How Oscar-nominated actress Kathleen Turner came to play Scrooge at Ivoryton Playhouse
“Yes, really. Kathleen Turner is coming to Ivoryton Playhouse.”
So states the Ivoryton Playhouse’s website, playfully but succinctly.
Some theatergoers have, in fact, been surprised that the Oscar-nominated Turner, whose starring roles on the silver screen have included “Body Heat,” “Romancing the Stone” and “Peggy Sue Got Married,” will be coming to the intimate, historic playhouse in the scenic small town.
Jacqui Hubbard, executive director of Ivoryton Playhouse, says that there have been folks asking, “Is it really THE Kathleen Turner?”
Even more unexpected: Turner will be playing Ebenezer Scrooge.
She’ll star as the bah-humbug-spouting Dickens character in a version of “A Christmas Carol” that takes its cue from on-air radio performances that were so popular in the early 1900s.
Turner is reprising the role, which she took on 2015 as part of the radio-drama-style piece that Elliott Forrest conceived nearly a decade ago.
In the pre-2015 productions, men had played Scrooge, starting with David Hyde Pierce of “Frasier” fame in 2010, followed by the likes of Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham and Brian Cox, who now stars on HBO’s “Succession.”
But Forrest says, “We have come through all sorts of movements in the last couple of years and also people, especially younger people, being more fluid with gender identity. After doing seven or eight of these initially and I’d never had a woman play Scrooge, it’s like, why not?”
When Forrest called Turner — who, he notes, has “that beautiful, raspy voice” — to ask if she would be interested in playing Scrooge, she asked what his concept was. He told her they weren’t going to change the pronouns. They weren’t going to make Scrooge a woman.
“I just want you to be Scrooge,” he recalls telling her. “She said, ‘You have no idea how many people call me sir on the phone.’” He laughs. And then her response was: let’s do the show.
Discussing what Turner brings to the character of Scrooge, Forrest, who also directs the piece, says, “She’s a powerful woman and brings a lot of gravitas to the role.”
Forrest has known Turner for years. When he was 14, he was in a children’s theater company in Midland, Texas, called The Pickwick Players. One summer, when she was 18, Turner worked with the kids there.
Forrest says, “I worked with her some 10 years ago, too, so we’ve stayed in touch for over 40 years.”
While Turner might be best-known for her films, she has impressive stage credits as well; she was nominated for Tony Awards for her turns as Maggie in 1990’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and Martha in 2005’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Joining her on the Ivoryton Playhouse stage to portray all the ghosts in this “Christmas Carol” will be James Naughton, who won Tony Awards for his performances in “City of Angels” in 1990 and “Chicago” in 1997.
The show boasts a score by John Forster that will be performed by Forster, playing the piano, and nine members of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra. The script is by Arthur Yorinks.
How it began
The seeds of this version of “A Christmas Carol” began with Forrest, who has been a radio host in New York City on WQXR for 17 years. WQXR had been doing a reading of “A Christmas Carol” for decades. The classical radio station was acquired in 2009 by the nonprofit organization New York Public Radio, which has a performance venue called The Greene Space.
“When the holiday came around again, I said, ‘Let me reconceive this … and use the performance space.’ My concept was to get a celebrity to play Scrooge and all the rest of my radio colleagues to play all the rest of my characters,” says Forrest, who has a degree in theater and has produced and directed plays and musicals over the years.
He wanted to do a radio drama but also to have it be multiplatform. They were going to make a radio show but also perform it in front of a live audience. It would be a donor event, and it would be streamed as well.
Forrest had his heart set on getting a great Foley artist for the piece, and, through a mutual friend, he contacted Fred Newman, best known for his work on “Prairie Home Companion.” (A Foley artist creates sounds — usually everday ones like, say, footsteps — for movies. Newman will be at the Ivoryton Playhouse doing that for “A Christmas Carol.”)
Forrest also touched base with his friend John Forster, an accomplished songwriter and musician who came onboard and played piano accompaniment.
Forrest said that organizers eventually decided to expand this “Christmas Carol” for orchestra.
Forrest has produced a number of shows with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra and had gone to the group’s chief executive officer, Elaine C. Carroll, with this idea of doing “A Christmas Carol” with an orchestra. They discussed it for a couple of years and then, perhaps a year ago, she agreed to set it in motion. Forrest suggested they partner with a local theater company, which is where the Ivoryton Playhouse came in.
As far as the music, Forrest says, “We wanted to have enough of it and to have enough quality and import for it to be worthwhile for an orchestra to do. There were some easy targets, like let’s expand the overture, and let’s make the dance (part of) the Fezziwig scene a bit more. Maybe some spooky things can be expanded.”
“As we started to work on it, John Forster said to me that what he had really started to do was explore Scrooge’s inner world with the music, which I thought was really interesting, that the music would amplify his fears and his transformation, et cetera. And Charles Dickens did us an amazing favor by calling it ‘A Christmas Carol.’”
While there is no singing in the production, Forrest says, “The music is fractured versions and spooky versions and, in some cases, very heartwarming and traditional versions of carols that you probably know. We take these themes, these beautiful melodies that come around once a year and put it into this holiday ghost story.”
The Ivoryton connection
Hubbard says that she often tries to have the Ivoryton Playhouse partner with other organizations as a way of audience development. She thought that partnering with the NHSO would expand both of the organizations’ bases a bit. When NHSO execs were looking for a small stage for “A Christmas Carol,” they came to Ivoryton.
(There will also be performances later on at other venues around the state: Dec. 13 at Southern Connecticut State University, New Haven, Dec. 14 at First Church of Madison, and Dec. 15 at Sacred Heart University, Fairfield.)
Hubbard also notes that the timing of the shows at the Ivoryton Playhouse works perfectly. They are on Dec. 8 and 9, following the annual Ivoryton Illuminations on Dec. 7.
“That’s when Santa arrives in Ivoryton and turns on all the lights. We are lunatics here; all of us, everybody in town gets involved. We have over 500,000 lights in this tiny little village. Everything is free, so kids come, they see Santa, they get a free book, there is entertainment, there’s food, it’s just a great day. So the lights will already be up so that when people come out to ‘A Christmas Carol,’ the village will be lit like a Christmas snow globe,” Hubbard says.
Hubbard is also acting in the production, playing Mrs. Cratchit and Mrs. Dilber; “I’m the old broads,” she laughs.
The Ivoryton Playhouse is running the performances there as a fundraiser to raise money for a new sound board.
“Our sound board, which was state of the art 15 years ago, is on its last legs. … This is just so wonderful — we’re able to do this, and it’s a big Christmas gift to us because we’ll be able to start the new season with an updated sound system, which is just fantastic,” Hubbard says.
The total cost of the sound board and related upgrades is about $40,000.
“We have wonderful, wonderful people in town who have stepped up to sponsor the event, so we’ve managed to get almost 50 percent of it in sponsorship money” already, she says.
IF YOU GO
What: "A Christmas Carol" starring Kathleen Turner at Scrooge
Where: Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton
When: 3 p.m. Dec. 8 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 9
Tickets: $75, with some $100 center aisle and front row balcony seats for Dec. 9
Contact: (860) 767-7318, www.ivorytonplayhouse.org
Dec. 13, 7:30 p.m., Lyman Allyn, Southern Connecticut State University, New Haven
Dec. 14, 7:30 p.m., First Church of Madison, 26 Meeting House Lane, Madison; for tickets and info: (203) 787-4282, NewHavenSynphony.org
Dec. 15, 3 p.m., Sacred Heart University, Fairfield; for tickets and info: (203) 371-7908, EdgertonCenter.org