Q&A with Mark Cabus on ‘A Christmas Carol’

Actor Mark Cabus has performed his adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for more than two decades and to tens of thousands of students both at TPAC and in schools across Middle Tennessee.

Mark Cabus has performed his adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for more than two decades. A regular feature on TPAC’s Season for Young People, Cabus’ adaptation has been performed for tens of thousands of students both at TPAC and in schools across Middle Tennessee.

For 2020, due to the ongoing needs for social distancing and school restrictions, Cabus and TPAC, in partnership with RightBrainLeftBrain Entertainment, have filmed his one-person show for free distribution to student audiences. Below, Cabus shares the history of his adaptation and what he hopes audiences will take away from the production this holiday season.

Q. When did you first have the idea to adapt Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? How did you approach it?

When I moved to Nashville from Los Angeles in 1998, I was looking for a vehicle to introduce myself to the community. I had seen Sir Patrick Stewart perform a staged reading of A Christmas Carol in L.A., and I decided to challenge my own expectations and play more than a dozen characters, master their physical movements and voices, and reinvent a Christmas classic with my own perspective.

I’ve always admired the work of theatre companies such as Theatre de Complicité, Cheek by Jowl, The Latebloomers, Rude Mechanicals, and SITI Company. They all are dedicated to devised and physical theatre, blending movement, music, dance, and non-theatrical texts into highly stylized theatre. I started with the novella and, with help from Carolyn German, edited it to a two-hour performance length with lights and sound effects and Charles Dickens’ words.

When TPAC approached me years ago to create a touring production for schools, I simplified the overall concept even more and edited the script down to little more than an hour. It’s similar but not the same with interactive elements for the audience to participate.

man in brown suit performing

Mark Cabus filming “A Christmas Carol.” Photo by Kristen Sheft.

Q. How long have you performed this adaptation? What have you seen in audience responses to this holiday classic over the years?

Whether in Nashville, Atlanta, New York, or Washington, D.C., I’ve been performing some version of A Christmas Carol off and on for 22 years. I’m always thrilled how well audiences respond. Everyone thinks they know the story because we’ve seen so many movie and television interpretations of it. From Mr. Magoo to The Muppets, everyone has a favorite.

This story starts in a grave (“Marley was dead, to begin with…”). Dickens purposefully fashioned a dark and unapologetic ghost story, and it’s necessary to follow the path of all good ghost stories, which is to make it sinister and chilling. In most productions, Scrooge becomes an object of fun, a comical old miser that no one cares to identify with, and that, frankly, diminishes the impact of the story. If we don’t see ourselves in Scrooge, how can we expect to invest in his redemption?

So, I work to honestly portray this angry, old miser and locate his shrunken heart. And apparently, taking that course works like gangbusters. The show has fans, people who return to see it again and again. There have been testimonials of reluctant children and spouses dragged to see it who, then, are overjoyed at how unique and engaging it is.

Q. Featured on TPAC’s Season for Young People for Grades 7-12, what do you hope students take away from the experience?

First of all, I hope they enjoy themselves, that seeing the pages of a reading assignment brought to life will engage and entertain them. Secondly, I hope it might prompt them to examine their own lives for the seeds of hatred and greed, that they’ll learn to recognize it in others, whether as bullying or bigotry, and reach out to them to keep those vanities from spreading and taking hold.

Q. What is it about this piece and its message that is enduring for audiences? Has your experience with the piece changed?

It’s funny. Those who have seen it year after year will often ask if I’ve changed or edited the text to reflect whatever is currently in the news or happening in my life or in the world. But the answer is always the same: no, it’s just the durability of Dickens’ story and its uncanny ability to reflect our current moment. Over the years, whether in times of unrest or peace, economic hardship or prosperity, something seeps through this story and speaks to the present moment.

I always bring myself to the stage or the set. No matter what has happened to me on any given day, I bring my day to the role. I tell my students this, too. You can’t ignore slipping and falling into a muddy puddle on your way to the theater. You can’t ignore winning the lottery and paying off your debts. Whatever experience you are having that year, that month, that day, you must bring it to your work because it’s part of who you are at this moment. I bring my day to this play every time I perform it and let that spirit work itself out in the lines of Dickens’ story. It’s always different to me, ever evolving, and it’s always the same just as I left it before. And I can’t explain it any better than that. Maybe I can offer this: you will find what you need at this present moment in the story of Scrooge. Whether its encouragement or admonishment, vindication or validation, Dickens will whisper it in your ear if you listen. Me, I’m just the messenger.

Q. Which character do you relate to the most? Do you have a favorite character to portray? Is there one that is especially difficult for you?

I get this question a lot from students. After spending an hour watching this crazy old actor bounce and trounce in front of them, a parade of 18 characters in my wake, they want to know which is my favorite. Most are disappointed to learn it’s not Scrooge. I guess because he takes up the lion’s share of the story, but no, he’s not my favorite. I have two actually: Bob and Mrs. Cratchit. They’re loosely based on my deceased parents, you see, and for those brief moments, I get to bring them back to life in all their splendid love and generosity and sauciness. They get to make others laugh and cry just as they made me laugh and cry. And that’s one of those special perks of being an actor. As for a difficult character, that would be Jacob Marley, simply because he’s the most physical character to perform. Giving the appearance of continual floating involves enormous muscle control and focus. He takes his toll on my energy reserves, but thankfully, he appears early in the story so I’m fresh and ready to take him on. But
boy, do I sweat.

Q. During this pandemic, what attracted you to filming a performance for student audiences? How do you feel about the potential for this work to reach new audiences?

To be frank, TPAC introduced the idea to me, but as an actor of both stage and screen, I’m always fascinated, from a purely professional standpoint, by the techniques necessary to shift from one medium to the other. They’re so similar and so different. One is expansive and plays to the back row while the other is intimate and whispers in your ear. That’s quite a challenge to find the happy medium between the two. As for potential, I’m always grateful for any opportunity to engage with students as well as adults, especially if they have never seen this show. And even if it’s in this is a prerecorded performance, it is, more or less, the same as if they were watching me in a theater. It’s just the delivery system that’s different.

Q. How are you adjusting the filmed performance in Polk Theater? How do you plan to use the full space?

That’s a good question, and one I won’t be able to fully answer until we rehearse in the theater. I’ll have 10 hours with the crew to work out all the details then. But as I said before, I love the challenge of marrying the two styles of performance. This is new because it’s filmed, I’m mic’ed and have close-ups, and I will have an intimate relationship with the audience that I haven’t had before. And that is very exciting.

Q. Anything else you’d like people to know about you, this work, or this filmed performance?

I hope they have a wonderful time, and I wish them all the happiest of holidays.

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