Friendly spirit guides children in Milwaukee Rep’s show

In the Milwaukee Repertory Theater production of “A Christmas Carol”, several ghosts accompany Scrooge through the ruins of his life – and the bleak future that awaits him if he doesn’t change.

But the kids and teens who appear in the biggest production of the year with a cast of 36 have a much friendlier guide through Mark Clements’ adaptation of the Charles Dickens story. As a deputy director, Leda Hoffmann’s job is to coach the younger actors. When director Clements tells them to jump, Hoffmann helps them figure out how high and how to hold the landing.

The Rep’s “Carol” begins on November 30th at the Pabst Theater. After more than 40 consecutive seasons of “Christmas Carol”, Milwaukee Rep was unable to perform the show in 2020 due to safety concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, it staged a new video performance of Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, a one-actor show starring Lee E. Ernst.

The return to the “Christmas Carol” tradition from this disorder made many people involved emotional, Hoffmann said in a recent interview. She belongs to that. “I was suffocated with the first words of the piece,” she posted on Facebook after the first rehearsal.

Assistant Director Leda Hoffmann works with children at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

Since her 2010-11 season as an internship director, Hoffmann has been involved in seven Milwaukee Rep productions of “A Christmas Carol”. She is now the Artistic Director of the Contemporary American Theater Company (CATCO) in Columbus, Ohio, but returned to help Clements with this year’s production.

She has seen or read many versions of Scrooge’s saga. What makes Clements’ adaptation so distinctive? It’s “so big and rich,” she said, further describing its expansive theatricality, its sense of public spectacle and reminiscent of that old literary descriptor: Dickensian.

Dickens went on popular tours and gave dramatic readings of “A Christmas Carol,” she said. Clements actually reminds us of that story by opening his version with Dickens at the lectern as the framework for Scrooge’s story.

In the past seasons Hoffmann was able to work with the casting director on casting children for roles for up to a month (there are 17 young actors in the 2021 cast). When children audition, read a piece of the script and sing part of the song, what is Hoffmann looking for? Not perfection, but the ability, or maybe the confidence to make decisions when they arise, she said.

This “Christmas story” demands a lot from its young actors. That can be summed up in a scene in which Tiny Tim (played this year by 8-year-old Lainey Techtmann) sings a solo on stage. (Note to the curious: The Tiny Tims of Milwaukee Rep were often played by young girls.)

Hoffmann said the relationship between the adult professionals and young actors at rehearsals is good and can become particularly close to the actors who play the Cratchit parents – Reese Madigan and Rána Roman this year. And the opinions of the younger actors are valued: Hoffmann listens to the children on the show as respectfully as he does to the adults.

Take COVID-19 and security seriously

How are the COVID-19 security protocols affecting this thoroughly social production?

Everyone – cast, crew, directors – is subject to a strict test plan that starts closer to the opening night, Hoffmann said. All performers wear masks in the common area during breaks.

This concern for safety is closely related to the respect actors show one another by asking permission before touching them. Hoffmann said adult actors like Madigan are polite when speaking to younger ones through physical acts.

Rána Roman, left, Zion Lavoe and Rogelio Noriega Joseph rehearse a scene at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

Even casual theatergoers would assume the Milwaukee Rep has an understudy for Lee E. Ernst, the veteran who has returned to play Scrooge. But they might be surprised that there is a “robust” understudy plan in place for the entire cast, Hoffmann said. This also includes the young actors. As an example, she mentioned a Fezziwig party scene where people are dancing with a girl played by Paxton Haleyin a corner, smiles and follows the music. Haley is the swing for all dancing youth in this scene, said Hoffmann. If someone got sick, she stood in for them.

The rep’s care for young actors also extends to their entrances and exits. With so many people to argue about, the rep deploys a team of five stage managers, noted Hoffmann, including Becca Lindsey, who is responsible for all production; Kimberly Carolus and Krista Kanderski, who work on the stage exits on the right and left; and Kelly DeLisle and Hannah Steele, who work specifically with the kids and make sure they get out the door to the right car with their parents at the end of the night.

Contact Jim Higgins at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @jhiggy.

When you go

Milwaukee Repertory Theater will perform “A Christmas Carol” from November 30th to December 24th at the Pabst Theater, 144 E. Wells St. Proof of vaccination or a recent COVID-19 negative test required. Masks required. Visit milwaukeerep.com or call (414) 224-9490.

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