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BWW Interview: Nelle Lee on her adaptation of CHRISTMAS CAROL for shake & stir

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shake & stir's A Christmas Carol runs from the 2nd-24th of December at the Playhouse, QPAC

BWW Interview: Nelle Lee on her adaptation of CHRISTMAS CAROL for shake & stir Many of you will have heard of shake & stir, one of Australia's leading contemporary theatre companies specialising in the creation of new work. Many of you will have also seen one or more their works on stage - whether that be their critically acclaimed productions of Animal Farm, Dracula or 1984. You may have even seen Christmas Carol, which debuted at QPAC in 2018 and has returned during the festive season each year since with a sold-out season.

At the core of all of their adaptations is co-artistic director Nelle Lee and I had the gorgeous opportunity to having a chat with her this week about her creative process when adapting works that we all know and love, how it feels embodying a work she's adapted on stage and how the work has evolved in the past four years. Here's what she had to say...

VIRAG: First things first. Why adapt A Christmas Carol when there's so many other works of literature that are set during that time of the year?

NELLE: A Christmas Carol has been something that's been on our radar for as long as I can remember. (chuckles) But why Christmas Carol? We wanted something that was festive and we love our classics and on top of that, what made Christmas Carol stand out was that Charles Dickens is such a masterful writer and the way that he writes. He writes atmosphere so beautifully and that always translates really nicely to stage. There are some novels that I absolutely adore but we would never adapt it to the stage as it wouldn't translate. You really need to be able to give it its own life both on the stage and translate it from the page in a way that you'd hope the writer would be happy with that is still keeping faithful and truthful to to why they (the author) wrote it.

The book is just so beautiful and I remember reading it as a kid and being so petrified. (chuckles) Like, some of those moments were so creepy and then when I re-read it a couple of years into uni then I realised that it was so moving. From the stuff with Tiny Tim to the way that Scrooge reflects on his life and how he has lived it. It really speaks to everybody. There's a message in it for us all and that's the main reason why we wanted to do it.

BWW Interview: Nelle Lee on her adaptation of CHRISTMAS CAROL for shake & stir

VIRAG:100%. I completely agree. Well, since you shared your first experiences with A Christmas Carol, I thought I'd share mine as well. I don't know if you remember A Muppet's Christmas Carol?

NELLE: Yes, yes! I know! And that's why it gets muggy almost as there's so many different layers to it. I remember reading it and thinking it was creepy and then watching the Muppets version and watching poor little Kermit trying to keep warm and I was like this is cute. But then I re-read it and thought: wow, the muppets really took liberties there. And I think that's great as it makes it digestible and accessible for a really young audience which is the beauty of a great book.

It was written at a time of Christianity and faith and for a lot of people today, Christmas still is about faith but for a lot of people it also means something different. You can come along and see A Christmas Carol or read the book and still get so much from it, regardless of what religion you follow or don't follow.

VIRAG: Exactly. For me the main theme of A Christmas Carol has always been about family and love and honesty. Would you agree with that?

NELLE: Yeah. Love, family, charity and being forgiving and being a decent human. I think that's what it boils down to and if there's anytime that we need to remind ourselves of that then it's now. You need to be a decent human and live your life to its fullest as, as Scrooge experiences, life is not infinite. You've got a deadline. (nervously chuckles) Everyday it's getting closer.

BWW Interview: Nelle Lee on her adaptation of CHRISTMAS CAROL for shake & stir

VIRAG: As a playwright and an adapter, do you ever have this fear of not doing the original text justice? Is that ever something that creeps into your mind?

NELLE: I don't ever feel like I'm not going to do it justice. The panic comes in when I've written a scene or a piece of dialogue and I hear it out loud or I hear it in my head and it doesn't make me feel the same way I felt when I read the book. That's the biggest challenge, of going how can I/we bring these characters to life on stage and still make people feel as invested in their world as they are when reading the book. The question I always ask is; am I doing these characters justice? You can write so much within a novel or a chapter and so much description can be written within a paragraph. You want to make sure that that can be translated onto the stage.

