Arts

The play is an exciting collaboration between two favourites in the Ottawa theatre scene. Image: A Christmas Carol Ottawa/Provided.

The audio play has already sold out due to overwhelming support from Ottawa audiences.

Listen: The Muppet Christmas Carol is one of my favourite films of any genre. 

But Ottawa’s getting a new Christmas Carol to shake things up. 

Local theatre makers Nicholas Leno (a 2016 U of O MFA directing alum) and Norah Paton have created an immersive, site-specific, audio production of A Christmas Carol to be delivered to audience’s houses in a convenient box. The box comes with surprises — props and other “little treats,” said Paton — to help audiences bring A Christmas Carol to life in their own homes and neighbourhoods.

The play has, unfortunately, sold out due to overwhelming interest from local audiences. This signals a promising trend in inventive, accessible theatre as physical stage spaces stay shuttered due to the pandemic.

Putting together a COVID-safe Christmas Carol has been quite the journey for Leno (who in addition to building the play, voices Scrooge in the audio component) and Paton.

“We got together back in August to try and conceive an outdoor play in winter during the second wave of COVID. We started this on a warm summer evening, and that’s pretty different from what feels feasible now,” said Paton in an interview.

Digital theatre has been evolving in unexpected ways since physical spaces first closed at the end of March. Podcast plays have increased in popularity, as have Zoom productions and other livestreamed initiatives. 

In creating A Christmas Carol, Leno and Paton looked for ways to get audiences out of their houses and into their neighbourhoods to explore the classic story — by themselves, with a partner, or even with the whole family. The audio play and the physical box work for a group of any size, though Leno and Paton suggest that the play is best experienced at a one box per household ratio.

“We wanted to tell this story in a way that people actually want to see it,” said Paton.

“It’s somewhere between a [podcast] play and a museum walking tour,” explained Leno. “It’s an actual event, an experience.” Paton added, “I was a tour guide for years, and building A Christmas Carol has been using that muscle.” 

Audience members of A Christmas Carol go on a little tour of their house and neighbourhood, allowing them to see their own space in a new and whimsical light while listening to Scrooge’s story.

As to why Leno and Paton decided to make A Christmas Carol their wintertime production? “It’s tradition. It’s a really good story that applies well to these unprecedented times,” said Leno.

“I enjoy retelling really old stories in new ways,” he added. 

Together, Leno and Paton researched previous iterations of A Christmas Carol, reading Charles Dickens’ original book as well as old radio plays and films. This notion of tradition is one driving Leno’s and Paton’s production: even in the pandemic, there are still ways to enjoy the stories we tell each year, even if that might look quite different now.

The production is Pay-What-You-Choose (meaning audience members were able to name their price), though Leno and Paton specify that the physical box’s contents cost them approximately $15, and the box contains “at least $10 per person worth of enjoyment.” 

This measure has ensured that the production remains accessible to everyone regardless of financial standing, which is notable at a time in which many people have lost work. Audiences get to keep their boxes, so they can relive the experience over and over again. 

Leno and Paton worked with Lindsey Huebner, a voice actor from the United Kingdom, to breathe life into the other characters of A Christmas Carol. 

“The only real accommodation we had to make in putting the show together has been time zones,” said Paton. 

Leno and Paton also worked with U.K. sound designer, Jordan Lewis, to piece together the individual audio components.

A Christmas Carol has been no small feat for Leno and Paton, theatre artists both lauded for their physical work over the past several years. 

“It’s new and so with inherent fear,” said Leno. “We’re usually theatre artists — it’s a new frontier,” added Paton. “It’s exciting since we’re no longer bound by a traditional theatre space.”

“Enjoy A Christmas Carol with a mulled wine, and follow your public health guidelines.” said Paton. “Traditions are flipped on their head this year: so embrace that.”