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Beyond Scrooge: James Ridge brings his vision to a classic holiday tale

(page 1 of 2)

From the pages of In Business magazine.

“Why didn’t I pick a two-person play to start with?” James Ridge jokes, prior to a recent rehearsal of A Christmas Carol at Overture’s Rotunda Studio. “This cast is huge!”

In his directorial debut, he oversees 43 actors — 21 adults and 22 youths.

The evening’s rehearsal agenda is tight:
6-7:30: school scenes
7-7:30: adult company meeting
7:30-10: Fezziwig dance

“We get only three to four hours of rehearsal a night, and the kids have to be gone by 9,” Ridge says.

Wasting no time, he cues six young actors, who enter a make-believe classroom under the watchful eye of a surly schoolmaster. When their choirmaster suddenly dismisses them for the day, they run off, cheering, but Ridge wants to see more exuberance from his young actors.

“One more time,” he directs. They do it again. He approaches the gentleman playing the schoolmaster. “Really give them the evil eye as they leave,” he advises.

Watching as rehearsals begin for CTM’s 37th production of A Christmas Carol, Jim Ridge moves from the title role to the director’s seat this year.

Over and over, the cast rehearses small snippets of scenes. To provide the motivation for one young boy’s scene, Ridge shares a joke. “Knock, knock,” he calls out. The youngster answers appropriately. “Who’s there?”

“I-eat-mop,” Ridge answers.

“I-eat-mop-who?” the boy replies, and everyone laughs. “That’s the humor I want here,” the director says.

He checks with stage manager Randy Tilk, who sits next to him. “Where are we on time?” he asks. “You have 17 minutes,” Tilk advises.

“We have 17 minutes! We get to do this 30 more times!” Ridge bellows, joking. It’s nearing 9 o’clock, when the younger group needs to depart. Rehearsal continues with the adults until 10.

Creating Scrooge

Ridge, 51, has been one of the core professionals with American Players Theatre in Spring Green for the past 17 years. Having just completed a role in Euripedes’ Alcestis, he turns his attention to Children’s Theater of Madison’s 37th production of the Dickens classic.

No stranger to the role of Ebenezer Scrooge (he’s been cast in the CTM role four times), Ridge looks forward to approaching the entire production with a fresh eye. “After playing Scrooge for several years, it’s difficult to really get my wheels out of that rut.”

Replacing him in the title role this year will be John Pribyl, another APT professional. “I’m grateful and relieved that someone as talented as John will play Scrooge,” Ridge says. “I do want to see what his ideas are. I can’t wait to be surprised.”

Surprised is a word rarely ascribed to a director’s work, where every step, every movement, every piece of tape on the floor marking the positions of people and props is scripted. Surprises are intended for the audience. “If you can take something [the audience] expects and then throw something surprising into the mix, you get ahead of them,” he says. “The detail work makes the best theater story.”

Rehearsals until opening night will follow a rigorous schedule. “Time is so short, so you hit everything really hard and fast,” he explains. “You sketch out all the scenes in the first week. By week three, we’re into the technical portion. It all happens so fast. That’s the miracle of making theater.”

It can also be a painstaking process. “There’s nothing sexy about sketching in scenes,” he admits, comparing it to layering paint on a watercolor canvas. “But here, you’re dealing with people, and people have ideas and fears.”

Prior to signing with APT, Ridge performed in theaters from Minneapolis to Miami, including in Chicago, Madison, and Milwaukee. Earlier in his career, he even acted in a one-person show about Charles Dickens. “It’s a gypsy’s life,” he says about working in theater.

“The usual contract in regional theater can be no longer than seven weeks. That means seven shows if you were working all year long, but almost nobody does that.” A typical professional show, he explains, often requires three and a half weeks of rehearsals followed by three to four weeks of performances.


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