Arts preview: An interview with Brent Burington, “A Christmas Carol’s” Scrooge

By Columbus Alive
From the November 28, 2013 edition

Brent Burington lives in Olde Towne East about half the year. The other half he’s traveling the country to work in theatre productions. One of those productions is a passion project he’s been doing for the last two-plus decades — a one-man performance of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

The main reason Burington decided on doing a one-man version of “A Christmas Carol” is because he wasn’t happy with how other productions moved away from the novella. For the first time in many years, he’s found a script and production that meet his high standards — Burington has been reading Dickens (and William Shakespeare) since he was a young child and knows the material in and out — from the Nebraska Caravan Theatre, a company bringing the show to Columbus this weekend.

Burington spoke with me from Omaha last week to discuss his one-man show, his excitement in bringing the Nebraska Caravan Theatre version to Columbus and how different each is, but also very well done.

How did you come up with a one-man version of “A Christmas Carol?”

I grew up with amazing grandparents [who] read me Shakespeare and Dickens as bedtime stories. So I have always loved and understood [them] since I was a small child.

Consequently, most productions of “A Christmas Carol” I disliked because so many playwrights think they write better dialog than Dickens. Well I’m sorry, that just isn’t true. So many productions of “A Christmas Carol” substitute language that just isn’t as rich.

A number of friends of mine were so tired of hearing me complain about it, that they said, “If you can do better, do so.” So I sat down with the novella and literally edited down Dickens’ story into a two-hour runtime, memorized it and turned it into a one-man show. I play all 36 characters, male and female.

You’ve been performing the one-man show for 22 years, correct?

It started off relatively small. The first year I did it, I performed at a couple of schools and my church in Columbus. And then at a friend’s bed and breakfast near Mt. Vernon, Ohio.

It kind of took off from there [through word-of-mouth recommendations] By the fifth year I was touring … from Thanksgiving weekend pretty much right up to Christmas Eve.

I was taking it all over the United States. I was able to perform it in a series of old opera houses, 1890s opera houses that people were restoring. I’ve performed in huge theatres that seat 600 [to] 700 people and church sanctuaries and schools. When it’s a one-man show that small, you can pretty much take it anywhere.

How is the Nebraska Caravan Theatre version different?

Basically, I do the [one-man] show with a chair, a truck, a top hat, a scarf [and] a candle. This production has full street scene sets, a ballroom set, Scrooge’s bedroom and this amazing fireplace where Marley makes his first appearance. Scrooge’s four-post bed even sails around the stage on its own accord.

It’s just phenomenal sets and costumes, a cast of 23 actors on stage, and 37 people counting the technicians and musicians. It’s a huge difference to what I’m used to.

Was it a difficult adjustment?

When I got cast, I begged them to get me a script as early as possible. They said, “You’ll have no problem learning the lines.” I said, “I have to unlearn 20 years’ worth before I learn yours.”

So they sent me a script in June and I started working with it, and … it is wonderful and follows the novella very, very closely. Where it deviates, it deviates in the right way.

It took me a good three months to reach a point where I wasn’t slipping into the old version.

So you approve of this script?

It was developed by Charles Jones who … really understood where Dickens was coming from. The show has a real strong period flavor, set in 1880, which is later than Dickens set it. [Dickens] set it in the past, but Jones wanted to place it in the same period he actually wrote it in.

It begins with this wonderful street scene introducing some of the pivotal characters that Scrooge has under his thumb, bleeding them for everything he can.

You see him dealing with his nephew, some street urchins, the charity men and Bob Cratchit. It’s this great 20-minute progression from the start of the show into that scene that sets everything up. The audience will feel like Scrooge … kicks puppies. He’s just despicable.

I think too many versions of “A Christmas Carol” shortchange Scrooge’s [redemption]. It’s really intelligently done with this one. It’s so much fun to play, and feel the enthusiasm pouring off the audience.

Photo courtesy of Nebraska Theatre Caravan