Beyond Scrooge: James Ridge brings his vision to a classic holiday tale
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.
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.
A member of the Actors’ Equity Association (the union of professional actors and stage managers), Ridge gets health insurance if he’s able to work 22 weeks in a year. “If I fall below 22 weeks in one calendar year, I can still do the COBRA co-pay, but that’s not cheap. This is not at all a secure field,” he admits.
He describes A Christmas Carol as a “perfect homily” about a man who loses track of his real purpose in life, then gets a chance at redemption. “Personally, I’d like to hear the message of this play every single morning!”
Planning for the holiday show began last spring, with meetings involving the new scenic designer and costume designer in an effort to create what Ridge feels is “the essence of the story as created by the author himself.”
Despite his familiarity with the play, Ridge reads the script over and over. “I’m going back over what I think is important in the play — connection, community, joy, abandonment. How can each scene reflect that in some way?” His interpretation will offer subtle nuances that will distinguish it from past productions, yet he insists he’s “not reinventing the wheel.”
Practice makes perfect
With the youngsters done for the night, the focus turns to the Fezziwig dance scene, which Ridge describes as huge. “We’ll have a lot of people in a tight, little space,” he forewarns the remaining cast members. “That’s on purpose.” He urges them to let themselves go and have fun.
“This is how people celebrate, and connect, and entertain themselves,” he says, setting the tone and waving his arms. “This is where they drink and get sweaty, and bump into each other, and listen to music, and sing at the top of their lungs. All the inhibitions go away in this room.”
Meanwhile, Ridge also choreographs the movement of props on and off the stage in transitions that must be smooth, imperceptible to the audience, and casualty-free.
Ridge directs. They listen.
A Christmas Carol is CTM’s largest and most expensive production each year. Last year, the show attracted about 6,000 patrons, raised $165,000 in revenue, and netted a profit of about $35,000, according to Artistic Director Roseann Sheridan. Most of the adult cast and crew are paid for their participation, whether via an honorarium or a weekly salary, costing CTM about $35,000.
It’s hard to imagine that in Ridge’s past life, the very thought of standing in front of people was terrifying to him. “I threw up,” he admitted, recalling some early memories. Years later, after taking a required theater class in college, everything changed.
The stage offered a sense of freedom, he said. “I had always been afraid to express myself, and suddenly, I was in an atmosphere where that was lauded as okay. That was what they yearned for.”
In his directorial debut, Ridge looks forward to creating a new theatrical palette for A Christmas Carol. “The more I’ve done it, the more I’ve become aware of the playwright’s overall intent — the metaphors, the main themes — and the more I want to be a part of sculpting all the pieces to reflect what I see in the text.
“That’s what I’m really looking forward to in directing A Christmas Carol,” he says, “a story I know really well.”
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