Interview: Mark Shanahan of A SHERLOCK CAROL at Westport Country Playhouse

A family gift for the holidays!

By: Dec. 10, 2023
Interview: Mark Shanahan of A SHERLOCK CAROL at Westport Country Playhouse
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Interview: Mark Shanahan of A SHERLOCK CAROL at Westport Country Playhouse

You are in for an unexpected treat when the Westport Country Playhouse presents A Sherlock Carol from December 19th through 23rd. Written and directed by Mark Shanahan, prolific actor, writer, and director and incoming Artistic Director of the Westport Country Playhouse, A Sherlock Carol is a memorable holiday experience for you and your family. It’s a combination of three elements of theater – a classic heartwarming story, a ghost story, and a detective story. Most of the original cast members in the Off-Broadway show will be in this production. What’s not to like?

BroadwayWorld was curious about the elements about A Sherlock Carol, so we asked its creator, Mark Shanahan.

How did you come up with the idea of intermingling Doyle’s characters with Dickens’s characters? Were you a fan of both when you were growing up?

As a boy, I loved the Sherlock Holmes stories. My dad took me to see the old Basil Rathbone movies at Theatre 80 St. Mark's in the East Village back when it was a revival house, and those films made a big impression on me. Having seen those movies, I devoured the books and became a Holmes fan. Similarly, I first discovered A Christmas Carol through movie versions (The Muppets Christmas Carol is still my favorite!). But I came to truly admire it when I was older and read the novella for the first time. It’s an astounding work- and the best ghost story ever written.

At theatres around the country, audiences flock to mysteries and adaptations of A Christmas Carol. Often, this is the first exposure many people have with live theatre. So, it was a joy to combine the characters of Holmes and Scrooge and create a kind of Christmas Carol mystery. These characters seem very real to me. So, putting them in the same play was much like inviting friends from different social circles to the same dinner party and hoping like heck they’d get along. At times, it didn’t feel like I was writing them, they were telling me what they’d say, given the situation! That is a testament to how fully formed the characters invented by Dickens and Doyle are.

You have also adapted Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd for the stage. Do you plan on bringing more mysteries to the Westport Country Playhouse?

I really love a good mystery! It’s been a passion since I was a kid. And I particularly love a good stage mystery. That’s why I often turn to mysteries with our Script In Hand readings. Audiences react differently at a mystery. They really listen for fear of missing something important.

My adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd premiered this year at The Alley Theatre, but the play had its first public reading at Westport last June. What a thrilling night that was. We sold out the Playhouse and put an incredible cast of Broadway’s best on our stage.

And I’ll never forget -- the audience actually gasped when the killer was revealed. It was perhaps the most gratifying sound I’ve ever heard in a theatre! Of course, just as audiences love mysteries, so do actors, because they get to play such fun characters who are often keeping terrible secrets.

Whether it’s a comic thriller or a twisty whodunnit, I do think we should make it a habit to do a mystery at the Playhouse.

Do you plan to have more family theater programs at the Playhouse that run for, say, two weeks?

Absolutely! Our regular seasons must include shows that parents and grandparents can bring their kids to. Nothing makes me happier than seeing a family come to the theatre together. After all, where will we get the next generation of theatergoers if we can’t get young audience members through the doors?

With A Sherlock Carol, we’re also able to host schools for student matinees at the Playhouse, which is something we were unable to do for the show’s Off-Broadway run during the pandemic. So, the Westport run is especially gratifying on that front. And of course, during the year, we’ll continue our longtime commitment to hosting shows for younger audiences, as we recently did with TheaterWorksUSA’s wonderful The Lightning Thief this month.

If the calendar had allowed, I’m sure we would have run A Sherlock Carol longer than the short run we’re allotted. But I’m grateful we’ll be able to offer something at the end of the year which is good for adults and kids alike.

