PREVIEW: ‘A Christmas Carol’
Meadow Brook Theatre, Rochester. Dec. 6-10, 14-17 & 20-24. Tickets: $25-$40. For information: 248-377-3300 or http://www.mbtheatre.com
MINNEAPOLIS – Charles Nolte didn’t set out to write and direct a stage classic, but that’s just what his production of “A Christmas Carol” has become since its premiere at Meadow Brook Theatre in 1982. “I think the idea was to do it just once,” recalled the 83-year-old legendary thespian from his home in Minneapolis. “We didn’t realize it might have the longevity it does.”
Nor did he imagine his show would celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2006. “I’ve been very lucky to have been in on it from the very beginning,” Nolte said.
In fact, the perennial favorite has proved so popular that numerous other area theaters now stage their own versions of Charles Dickens’ tale. And when former Meadow Brook Artistic Director Geoffrey Sherman replaced his version with others in the mid-1990s, Nolte said, the audience rebelled. (It missed only two seasons.)
There’s a reason why his script has retained its popularity over the years, Nolte believes. “It’s very, very close to Charles Dickens’ original story. I took the liberty of going back to the original text and keeping it as close to Mr. Dickens as I possibly could. A great deal of the dialogue is straight out of the original story.”
Nolte credits the decision to stage “A Christmas Carol” to Terence Kilburn, Meadow Brook’s artistic director from 1970 to 1994. He wrote the adaptation at Kilburn’s request, and over the past quarter century he’s directed it nearly 20 times. (The first production was staged by Carl Schurr.) “It proved to be kind of a cash cow [for the theater] for many, many years,” Nolte said.
“A Christmas Carol” wasn’t Nolte’s first work at Meadow Brook Theater. In 1971 he directed ‘The Andersonville Trial,’ the success of which led to a fruitful partnership that now totals 40 plays, not including his Dickens’ adaptation. “So I’ve been involved in the history of Meadow Brook Theatre since practically its inception.”
No big secret
Nolte’s theatrical roots date back to 1947 when he found himself in the first of eight Broadway plays, a revival of “Antony and Cleopatra” in which he appeared alongside such other newcomers as Eli Wallach, Maureen Stapleton, Tony Randall and Charlton Heston. “I did have the experience of rooming with Charlton Heston in two plays. This was before he became obsessed with double-barrel shotguns,” Nolte laughed.
An internationally-produced playwright with a catalog of approximately 10 full-length plays and numerous others, Nolte is also a successful librettist. His most recent work, “The Dream of Valentino,” premiered at the Lincoln Center.
But it’s his 30-plus year career as a professor and artistic director at the University of Minnesota – from which he received his doctorate – that he’s probably best known today. “I had an ideal situation,” Nolte said of his contract that required him to work only two quarters of each school year – with full benefits. “Then I was able to do what I wanted.”
He retired from the university in 1995. “I was getting up towards my eighties, and I figured it was time to get out.”
How Nolte got to Meadow Brook isn’t a mystery. Nor a secret: Nolte and Kilburn have known each other for 50 years; they’ve been partners – a couple – for 49.
“We met in New York. He was in ‘Tea House of the August Moon’ – with his name above the title – and I was in ‘The Caine Mutiny.’ So we’ve had a long, distinguished life together.”
How they’ve lasted so long together isn’t a mystery to Nolte, either. “He was working there, and I was working here. It’s as simple as that,” he chuckled.
Kilburn, now 80, spends much of his time in yet another artistic career. “He has a whole studio in the attic where he’s very productive. Ever since he was a kid he was drawing and painting. Now he’s fulfilling that ambition.”
Returning to “A Christmas Carol” after several years away gave Nolte an acute case of deja vu. “I found myself moving around in the physical space as if I never left,” he said. “But I was hobbling around a little more carefully because I’m 83-years-old now and not bouncing up and down the aisles like I used to. Some of my happiest experiences in the theater were at Meadow Brook.”
It also reunited him with several longtime friends. “I’m grateful to John Manfredi and David Regal for allowing me to help them, and for providing such an excellent cast. Looking back over all the ‘Christmas Carols,’ this is arguably the strongest cast we’ve ever had. It was a great pleasure to work with [them].”
His return also afforded him an opportunity to reflect on his own accomplishments. With pride, he now believes the show is at “the state of perfection. It’s a beautiful story, and this is a great example of one medium taking over from another medium and doing it justice – and dignifying it, creating something that is co-equal with the original. Whether or not everybody agrees with that – at least I do.”
Current Artistic Director Regal seems to think so, too. “It’s been great having him back. He’s put the heart back into the production.”
So will the octogenarian return to the helm again next year? “If they ask me,” he laughed.