As the Christmas holiday approaches, kick any inklings of bah humbug and join White Heron Theatre Company for the world premiere of A Nantucket Christmas Carol.
Adapted by playwright, director, and actor Mark Shanahan, this classic takes on an island twist and is sure to fill audiences with the holiday spirit! N Magazine spoke to Shanahan in advance of opening night to get a look inside the creative process and hear about what makes this production a must-see.
SHANAHAN: New, old-fashioned, fun!
N MAGAZINE: How long did you work on developing the script and what was the most challenging aspect of adapting such a classic story?
SHANAHAN: I’ve had the idea for a five-actor rendition of A Christmas Carol swimming in the back of my mind for some time, so a lot of the planning was done while walking down the street or riding the subway in New York, with the ideas just sort of coming into focus. Then last summer, I directed Private Lives for White Heron, and on a dinner break, Lynne Bolton mentioned she needed a Christmas show. I figured the universe was giving me a nudge so I told her my idea and she said, “let’s do it!” While staying very true to the Dickens tale, I thought it would be fun to reimagine the story by setting it on Nantucket at the end of the whaling era. Nantucket was changing at that time, and isn’t the idea of change the very thing A Christmas Carol is about? The familiar setting became a fun way to bring the well-known story home and give it a fun twist. I think we have just enough Nantucket lore and language woven through the show to remind us that the story hits close to home, while never abandoning what makes Dickens’ book so timeless.
N MAGAZINE: What was the thinking behind the small five-actor cast and did that make it easier or more difficult to craft the story?
SHANAHAN: With a small cast playing multiple roles, we are able to surprise audiences with quick costume changes and lots of fun. The actors also play music onstage and create the scenery right before our eyes. It’s really a romp! Dickens’ book has been adapted many times and many ways, so I wanted to do something a little different. I love plays that celebrate the magic of the theatre, and our production honors the incredible talents of the actors as they change characters, transport the audience, and create a rich and imaginative world onstage. I figure the story is so well-known, the joy has to come from the surprising way in which we tell it.
N MAGAZINE: This will be the world premiere of the show. Does that provide added pressure when preparing to open?
SHANAHAN: A little pressure if always a good thing as a play heads toward its’ opening! But, we have a great director in Lynne and a cast of accomplished actors, all of whom I’ve worked with around the country over the years. I know it’s in really good hands. It’s one thing to write a play sitting at your kitchen table in the middle of the night… But it’s thrilling to find that what you hoped might work is sometimes better than you imagined thanks to the talents of the actors. They have made the play so funny and touching and are all endlessly creative.
N MAGAZINE: What do you hope A Nantucket Christmas Carol audiences take away from the show when they leave the theatre?
SHANAHAN: Laughter and tears! That’s what it’s all about. And I hope audiences will be surprised to revisit an old tale told in a new way. It’s such a fantastic story and I don’t think I ever truly appreciated it until I began to study it for this project. Every year, its message seems more timely. It’s about redemption and compassion and it drives home the idea that it is never too late to change, to find the time to right our wrongs, and to become our better selves. It reminds us that we are all charged with taking better care of each other and that no man or woman “is an island.” I hope it’s a wild ride for our audiences, a real Christmas present they can remember.
N MAGAZINE: You mentioned this is your second production with White Heron this season, the first being Private Lives. Is there something special about the team and space at White Heron that keeps you coming back?
SHANAHAN: What Lynne Bolton, Michael Kopko, and their supporters have built here is incredible and unique. They’ve created a community space, an artistic hub right in downtown Nantucket. This island is thriving with creative energy and is home to so much theatre, music and writing. Sometimes, at intermission, it’s fun to pretend to be on my cell phone and eavesdrop on the audience. I’ve heard people saying how meaningful it is to have this place to come to and how fantastic the productions are. I consider myself lucky to be invited to contribute to the work done here!
N MAGAZINE: In addition to being a playwright and director, you are also an actor. Do you love one of your three theatrical hats most?
SHANAHAN: Truly, I just love making plays and feel fortunate to spend my life doing so. I’ve had incredible adventures working in the theatre. Each job requires different skills, for sure, but in a way, they all come down to the same thing… Trying to tell the best story you can. And that’s always what we’re after! I wouldn’t want to give up any of the hats I wear.
N MAGAZINE: Tell us a little about your connection to Nantucket.
SHANAHAN: My family, though we are New Yorkers, first started coming here in 1973 when I was a little boy. So many of our happiest times have been spent here. We’ve watched Nantucket change and grow, just as we have. But it’s been a constant in our lives. We have family laid to rest up on the hill, as well as a whole new generation (including my nine-year-old daughter Cate!) already making their own memories on the island. Wherever I go, I know there is this little spot of land sitting in the Atlantic that I can’t wait to get back to. There’s no place like it.
N MAGAZINE: What is next on the horizon for you after A Nantucket Christmas Carol?
SHANAHAN: This winter, I will direct a production of Hay Fever in Florida before returning to the Alley Theatre in Houston to direct a really fun and sprawling adaptation of The Three Muskateers, among other things. And, of course, if the good folks at White Heron come calling, I’ll always happily return!