Monday, November 29, 2010
This is my second year in the part of the Miner in Alan Ruch’s haunting musical montage and trio entitled “Travels.” In years of my youth I performed in other versions of A Christmas Carol. As a teen I played Peter, and as a young man, I played Bob Cratchet beside my father’s Scrooge. I have seen many versions of A Christmas Carol, both plays, films, and musicals – some wonderful, some not. And I have more than once read the short book. Yet when Matthew Wiener called me last year and offered me the part of the “Miner,” my response was “for what show?” “The Miner? Where is he in the story?”
Even today, when friends ask me what part I play, they always look confused when I answer “the Miner.” And then I inevitably explain that in Dickens’ book, during Stave III, the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge a brief scene of miners in the North who, despite awful living conditions, still found joy in the Christmas season. But until The Actors Theatre’s version, so far as I know, the “miners” scene was never depicted in any film or stage version of the story. I suppose at first blush the scene was just too brief or too unimportant to use. That is, until Michael Grady, Matthew Wiener, and Alan Ruch thought about it more carefully – perhaps understanding how important this brief scene really was to Dickens’ social message and Christmas lesson. I’m so glad they gave it a second look.
This year, as I reprise the role, it has more meaning for me. The entire world watched and cheered at the miracle of the 33 Chilean Miners, who after 69 days jubilantly emerged one-by-one from the half-mile-deep mine – a place we were convinced would be their tomb. This past month we learned of the tragedy of 29 New Zealand Miners killed in a massive underground explosion. We shudder when we try to imagine the dark claustrophobic horror those miners endured.
Yet dangerous as mining seems today, mining was far more dangerous when Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. In all of Dickens’ books, readers discover repeated themes of poverty, suffering, greed, and social responsibility. Dickens exposed the victims of the industrial revolution – those that the greed inherent in the system had displaced and driven into poverty. Perhaps none of Dickens’ books more directly argued that the wealthy members of that society were obligated to provide for the poor and destitute than does A Christmas Carol. And though the book is set in London, still Dickens didn’t forget about the miners of the north when he flew Scrooge up there for a brief look.
In the 1800’s, mining was the lifeblood of Britain’s world-dominating manufacturing industry. Black coal powered the industrial revolution. At the peak years of production, the coal miners of Wales and England hauled over 200 millions of tons of the fuel annually from the dark depths of that cold hard northern earth. Mining conditions have been noted as the worst of all working conditions of Victorian England. Many writers, such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her poem The Cry of the Children, wrote horror stories of children -- as young as 4 years old -- working 16 to 20-hour days in the dark-black underground coal mines. They often worked for barely enough money to afford food. Many wrote of the horrid conditions these children were forced to endure. Browning’s shocking poem describes the mine as a dark, ruthless place that robbed children of their innocence and their soul – making them yearn for early death as an escape. In the 1840’s, many reformers tried to expose the awful mining conditions and the mine owners’ exploitation of children. Browning’s poem includes a powerful plea for change: "How long, O cruel nation, / will you stand to move the world, on a child’s heart" (Browning 153). This plea was echoed by other social reformers, including Dicken’s brief portrayal of his Christmas miners in Stave III.
My thoughts of mining this year led me to do a bit of research into my own family’s history with mining. I have known that my ancestors were miners, and that some of my ancestors spent time in English and Welsh mines in the 1800’s. So for this blog, I did a bit of research for something more specific. (Actually, the research was easy, I just asked my Mom). Here is what I learned: John Kirton, my paternal great-great grandfather (b. 1863), was born in Westmore, Northumberland, England, worked in a coal mine in Scofield, Carbon, Utah, and was killed in an underground mining explosion exactly one-hundred and ten years ago. Thomas John Rees, my maternal great-great-great grandfather (yeah, that’s THREE greats) (b. 1816), grew up in Wales, Great Britain, and mined coal in both Great Britain and in Wales, Utah after immigrating as part of the Mormon migration west. Thomas Benjamin Davis, also my maternal great-great-great grandfather (1822-1889) was also born in Wales, Great Britain, and mined coal there. In 1856 he worked for a year in the coalfields in Scranton Pennsylvania so that he could earn funds to move his family to Utah. He then worked in a Wales, Utah coal mine most of his later life. And my great grandfather, Leon Ray Brown (1885-1929), a mine foreman in the Bingham Utah copper mine, died in the mine when he was younger than I am now. His daughter, my grandmother was born in that mining town of Bingham, Utah, and told me stories of her mining-influenced childhood there. I guess I am a miner in more ways that one.
