Rep's 47th annual "A Christmas Carol" in Providence.Marisa Lenardson

PROVIDENCE — Trinity Repertory Company resident member Stephen Thorne said his inaugural solo experience directing and adapting “A Christmas Carol” for this holiday season has been an eye-opening experience.

“This show is unlike any other because we get to rediscover it every year from top to bottom,” said Thorne. “We get to create ‘A Christmas Carol’ for right now.”

Now in its 47th year, “A Christmas Carol” runs through Dec. 31.

The 54-year-old Lincoln resident, who is married to fellow company member Angela Brazil (with whom he co-directed “A Christmas Carol” in 2017), said he is excited for audience members to see the reimagined version of this holiday classic, written by Charles Dickens 180 years ago.

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We caught up with Thorne, a father of two who has been a member of Trinity Rep since 2000, to learn more about his vision for this production.

What is the crossover from acting to directing like for you?

We have a deep relationship with this story. I don’t know of another theater that invests as many resources and as much time into retelling this story every year. We would save a lot of time and money if we just trotted out the same show for like a 10-year period — do the same show and then every 10 years maybe switch it up. But we reinvent it and for me it is this really profound creative act that is revitalizing. How are we discovering this play and the story for the first time — for ourselves and for the audience? In that sense I was primed by my 23 years of being in a relationship with this play, as is every other resident actor who’s been at Trinity. We know a lot about it and our task is OK, how do we rediscover? That said, the rediscovering is a big challenge. It’s really hard. So for me, the first thing I wanted to do was to deal with the script. We’ve been using a really fantastic adaptation that was made by Adrian Hall that was done in the ‘80s. That has worked really well and I felt the need this year to tinker, and so that’s where I started.

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What do you bring to this show and, more specifically, to the character of Scrooge, who you know so well, having played him in Trinity Rep’s 2018 production of “A Christmas Carol”?

I am 54 and am firmly ensconced in middle age. And Mauro Hantman, who’s playing Scrooge this year, is about the same age. We worked together on “The Inheritance” and while working on that show together with him, I learned that I was going to direct “Christmas Carol.” My first thought was Mauro — and then I started thinking of our actual age and started thinking of essentially a middle-aged Scrooge — somebody who’s not at the end of his life, but actually has got quite a bit left to go. We’ve had so many incredible actors and so many incredible Scrooges, so you basically try to fit the production to the actor, so in thinking about this one, I was like, how can I fit this to Mauro in a way that feels like it honors Dickens’ script and also is bringing in things from 2023, and the things that are floating around in our moment right now?

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“A Christmas Carol” was written in 1843 and was, at the time, a huge success — and still is. To what would you attribute the power of its longevity?

I would say a couple of things. First, its message or its charge to the people hearing the story. There’s this clarion call of “you can change, change is possible, and it’s necessary.” And that is a powerful, uplifting message for any human being on this planet. And I think it rings out louder and louder with each passing year, especially as we pass through continuing really dark times. I think as a story structure, it’s simple and incredibly brilliant. You have a character who has an unexamined life, essentially, and these spirits say “You have a past and you need to examine it. You have a present and you need to engage with it. You have a future and you need to be intentional about it.” And the last thing I would say is that it is a ghost story and it’s got thrills and surprises and it is sensory and it is joyful and explosive and surprising, and so it’s got [an] incredible sort of theatrical dynamic built into it and so those are just three reasons — I’m sure there are many more — why this play continues to endure.

How has “A Christmas Carol” evolved over time? And is the message still relevant 180 years after it was written?

If we look at the history of our productions at Trinity Rep … we could see first off, in terms of casting and the actors — not only who play Scrooge, but who are cast for other roles — how they have evolved tremendously over time. And thinking specifically, for instance, about this year’s production and our character of Tiny Tim. … We had a lot of discussions about how to represent this character. You know Dickens has crafted a specific image for this character. For me, I sort of looked back a little and thought OK, Tiny Tim is a child with special needs and what does that mean right now? And for me, it covers a wide range and that really opened up a lot of possibilities for how to imagine this character. And for our production, our Tiny Tim is a neurodiverse character. He doesn’t have a so-called “physical disability,” such as polio, which is what Dickens was kind of after. He’s neurodivergent, so that opened up a great opportunity in the storytelling and also in the casting. About half of our kids cast are neurodivergent. So that was an exciting idea and we did some rewriting of the script and our telling of a story that is, I think, relatable to a lot of families out there.

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What do you think this will mean to families who maybe have children on the spectrum, seeing actors who have similar challenges?

We want to see our experience reflected on stage, whether it’s our direct experience or whether it’s just direct representation. That’s one thing. I think that’s really important, focusing a little bit on Tiny Tim because it opens up opportunities for people to see themselves and their direct experience, and also for actors who may not have been included before and who may now be included. For a number of years, we would just cast an overly cute, tiny kid, and we would give them a crutch and a brace. And that’s one way to do it — and there are many opinions on this. But certainly for a while it was basically not on the radar to go “Why don’t we actually seek out an actor who can actually bring their direct experience to this role?” That said, the actors all play a variety of roles, so we’re not just saying “We’re hiring you because you have a disability; we’re hiring you because you’re an actor and for this one part you’re going to play, you are going to bring a unique perspective to it.” That has an effect on the audience and it has an effect on the creative process. It’s been a really, really fantastic experience across the board, I would say.

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Why do you think it is that people come to see this show year after year?

Again, I can’t speak for every other theater company, but ours is, I think, unlike any other. Certainly, there are people who come to ours, to Trinity, year after year because of the way we approach the play; because we reimagine it every single year. And they come and they know the story and they get to experience that rediscovery. And I think people want holiday joy. Christmas is a time when I think we can vacillate between wanting to have the good feeling about Christmas and getting cynical about Christmas, and so we seek it out because we want that joy, we want that positive experience and that’s a good thing. I think that’s a fantastic thing. And our mission as artists is like yes, we want to provide that joy, too, and with what Dickens has presented us with is what I would call an earned joy. And if we can achieve that effectively with an audience, I think that brings them back for that experience again the next year. It’s not just a pageant of joy. It’s a story that you have to engage with that should give you an experience at the end {that is uplifting] and I want that. I think the whole world needs a massive dose of that on a daily basis — particularly right now.

Why should people come to see this production of “A Christmas Carol”?

Because I think we’ve crafted a really fresh, joyful, surprising ride with an incredibly dynamic performance from Mauro Hantman and the entire company. And I would say Michael McCarty, our set designer, has crafted an incredible, beautiful, active, dynamic space in which this play takes place. And the costumes are unbelievable. Toni Spadafora-Sadler has [designed] mind-blowing costumes, so if people just want to come for the costumes, they’re going to be in heaven. And I think, honestly, I just feel like after the pandemic and everything, we cannot get enough joy. But the joy in this play is not the kind of thin, instant gratification joy, but the kind of actual joy that comes from the beauty of living and the fact that we are beautiful, complex human beings who need each other. And when we isolate from each other, we take joy away from our lives, and I think that’s another huge part of this play — that we need connection in order to live and without it, our lives are empty. It is my hope that this production and this story can give people a visceral experience of that. I think that’s why we go to the theater.

For more information or to get tickets to “A Christmas Carol,” visit trinityrep.com.

Interview has been edited and condensed.