Broadway may be shutting down this week due to surging COVID-19 cases, but “A Tlingit Christmas Carol” is streaming online and available to put you and yours into the holiday mood.
The show, written by Perseverance Theatre’s playwright in residence Vera Starbard and directed by Madeline Sayet, tells the Dickensian classic with a modern and local twist–using Southeast Alaska Native values to share the story of Scrooge’s metamorphosis. Characters interact via Zoom, in a nod to the pandemic.
In a phone interview Wednesday morning, Starbard said she developed the show in 2020 to keep actors and other theater employees working during the pandemic.
She said that she and Perseverance Theatre management had hoped to stage a live production this holiday season and to use the show to start a local holiday tradition.
“Last year, we said, ‘let’s revisit this in six months. Clearly, the pandemic will be over,’” she said, chuckling at the memory.
But, COVID-19 had other plans. As the delta variant started to spread widely in Alaska late in the summer, the idea of staging the show live was shelved and theater officials decided to stream the 2020 show again.
But, Starbard said she’s come to see the silver lining of streaming the production for a second year, especially since many communities in Alaska have no access to live theater — pandemic or not.
“It’s pretty cool that the theater is set up to do it again this year,” she said. “We love the accessibility of having it online. So many friends and families in villages or down south could not see it otherwise. So, it’s good to have this recorded and to show it anywhere in the world.”
Starbard said feedback from last year’s showing was very favorable.
“One really cool response is how we portray Russian Orthodox Christmas, which is so important to many Natives,” she said. “It was cool to immediately hear from people all over Alaska that they were excited to see their Christmas represented.”
She said she’s also heard much positive feedback from Alaska Natives who appreciate seeing themselves in the classic Christmas tale.
Starbard said it’s a take on two things she loves — Native culture and “A Christmas Carol.”
“This is a fun mash-up,” she said. “I love the humor the actors bring to it. They make what I write so much better. I laugh out loud despite already seeing it so many times.”
About the show
According to a news release from Perseverance Theatre, the story is based on the beloved tale of a longtime corporate president, E.B. Scrooge, who just wants to spend Russian Orthodox Christmas like any other day – alone and poring over his bank accounts.
But, in this version, the Spirit of Christmas Present sports an Alaskan-themed ugly Christmas sweater and shows Scrooge views of Christmas in a series of five staves (or chapters).
In other twists on the original, Starbard changes the gender of some of the key characters. For example, in the Dickens version, Fred is Scrooge’s nephew and a kindly and wealthy man. Starbard re-imagines the pair as E.B. Scrooge and his niece, Freda. Both are presidents of Alaska Native corporations with contrasting philosophies regarding philanthropy and management style. The show also features a Tiny Tina instead of Tiny Tim and a Roberta Cratchit
“‘A Christmas Carol’ is a very male-focused play, so I very purposefully rewrote that,” Starbard said last year.
In addition, the show includes a music album that features songs written and performed specifically for the show by celebrated Tlingit artist and educator Edward Littlefield.
Lyrics include local flavor. For example: “O cedar tree, O cedar tree, how fragrant are your branches? O hemlock tree, o hemlock tree, we see you all around us,” sung to the tune of “O Christmas Tree.”
“I love the music. I wrote some of the songs before I wrote any pages of script,” Starbard said, adding that the songs invoke nostalgia and connect her to her ties to Southeast Alaska through the lyrics.
Starbard, who confessed to being a fan of binge-watching, said the show is designed to be watched episodically, which mirrors how Charles Dickens released much of his work. But, she said, binge-watching works well, too.
“Really, there’s no right or wrong way to watch the show,” she said.
Know & Go
What: “A Tlingit Christmas Carol”
When: Anytime throughout the holiday season
Where: Stream the show online at https://www.ptalaska.org/