So this year, I will step out on stage to sing the part of the Miner – Dickens' Miner, Micheal Grady’s Miner, Matthew Wiener’s Miner, Alan Ruch’s Miner – and my family’s many miners. When I do, my thoughts will be of them, and of the miners in Chile, in New Zealand, and of the children of Browning’s poem. When Scrooge points at me with my axe, coat and lantern props, and asks Christmas Past “who’s that,” I will know far better what the real answer is: I am playing the part of a miner. It is a part of my family’s history and a part of Dickens’ profound desire to change his world for the better, and his belief that Scrooge and others -- who had caused these atrocities -- could change. And I will play the part of David Rodgers – a third-generation college graduate who has never once been inside a mine – and who owes much of that to my mining ancestor’s hard work and belief that they could build a better world for their children. And I will owe it to Browning’s and Dickens’ and other good-hearted people’s social movement that changed the world, and proved that humans could repent, abandon greed, and lift the lives of others.
So Merry Christmas to you from the Miner and his family. And this year may God bless us, everyone. But especially the miners.
I was in Christmas Carol the first year Matthew directed it at Actors Theatre in ’95 (the old version). This is the final year of Christmas Carol and I get to be in it again and I’m thinking how I love this story. This is a story about guy who gets a second chance, who is self-centered with twisted ideas about the world and the people in it. A guy who has never made right anything he’s made wrong. And he wakes up and has the chance to make things right. I love it. Hey, I can relate.
I love rehearsal and this thing is rehearsal on steroids. We open at the end of our 3rd week together so we move fast. And we have the right directors to do it. Alan’s music is fabulous and when he directs he’s always looking out for us. We sound really good. It’s always a pleasure to work with Matthew. He’s a terrific director and storyteller and I love being a part of any story that he’s telling. Robbie is a great choreographer (have you seen Hairspray?) and so much fun to work with. And our cast rocks this show! I’m really excited about where we are in rehearsal now and we still have time! So onward and upward! I’m really grateful to be a part of this last production. Oh, yeah and my bald head has never had so much hair. Eddie Todd is going to go crazy with the Marley hair this year. :)
Friday, November 26, 2010
THE RULE OF 4: DO IT LIKE THAT!
Matthew has adopted a new system this year in rehearsing Christmas Carol. We always have new people in the cast every year, and they are placed in the unenviable position of picking up and learning very quickly the stuff that the rest of the cast are just refreshing their memories about. This new system has been dubbed: The Rule of 4. This means we run a scene four times. The first time through we know it’s going to be all screwed up. The second time through we remember all the stuff we forgot the first time. The third time we get it right, and the fourth time we cement it in place. This has been remarkably consistent throughout the rehearsal process. The highest praise Matthew bestows is his oft repeated expression: “Do it like that!” When he says that, we know we’ve got it. We are very fortunate this year to have new cast members who are quick learners. We’ve been hearing “Do it like that!” a lot. This is a good thing.
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Can you believe that Kim Bennett, one of the nicest guys you will ever meet and one of the most sensitive individuals in the cast, plays Scrooge?! Its true! And that is why I am completely confused that he does not have a Facebook account. Kim Bennett/Ebeneezer Scrooge is a perfect person/character for the number one social network in the world. He is afraid that no one will want to be his friend. I’M NOT MAKING THIS UP! So I implore all of you out there to post imploring invitations to Kim Bennett to start a Facebook account! Use gobs of creative, witty, funny angles. Come on cast, crew and fans of Christmas Carol. Since this is our last year, lets put into practice the central theme of this incredible classic: PEOPLE CAN CHANGE!
Ghost of Christmas Present – 6th year
PS: I attach a photo of Kim and I in the dressing room my first year 2005