You also wrote The Dingdong, an adaptation of Georges Feydeau's Le Dindon. It seems to me that you are a big fan of introducing new audiences to classic shows with a twist. What appeals to you about older material and how do you make it relevant to today’s audiences?

You’re right! I do love to take something old, sometimes something neglected or forgotten and attempt to breathe new life into it. Whether a Feydeau farce, a murder mystery or an old novel, I like to honor what came before even as I try to put my own stamp on it and reinterpret a story. Plays and stories that might feel dated or passé might become relevant again if they are dusted off, re-investigated and reinterpreted. Whether as a writer or director, you can rescue older works with an eye towards a modern sensibility, or simply direct an older script with a new approach in design or casting so that they’re seen in a new and different light.

Are you planning to bring more adapted classics to the Playhouse?

Certainly, if it makes sense financially and artistically. Adaptations are often attractive to programs because they offer titles and stories audiences may already know. But above all, the play has to be great -- and offer something more theatrical and more exciting than just trotting out what is familiar.

Critics and audiences absolutely loved A Sherlock Carol and it’s been suggested that it become an annual tradition. Do you think that will happen at the Westport Country Playhouse, just as A Mulberry Street Christmas has been produced often during the holidays at Curtain Call in Stamford?

Well, that would be a thrill! But, first let’s see how it is received this year. I can happily report that it looks like our short run will sell out at the Playhouse. We haven’t had a show in December for several years, so we’re learning that there is a desire by our audience to see a show at this time of year.

Whether in London or around the United States, there are quite a few productions of A Sherlock Carol going on. But this year, Westport is where you can see our original company. I’m really proud that so many members of our New York production’s cast and design team instantly agreed to come up to Westport to mount the show this year. They all have a love for this production, and I think our Playhouse audience will feel their great camaraderie and the ownership they have for this show and know we have a special group of accomplished artists on our stage. They make the play joyous, funny and heartfelt. I couldn’t ask for better collaborators and I know our audience will love them.

What else would you like BroadwayWorld readers to know about you and your plans for the Playhouse?

I arrived at The Playhouse as an actor nearly twenty years ago and I am proud to have been associated with it in different capacities over the years. I’ve seen it go through a lot of changes in that time - and we’re now undergoing yet another transformation as we head into a new chapter. This community is behind us, and we take that seriously. It’s a great responsibility.

I am always gratified when I meet people in the lobby who tell me of their long history coming to the Playhouse. Many have been coming for decades. Everyone has a special memory of the place. It means so much to so many. And everyone who works at The Playhouse loves it, too.

Non-profits everywhere are struggling right now, but the theatre is a resilient institution. And this one is especially so! As our audience knows, we’re looking at new ways to operate. We're presenting works produced from outside organizations, we’re doing cabarets and concerts, and we’re hosting single night events with celebrated artists, so that there is always something coming up, always something to look forward to at the Playhouse. As we gear up to present a season of theatrical productions in the fall of 2024 through the spring of 2025, we recognize there is a lot of competition for our audience’s attention. But we also know it’s our job to make the Playhouse a vital place people enjoy coming to. It’s a big challenge, but we want to make sure the Playhouse adapts to changing times so it can thrive. We want to make sure there will always be a Westport Country Playhouse.

Since it’s the season of giving, please consider giving a donation to the Westport Country Playhouse to help it keep bringing audiences the gift of theater. You might also want to buy holiday gifts to these two upcoming productions at the Westport Country Playhouse.

Good Witch/Bad Witch: A Concert of Diva Showstoppers featuring performers from Wicked on Saturday, January 20.

An Evening with Audra McDonald. Need we say more? One night only on Saturday, February 10.

Tickets are selling fast, so click on www.westportplayhouse.org/whats-on/ to get your seats. The Westport Country Playhouse is located at 25 Powers Court, right off Route 1 in Westport. (203) 227-4177. Learn more about Mark Shanahan at www.mark-shanahan.net.




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