Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has long been one of my favorite stories, in particular because the transformation Scrooge goes through is suggestive that anyone is capable of change. First published in 1843, A Christmas Carol was a literary allegory for the social issues of Victorian Britain and Dickens’ way of challenging the gap that existed between the extravagant opulence of the aristocracy, and the often-extreme poverty experienced by the working class.
Over a century and a half later as Simon Mallett studied drama at the University of Guelph, he felt a particular pull towards directing and using the power of theatre to engage audiences in discussions about social and political issues. From his first experience directing Daniel MacIvor’s The Soldier Dreams about a family’s response to their brother dying of AIDS, and later producing Moisés Kaufman’s The Laramie Project about the murder of Matthew Shepard, Mallett told me: “The amount of feedback around the impact both shows made in the lives of the people who watched them made me a believer in the potential for the transformative power of theatre and that has really guided my career ever since.”
Over the last 8 years then, it is not surprising that Mallett has been part of the Christmas Carol family at Theatre Calgary - first as Associate Director to former Artistic Director and the writer of the current adaptation, Dennis Garnhum - and then as Director. 2018 marks the 32nd year that the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future have been a part of Calgary’s holiday traditions. In the program’s Director’s Notes, Mallett wrote that after 175 years “A Christmas Carol continues to provide an annual reminder of the critical importance of empathy, goodness, and charity, especially at this time of year. Much has changed about the world since Dickens wrote the story, but the need for us to be kind to one another and to support others through difficult times is as resonant as ever today.”
As we met to talk about Mallett’s journey with the show, I asked what it is about the story that holds the most meaning to him personally? “Empathy is a big one for me” he told me. “There’s a philosophical world view of taking care of each other and looking out for each other that is the lesson that Scrooge learns, and that the accumulation of wealth and self-service is not the path to happiness in your own life or in the lives of others. As we approach a time of year that is about being with family, and buying gifts for people with the money that we have, how are we taking care of the people who aren’t as fortunate?”
As an organization very involved in giving back to the Calgary community, Theatre Calgary has partnered over the years with the Kids Cancer Care Foundation on an event called Cool Yule. During the show’s dress rehearsal, the entire audience is full of children, and the families of children who have cancer or who have survived cancer. Each year, the show also engages audiences in Toonies for Turkeys, which over the last 22 years has raised $2 million for the Calgary Food Bank.
The experience of the artists involved in A Christmas Carol is also special because in theatre the chance to have a show that artists get to come back to year after year is rare. For the last 25 years, Calgary actor Stephen Hair has played the role of Ebenezer Scrooge and as Mallett comments “Stephen often says to new folks that Carol is not like any other show, and I really believe that that’s true.” In November when I visited Theatre Calgary’s rehearsal hall, one of the first things I noticed is just how much the cast and crew of Carol felt like a family, and this is a sentiment shared by those who have been involved in the show over the years. As Mallett told me “We’ve often talked about the Christmas Carol family on the show and a real sense of togetherness. It’s such a beautiful thing to see year after year, and to watch the way that returning cast members support and guide new cast members. We also have roles that are played by emerging artists and there’s also a career mentorship that comes into play as well. Stephen’s had a very long and a very wonderful career, and being in the lead he’s able to provide that stewardship and guidance for the next generation of actors.”
Mentorship in particular is a trait that’s very important to Mallett and as a director he always tries to create a positive environment within the rehearsal hall for everyone involved.” As he comments “Doing so really stewards the love and empathy that we’re trying to create in the minds and spirits of audiences as they watch the show. My greatest joy is getting to spend time with the people putting together this story.”
Words like heart, kindness, collaboration, and practicing gratitude are also key parts of who Mallett is. These traits are echoed by actors who have worked with Mallett on A Christmas Carol and other shows like Seussical. To these, they add welcoming, dedicated, thoughtful, adaptable, supportive, creative, caring and leader. In talking with Tyler Bidyk and Julianne Smith, both members of Carol’s young company, Bidyk tells me: “Simon is such an inspiring person to work with. He directs with such passion, and brings magic tricks, and the magic of theatre to life.” As Smith adds: “He really makes an effort to talk to the cast and get to know us, and it’s been an honour and a privilege to have had the opportunity to work with him.”
When I asked Mallett to tell me more about his experience directing the show over the years, he started by telling me about how Hair approaches playing Scrooge. “Stephen is the best of anyone at playing. You know, not automatically just doing what he did last year. Every time we rehearse a scene, he’ll do it differently, because he’s exploring, he’s playing it for himself, he’s seeing what resonates, he’s responding to the new energy of the castmates – it’s a really beautiful thing to watch an actor do, because he could so easily do the same thing again and it would be great, but he’s always looking for what’s even better than what he did last year and I feel like I try and take that same approach to the show.” This year was also particularly poignant for Mallett as 2018 marks the final run of the current adaptation, and next November a new adaptation will take the stage with Theatre Calgary Artistic Director Stafford Arima at the helm.
Through Mallett’s journey with the show one thing that has been wonderfully meaningful is seeing the impact A Christmas Carol continues to create. As he comments “It’s a real gift and privilege to get to go back year after year, and playing a small role in the holiday traditions of many Calgarians is a real honor. It’s a nice feeling to know that you’re part of something that brings people joy, but also reminds people of the lessons we need to be aware of as the years pass.” And what is Mallett’s SPARK?
“The theatre that I’m most passionate about is that which asks difficult questions and doesn’t provide easy answers” Mallett comments. “For me Christmas Carol has always connected to that work.” Mallett’s SPARK is also clear in the work he does as the Executive Director of the Rozsa Foundation. “In the work I do now with the foundation, I believe in the power of the arts to make a difference in people’s lives, and we help organizations seek opportunities and support them however we can. It’s a real gift to be able to champion organizations and projects and initiatives that are seeking to do good in a number of different ways.”