The ghosts of Christmas productions past

The ‘cornicopter’ gets a tune-up for this year’s production of A Christmas Carol.

Photo by Kari Goodnough

The Guthrie brings Dickens’ Carol to life for 34th season

A Christmas Carol
Through Dec. 31
The Guthrie Theater
818 S. Second St.
Tickets are $29–$70. For information, including show times, or to purchase tickets, call 612-377-2224 or visit

Long before Thanksgiving, when most of us hadn’t so much as thought about resurrecting our reindeer lawn ornaments from their cardboard tombs, Christmas was in full swing at the Guthrie Theater, where the cast and crew were busy with rehearsals, costume fittings and set and prop construction for their 34th annual adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Behind the scenes, the crew is divided into props, costumes, scenery and stage managers — each of which play a crucial role in the final product. Putting on a production like this is no walk in the park; each finite detail must be accounted for — right down to the glittered, hand-painted poinsettias on the Ghost of Christmas Past’s costume.

Cornicopters and glitter farts

Since the Guthrie produces A Christmas Carol every year, preparation is a little different from other productions. Most of the costumes, props and scenery only see the light of day for a couple months a year, after which they’re loaded into storage to await their next run.

For the props department, this means a lot of dusting and polishing, said Assistant Props Manager Sarah Gullickson. She pointed to this year’s new “flickering bulb” candles. “We add and remove props, so it’s like a new show every year,” she said.

The props department includes six craftsmen, Gullickson and the prop manager. Their area is divided into two spaces: one is for wood, metal and sculpting and the other is the “soft prop” shop, where fabric items are assembled.

The prop collection is a unique array of antique-looking Christmas paraphernalia. Mountains of festive, plastic fruit and pastries sit aside the eerie coffins of the three Christmas ghosts. The “cornicopter” — a gigantic cornucopia, complete with super-glued corn, bread and fruit — sits in construction.

Last year, Gullickson said, the “glitter fart” component was added, and now, when the Ghost of Christmas Present pulls one of the cornicopter’s bananas, its tail emits a stream of glitter. Other “magical” elements include trap doors on the stage and strings rigged to open the curtain over Scrooge’s extravagant canopy bed.

“It’s always weird; sometimes in mid-October we’re loading Christmas stuff,” Gullickson said.

Keeping them in stitches

With 225 costumes to get ready every year, the costume department has a “big dry-cleaning bill,” joked Costume Manager Amy Schmidt. Much like the props, playgoers do not see the same costumes every year. With new actors, worn-out costumes and requests for new looks from designers keep the costume department on their toes.

“We’ve got a lot to get done in a short amount of time,” Schmidt said, “so we’ve got to be extremely organized about it.”

The costume shop — teeming with lacey, Victorian dresses, top hats, trousers and vests — is divided into different jobs. Drapers serve as team leaders and decide how to bring in new designs and develop patterns. Assistant drapers lay out the patterns and prepare them for the stitchers.

In one corner of the costume department is a gigantic stack of costume books with intricate details about each past and present costume. For each one, there’s a photograph, fabric scrap and sketch. The costume designer dictates what each costume will look like and communicates his vision through sketches.

On stage: no sugar or surprises

Production Stage Manager Russell Johnson has been with A Christmas Carol for 25 years, and it’s never the same, he said. Each year, the cast is slightly different, with performers coming and going or even switching roles. For about four weeks before the performance, they must do costume fittings, as well as teach the music and dance numbers.

Stage managers must know what each character is doing in every instant of the play, as whoever is on stage during a scene needs to move props around when they exit. They also create a “what if they’re not there” document for each character.

“The last thing you want in theater is surprises,” Johnson said.

With eight or nine shows a week, the 13 children acting in the play get bored doing the same run-throughs over and over, Johnson said. They’re extremely intelligent and manage to learn the entire show quickly — then they need something new.

“If you ever forget your line, ask one of the kids, because they probably know it,” Johnson said, adding that sugar has already been outlawed. “We’ve have problems in the past,” he said. “The kids get a little edgy.

Making a scene

Once rehearsals are over, Director Gary Gisselman leaves the stage managers in charge of performances.

“We’re not trying to dictate; we’re trying to preserve and maintain the director’s vision,” Johnson said, adding that changes will inevitably happen. Some are all right, some are not. “It’s kind of like weeds in flowers,” he said.

At the Guthrie, every production gets its own floor. The designer adds a floor plan right into the set design, said Technical Director Richard Girtain. This year, A Christmas Carol is replacing its floor for the first time in 10 years. A week before opening, it sat in several small portions scattered throughout the scene shop, awaiting its next layer of paint.

The scene shop is divided into three areas: painting, construction and assembly. Like props and costumes, scenery is reused through the years. Nevertheless, it calls for a team of seven full-time carpenters, three scenic artists and three technical directors.

That number pales next to the cast of 42 adult and child actors, the final adornments that bring the stage, set, costumes and show to life.

last revised: December 3, 2008