Georgia Ensemble brings ‘rough magic’ to a Yuletide classic

Along with the tinsel and the hurried shopping for gifts comes a time of year that could be called “Christmas Carol Season” — a time when theaters all across the Western world begin mounting productions of the Charles Dickens seasonal classic in an attempt to capture the attention of holiday-minded theatergoers.

This year, Georgia Ensemble Theatre is getting in on the fun with “A Cherry Log Christmas Carol,” an inventive, bluegrass-infused adaptation by performer and dramatist Clark Taylor. The show is a co-production with the Mount Vernon School, where Taylor is a teacher, and will feature a cast and crew consisting of both Mount Vernon students and local Atlanta talent.

Credit: Betsy Armstrong

Credit: Betsy Armstrong

The culmination of nearly 30 years of experimentation and development, Taylor conceived of this adaptation while performing with the Academy Theatre Ensemble. Having been partially inspired by Patrick Stewart’s one-man performance of “A Christmas Carol,” Taylor set about creating his own version, utilizing classical Victorian-style music.

That earlier version of the play proved popular with audiences. “We were the Christmas Carol production in Atlanta for many years before the Alliance started performing it,” Taylor said.

It was not until one fateful night when his wife convinced him to attend a local advent service that Taylor made the decision to move the story from the streets of London to the hills of Appalachia.

“She and I attended a folk advent service, and it was just really awesome,” Taylor said. “It was a bluegrass band and interjected between their songs was all these little homilies, and I said ‘that’s really cool.’”

Taylor found the energy and atmosphere enjoyable, but he specifically recalled being blown away when the reverend took the stage to deliver the advent. “He was amazing! Such a gifted theologian. And he’s from Cherry Log, Georgia.”

Credit: Betsy Armstrong

Credit: Betsy Armstrong

This influential performance completely shifted the trajectory of Taylor’s adaptation. He immediately set about relocating the story, exploring what it might look like if stripped of the usual fanfare and imbued with the warmth and the earthiness of an Appalachian Christmas: “I’m just trying to give, as Shakespeare’s Prospero would say, some ‘rough magic’ to it, instead of a lot of the special effects, whistles and bells like a lot of productions do.”

The current production makes use of the updated setting to convey Scrooge’s shift toward humanitarianism, drawing on themes of community and tradition that are common in Southern narratives. “I think what I love about it is that it really embraces that storytelling culture of Appalachia,” Taylor says. “How things get passed down through the generations.”

Another way in which this Southern consciousness makes itself felt is in the heightened role of music in Taylor’s adaptation. The purpose of composing a bluegrass score is not only to create a sense of place and aesthetic, but also to draw on a deeper history of Appalachian folk culture. The Ghost of Christmas Past, for example, is represented not by an actor’s body, but by a talking violin. In explaining why he chose that particular instrument, Taylor states “It’s the most iconic bluegrass instrument and it’s representing that culture and history.”

Taylor didn’t want to perpetuate an oversimplified view of the South, either. “I didn’t want it to be a stereotype of the culture, and how it often gets interpreted. So a lot of the process was just sitting down and saying ‘Okay then, how would they say this? Where does Scrooge fit in with this setting?’ In this version, he runs the mine company in town.”

In keeping with the oral tradition of the South, the play is also a living piece with no verbatim script. The bones of the story are the same each time, but Taylor puts a different spin on it each night. “I will get you there,” he said, “but depending on the audience, I may feel it necessary that I tell this little part of the story differently, or venture this way with it.”

The production boasts a considerable amount of local talent, with Atlanta-based performers Chris Kayser, Scott DePoy, Kathleen McManus, and Vann Thornton playing live bluegrass music composed entirely by Taylor, while also stepping in to play the spirits. “These are all guys that I grew up, learned, and performed with at the Academy, and subsequent productions outside of that as we all matured and watched babies grow up together. So now it’s really kind of a wonderful homecoming for me this time around.”

The team also includes many of Taylor’s students from Mount Vernon School, who will be working in various technical positions.

The event serves as a fundraiser for Georgia Ensemble Theatre, which has reported facing some financial difficulties since the pandemic forced theaters across the globe to shut their doors

“We, along with every theatre in town, badly need as much fundraising support as possible, and we are incredibly grateful to have this opportunity,” says GET communication director Mary Saville. This partnership between Georgia Ensemble and Mount Vernon has provided the theatre with the opportunity to raise money at a minimal cost to the organization. “It’s great to be able to do something that’s warm and fuzzy and will give people a nice happy feeling.”

Taylor definitely seems to be feeling that warmth and fuzziness as he reflects on what this production has meant to him. “I’ve done lots of really wonderful theatre in my career, but this is really the most satisfying for me — and not in a selfish way, but just to try to bring Dickens’ ghost of an idea that he intended with this work to folks that need it around this time of year.”


THEATER PREVIEW

“A Cherry Log Christmas Carol”

2 p.m. Dec. 11. $40; $25 students under 18. Cookies and hot chocolate will be available to help audiences get into the holiday spirit. Mount Vernon Studio, 510 Mount Vernon Highway, Atlanta. 770-641-1260, get.org.