“Where would our Christmas traditions be without Charles Dickens?” This was the question posed by local newsman Noel Edey (of the Cochrane Now) when he interviewed Elaine Phillips, college adjunct instructor of English, History and literature, shortly before Christmas. Elaine has been offering lectures at the local library—the Nan Boothby on Railway Street—since 2013, and because the talks are author-focused rather than theme-based, she has noticed that certain writers draw a larger crowd than others. In particular, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Dickens have proved popular with readers of all ages.
December marked the second year of what may become an annual library tradition of reading “A Christmas Carol” out loud to an enthusiastic audience. Serendipitously, as soon as Elaine committed to last year’s program, she heard about Bow Valley’s production. The following week she invited her library audience—ranging in age from 8 to 80—to attend the play at the local Baptist church, and some did so. The library lectures take place in a secular setting, although Elaine’s teaching of literature is naturally influenced by her Christian worldview. So it was a delight to see unchurched library patrons mingling with her sacred community.
David Ong, the seminary’s admissions director and member of Bow Valley Baptist Church (BVBC), says the idea to put on Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” at BVBC in December originated after he saw potential in the talented youth group. “And we have an excellent stage area in the sanctuary,” he says, so he approached the leadership team last summer with the idea of putting on a play as an outreach event for the church. He considered “Christmas Carol” appropriate because it is well known and suitable for the season. The church was willing to support the endeavour.
David, who played the humorously named Mister Fezziwong, was confident to direct and stage the play. “The unknown factor for me,” he says, “was whether or not anyone would show up to audition!” Thankfully, a solid core group gathered for his information night, and soon he had a cast of 25 actors plus a technical crew. On December 9 and 10, they performed for enthusiastic audiences.
Rehearsals taught the actors to work together as a group, and as opening night drew closer, everyone worked hard at learning their lines and getting more focused. “One of the best parts of rehearsals was having a big cast,” says David, “and one of the challenging parts was having a big cast!” Scene changes were interesting because the cast had to change the set and make sure the appropriate props were out, quickly and efficiently, on a darkened stage. “It takes a lot of planning and repetition to get it right and it’s over so fast. But you feel a great sense of personal accomplishment for this tricky choreographed sequence that the audience never gets a chance to see fully.”
Directing a play certainly taught David to expect the unexpected. Two hours before show time, he had a phone call telling him that one of the actors who played the Ghost of Christmas Present was too ill to perform. “We did not have any understudies who had memorized all of his lines and could fill in for him. So we prayed for inspiration, and came up with the solution of having one of our actors, Daniel Spelliscy, stand in for the role wearing the costume which came with a full beard disguising the mouth. And I read his lines during the play into a microphone from the sound booth as the scenes took place. It was a last-minute switch that ended up being a memorable part of the play!”
Another memorable moment was the appearance of David and Madison Ong’s 5-month-old baby, young Master Fezziwong, a firm favourite with the audience.
Something the cast appreciated was growing together over the course of the play, learning how to work as a team and how to anticipate and cover for each other if needed. David sees this as a good demonstration of the truth in Ecclesiastes 4:9–10, “Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their efforts. For if either falls, his companion can lift him up….” All the members of the body—the actors, the technical team, the ushers and greeters who served each night, the church leadership team—were able to lift others up as the need arose, even though the play lasted only two nights.
One of the primary reasons for choosing “a distinctly Christmas-themed but not overly Christian-themed” play such as “Christmas Carol” was to create opportunities to invite people for a night of festivities and fellowship in order to display the love of Christ. David says, “As a cast we spoke of using the talents God had given us to display excellence on stage as a way to give God glory.” The gifts of generosity, love, and service were also on display through the church family, whether members were in the audience with friends they had invited, or in the parking lot directing cars. David says the mere fact that the church put on a play that was not specifically about the Nativity sparked good conversations in the community.
David says, “The universal themes of loneliness and regret that Scrooge demonstrated in the play brought about repentance and a change from his old foolish ways. We prayed that the Holy Spirit would also bring good opportunities to welcome community members to join us for regular services on Sunday and to see us as a loving, caring church family.”
“We were also able to raise $1,700 dollars for the Cochrane Activettes, thus providing a hands-on display of care for our community.”
“There were amazing stories about how God used the play to lead people through the doors who never had a reason to come to our church before. And we look forward to finding more ways in future to display Christ’s love to those around us in the community.”
David Ong asked colleague Claudia Obando if her son, Noah, would be interested in a part in the play. “I asked Noah—and he said yes.”
Rehearsals were relaxing and fun, and ten-year-old Noah enjoyed hanging out with the youth. He tells of one night when Nate Nelson (the ghost of Christmas future) was very tired and decided to lie down on the floor while the group was getting ready to practise the next scene. “Due to his black costume, when they started practising the next scene, nobody noticed him and he almost got stepped on by accident. Everyone got a good laugh at that!”
As a first-time actor, Noah—the memorable “Turkey Boy” who interacts with Scrooge on Christmas day—enjoyed everything. He loved the food prepared for the cast on performance days and appreciated the positive feedback received from many people. At times the attention he received after the play was overwhelming, but he took it in stride and looks forward to his next play. Noah noticed that most members of the audience were unfamiliar to him (i.e. most were people who do not attend BVBC). Several non-Christians had asked church members about purchasing tickets.
When asked whether Dickens is still relevant today, despite the language differences, “Christmas Carol” cast and library listeners agree: “Absolutely,” one parent responded. “The older language actually gives it more charm. The story remains engaging and entertaining.”