PROVIDENCE — The COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered theaters and cancelled performances around the country, but Trinity Repertory Company found a way to make sure at least one important show could go on — and, in doing so, may end up reaching the largest audience it’s ever had.
This year, since fans of “A Christmas Carol” can’t see the production on stage, the Tony award-winning resident theater is bringing its production to the people, offering this year’s show as a free unlimited on-demand video, starting Thursday and running through Jan. 10.
This is Trinity’s 43rd season of “A Christmas Carol,” based on Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel. This year’s performance is a mix of animation and film, with scenes shot in Providence, in a cemetery in South Kingstown, inside Trinity’s empty theater, and inside the actors’ homes. It includes moments for audience participation, recipes for treats (including Fezziwig’s punch), and a community sing-along of holiday classics.
Trinity resident actor Joe Wilson Jr., who is returning as Ebeneezer Scrooge, said that artistic director Curt Columbus “was committed at trying to provide some sense of hope and connection with the community during the holiday time.”
“‘A Christmas Carol’ has had a very special place in the history of our theater for a very long time,” Wilson said, “and I think our production holds a very unique place in our community — because they put up with the fact that we continue to do it differently every single year.”
The pandemic forced Trinity to find a different way of producing the show. And, by offering it online, and for free, the 57-year-old theater has quadrupled its audience.
More than 120,000 viewers from all 50 states and 20 countries have registered for the show, including 80,000 students on “virtual field trips,” said Kate Brandt, Trinity communications director. If the 2020 production was performed in person, the theater would have had to hold matinees five days a week starting in June to accommodate all of the school groups, Brandt said.
“To have those students witnessing our work and being invited into this conversation about who are we responsible to as a community, who do we open our hearts and our wallets and empathy to as a community, is a radical act of hopefully societal transformation,” said actor Rebecca Gibel, who plays the Ghost of Christmas Past.
The new format makes the production more accessible, not just to students, but to viewers who wouldn’t have been comfortable going out during the pandemic, or who might not be able to afford tickets to the theater. “We’re opening up our theater to a whole world of people who may not have felt safe to step inside our doors, but may feel safe to sign up online and get a glimpse of what we do,” Wilson added.
For each play the theater chooses, Wilson said, the actors ask themselves, “Why are we putting on this particular show? And why now?” This year, the answers are especially important.
“Every year, we always laugh because we’re trying to make our community hear the same message every year, remind them that this is not just a pageant that we do, that ‘A Christmas Carol’ is indeed a call to action,” he said. “It’s a call to ask us all to be more generous, more empathetic, and, more importantly, to see the world around us.”
This year, Dickens’ story about generosity and kindess resonates because of people’s experiences with falls during a year of COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the inequities exposed by both, Wilson said.
As a Black gay man, Wilson said, he thought about what that may mean for audiences seeing him portray Scrooge. He thought about the vulnerability of all the actors in this production, filming their scenes in their own homes, to be watched by people they can’t see who are viewing it from their own homes.
What they have in common, he said, is that everyone is going through this difficult year together.
“I think the way we approached this production — and we’ve always done this at Trinity Rep — is to remind our audience that we are one with you,” Wilson said. “We are living, breathing people who are grappling with our own challenges and the complexity of what it means to be human at a time like this.”
They are exploring that complexity through a story written 177 years ago.
“I believe it will be a powerful experience for our audience,” Wilson said. “I believe our production is a love letter, a celebration of what it means to be of Providence, and a part of this community.”