A special look at this year’s A Christmas Carol
Aileen Wen McGroddy, a 2022 graduate of the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA Program in Directing, will helm this year’s production of A Christmas Carol. We sat down with her to discuss the show’s legacy, what makes the story so timeless, and how she came to cast a woman as Scrooge for the first time at Trinity Rep in nearly 20 years.
Laura Weick: Just so you can introduce yourself, can you tell us a bit about your background in theater?
Aileen Wen McGroddy: My theater background is based on a lot of physical theater, devised theater, and ensemble-based work. I did a lot of that when I was in Chicago before I moved out here to Rhode Island for grad school. I was in a clown troupe. I had a devised theater company. I would do shows in the back rooms of bars, or park district spaces, or I co-created an opera that we did in people’s homes that we toured around. And a lot of the ethos of physical theater continues to be really important in my work, even when I’m not working on projects that are necessarily devised or improvised. A lot of the things that I learned and the way that I think about space, audience, and performance was built in that ground of doing a lot of work outside of conventional theater spaces.
LW: Why did you decide to direct this show? What is it about this story that interests you?
AWM: Being asked to direct A Christmas Carol at Trinity Rep is a huge honor because it is a show that so many people in this community hold dear. It feels like someone asking you to make their Christmas meal, or trim their tree. These sorts of things are a part of people’s holiday rituals! It’s a major responsibility to create that experience for people who really look forward to it each year. And when Curt asked me to do A Christmas Carol, I was really excited about it because it’s this big show with a lot of spectacle, fun, and music. It has so much movement in it, and it’s a real feast in terms of the world it creates.
But I wanted to take a moment before signing on to think about where this story sits with me personally. I came up with some questions I’d want to address in the show, like what is true generosity? And what is its relationship to risk? When I’m confronted with the vast inequality that exists in our current society, like if someone is asking me for money on the street, growing up people always said you should always say no. And then for a while when I was older, before I would leave the house, I’d be like, “Okay, I’ll always say yes if someone asks.” I’ve been interrogating recently. Why in these kinds of interactions do we often feel the need to prepare an answer before we go out into the world? I suspect that it has something to do with how risky it is to open yourself up to encountering these things on a day-to-day basis.
That’s something that I see in Scrooge, that Scrooge has decided that the answer to everything is no. And not just when asked for money, but saying no to invitations to dinner, or anything involving human connection, Scrooge, before even starting the day, is the kind of person who says the answer is going to be no to everything. And I think the journey in A Christmas Carol is of that character learning not just to not always say no, but learning how to truly meet other people without having preconceived notions beforehand. Really, we’re asking: “how does Scrooge listen to the world around them?”
Another thing is that I get really curious about is why it is that we as Americans in 2022, when we think of Christmas, we think of Dickensian England from hundreds of years ago? Even outside the context of A Christmas Carol a lot of people associate Christmas with top hats and big skirts and cute poor orphans. Is there a charm to it for us because we are so distant from it now, and we’d rather look at that instead of the current inequality? And I’m curious about why this deeply anti-capitalist piece of writing is the notoriously capitalist United States’ favorite Christmas story, used to promote a very capitalist holiday.
LW: How do you think this production is similar to others you have directed, and how is it different?
AWM: I think it’s similar in terms of both A Christmas Carol and my previous work needing to create an ensemble. We’ll be seeing actors working together to build the world of the story on stage, and they’ll invite the audience to participate with their imaginations. What gets me excited as an audience member is when I’m asked to participate, when I’m present in the story. And even though this will be in a theater compared to a bar or other space, at its core all you need for performance is actors, an audience, and a place to be.
How will it be different? I mean, each show is different, because it is its own ecosystem of artists and actors. But also, I’m really curious about period, in a way that I don’t think I’ve really delved deeply into it in other shows. I’m looking forward to exploring how to tell the story of that, in this production, how to present that Dickensian fantasy.
LW: For the first time in nearly two decades at Trinity Rep, Scrooge will be played by a woman. Why did you make that decision?
AWM: When I was thinking about those questions of generosity, I was also thinking about how that interacts specifically with being a woman, particularly a woman in a patriarchal society. These sorts of societies expect women to be innately generous and nurturing. Maybe Scrooge is the kind of woman who didn’t want to occupy that sort of space in society, but went too far with it. I think it’s a really salient time to investigate this story from with the character being a woman: I look at some of the women that are in leadership positions in our government whose actions I’m baffled by, but I guess that is part of that assumption that I make as a woman or thinking that a woman maybe should be more empathetic. But no, a woman is not automatically that, and how might a woman react to a society that demands that of her really directly, and in some cases, violently? So I’m really looking forward to exploring how Scrooge’s journey is shaped by her gender.
Scrooge is going to be played by a woman named Phyllis Kay, who is a long-time Trinity Rep company member who has been in many A Christmas Carols, but never as Scrooge. Phyllis had this incredible monologue in Tiny Beautiful Things which was of this bereaved father who was reading a list of things that had to do with his grief. I think that Phyllis has such a deft hand at portraying characters that are painfully closed off from the world. She is so good at sculpting the journey of somebody who is trying, clawing to meet the world again, and the pain and vulnerability it takes to open up. I think that that really is at the core of Scrooge his story, and I think that it is a painful, difficult, laborious process. Phyllis has a surgeon’s level of precision with that kind of story, and drawing deep in terms of storytelling.
LW: Is there anything specific you are looking forward to in this production?
AWM: I’m really looking forward to working with this group of people, and I’m really looking forward to being in the room together. It’s really incredible that Trinity Rep does create a new production of A Christmas Carol every year instead of pulling the same thing out of a box. And that’s a really unique opportunity for me as a director to step into a lineage. There is an opportunity there to make it brand new, but of course, we’re building on the memory of all the productions past, both here and with other theaters, and the Muppets one that’s on TV each year, and every other Christmas Carol adaptation that has ever existed. How do we create something that is unique and surprising, while still giving people an experience that they feel is still part of their holiday tradition? I think that the key to do that is to stay true to ourselves as artists making it.
LW: What do you hope audiences get out of this year’s show?
AWM: I hope audiences have a great time! And like what I was talking about before, maybe this is something theater can do or it’s something people can do for themselves, but maybe when you leave the theater and someone comes up to you on the street and asks you for money, you don’t give your stock answer. Maybe instead, you’ll be able to meet people as individuals, as they are.