Another moment of panic is how am I going to fit this all in an hour- hour and half hour play'. That's when the doubt comes in but it's never from the outset. I'm always so excited and passionate about what I'm adapting and then once I'm into it it's already eighty-pages long and I'm not even four chapters in! That's why working with someone like Michael Futcher (director of A Christmas Carol) is so great as he's a brilliant playwright and excellent dramaturg. He's got such a keen eye for the story and storylines and making the whole work stick together so that it works within a smaller time frame then what you have in the book.

VIRAG: How does the process of choosing the moments from the story to put in the play and to explore look like for you? With every story there are key moments that stick out but there are little moments experienced by each character that might not feel as important in the grand scheme of things that I feel are often overlooked...

NELLE: I start the process when I'm reading the work, which is when in my head I start to pinpoint those moments. And then you choose a storyline that's connecting all those moments together that take you on a journey. Someone like Scrooge is the character that's connecting us through the story and you piece it together from there.

A Christmas Carol is quite a thin book whereas Jane Eyre is quite big. There were moments in Jane Eyre that I read and thought those were my favourite but it does not translate to the stage at all and there were some moments that we didn't need to tell the story. Michael and I made sure that in A Christmas Carol, all of the key moments from the book and the things that clung to you are in there.

BWW Interview: Nelle Lee on her adaptation of CHRISTMAS CAROL for shake & stir

VIRAG: You've adapted this work and you're also performing in it. How does it feel to be performing a work that you've adapted? What's it like?

NELLE: It's pretty terrifying. (chuckles) There's a certain amount of anxiousness that comes with performing and there's a different type of nerves that comes along with writing and it together, well... (chuckles) It's terrifying but when you're backed by a great story and you're surrounded with a great team, you feel so supported and I believe in this work so much. The creative team is brilliant. They're some of the best creative minds in this industry as far as I'm concerned. The cast is next level. They're so amazing. And with Michael at the helm, it wasn't really nerve-wracking at all. It's more the performance nerves that you get every opening night but other than that, it's a really joy to perform and a lot of fun. It's also doing that shift from the script is no longer mine, it's the actors

VIRAG: I went to your opening night of A Christmas Carol in 2018 and it was one of the best shows I'd seen that year. I'm coming to see it again on the 22nd of December as I wanted to push it out as close to Christmas as possible. How has it evolved in the four years of putting it on?

NELLE: Yeah I think since opening night when you saw it four years ago it's tightened and it's grown. Any theatrical production will do that. We're so lucky and so blessed to have been able to run this show for the fourth year in a row now. All of the characters have grown and fused in their relationships and there's a deeper connection between a lot of these characters now. Eugene (Scrooge) is so astonishing each season. I watch him as an actor and often forgot my lines. I hate to gush but he's such an amazing actor and I think that really comes across in his performance.

We've added a few actors since then and brought on our lovely ensemble, there's three other actors and little bit more here and there. But I think you will find that it's a more fuller production and every year it grows and expands in the right kind of way.

VIRAG: The fact that you (the principal actors) have all gone on this journey and returned to this work every year for this past four years, I imagine, must be such a magical and joyous experience. From seeing each other in the rehearsal room every November and having this moment of 'we're back' must be such a wonderful feeling.

NELLE: I know! And with the last two years with everything going on, especially the fact that we re-opened QPAC last year after the closures, the feeling of the ensemble and the camaraderie of the whole team - the creatives, the crew and actors - it made me feel so grateful to be a part of the Brisbane arts community. We have some of the best theatres and creatives in the country and it's such a beautiful way to end the year. And I couldn't ask for a better time

We've had the same cast these past four years which is pretty unheard of and it makes you really appreciate anyone that's put on theatre in the past two years. It's very brave in this precarious, risky time, no matter where you are in the country or what theatre you're putting it on in. Whether it's a community piece of theatre out in the suburbs or a big scale musical, it's risky and it's scary at the moment as there are so many unknowns. And even though it's easing, there's this sense of any minute now there could be a random case that could shut the whole building down but I think it makes us stronger as an industry. It makes you really appreciate what you've got and who you've got around you.

shake & stir's A Christmas Carol runs from the 2nd-24th of December at the Playhouse, QPAC. You can read my review on it from 2018 here.

BWW Interview: Nelle Lee on her adaptation of CHRISTMAS CAROL for shake & stir


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