Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
It was a nutty “stroke of luck” that brought A Christmas Carol to Kat Letwin.
Soup Can Theatre’s atmospheric production, adapted from the Dickens’ 1843 novella by Justin Haigh, is returning to Campbell House Museum this December after a triumphant sold-out run last year. SesayArts’ review of this uncanny site-specific production proclaimed it an eerie standout of the 2018 season. Pure happenstance is the cause of Letwin’s casting this year. Haigh happened to catch her at the intermission of Kat Sandler’s Yaga, and asked if she would be interested in auditioning for Carol. “I was trying desperately to open a packet of nuts whilst cradling a glass of wine between my cheek and shoulder . . . and I said, ‘yes, yes, I would like to audition; please help me with these nuts’, because it’s important to ask people for help when you need it.” She smiles at the recollection: “He opened up the packet, but more importantly, he opened up an opportunity. The nuts were good, too!”
In this year’s revival, Letwin will play the Ghost of Christmas Present, as well as “that kid at the end who knows where The Big Goose is at the butcher shop”. She recalls reading for other parts, but when she read for “Slightly Drunk Ghost” and “Poor Cockney Child”, the faces in the room lit up: “I knew they knew what my hits are!”
Audiences are likely familiar with the winning, warm and quick-witted Letwin, through works like Soulpepper/Storefront Theatre’s Chasse-Galerie, plays by award-winning playwright Kat Sandler, and VideoCabaret’s Confederation, Parts 1 & 2. Given her considerable talent in improvisation and sketch comedy, her casting in the allegorical and serious A Christmas Carol might seem… novel. Where is the funny in the cautionary tale that is A Christmas Carol? “Oh, there are so very many opportunities!” counters Letwin. “There always are – but the key is balancing those moments with the fundamental thesis of the production. It helps that A Christmas Carol has been held as both sacred and funny in my family since I was a little kid – especially the Alastair Sim [film] version.” A seemingly bottomless well of depth and meaning lies beneath this Christmas story which stands the test of time and will be brought to vibrant life in the Campbell House Museum venue, a house which was built in the era of the novel.
Letwin is particularly perceptive in this thematic regard. Just this past weekend, she was back in her hometown for a family gathering that had nothing to do with the holidays. “I call these visits Why Nots, because…well, Why Not? We were very excited because my Aunt Nancy and Uncle Doug happened to be in town all the way from Calgary, and when they rang the doorbell, my dad opened the door to them and immediately quoted the Ghost of Christmas Present: ‘Come in, come in! You’ve never seen the likes of me before!’ Aunt Nancy and Uncle Doug came in with their bags and presents of wine and chocolate to a party that was already swinging, and “how lovely it was to welcome them into a home that was replete with warmth, now made that much warmer by their presence.” In Letwin’s estimation, A Christmas Carol is much like this family gathering. It doesn’t have to be “funny”, but it must be kind. “You can find a lot of laughs along the way (of course!), but humour accounts for just some of the cobblestones on the path to joy and camaraderie.”
175 years after its publication, A Christmas Carol has become so entrenched in the popular imagination that it is nigh-ubiquitous . . . rivalled only – but not overtaken – by that other holiday staple The Nutcracker. With so many iterations to choose from (on stage and screen), what might people need to know about this excellent site-specific version by Soup Can Theatre? “As young people know, the word ‘immersive’ gets thrown around a lot in Toronto theatre; however, this production is true to the definition of the term,” Letwin observes, pointing out that Campbell House provides the site, but the room chosen for each scene is immersive in its qualities. It’s an historic home from roughly the same time as Dickens’ publication, and it has been preserved as such. The historically accurate ballrooms, kitchens, drawing rooms, dining rooms and at least two staircases lend immediacy and urgency to the piece.
“Like, yeah, cool, we get it, the Ghost of Christmases Yet To Come is spooky, but it’s even more spooky when you have to follow a malevolent shadow of death through darkened 1800s corridors while an unexpected violinist plays the most mournful of tunes. You’re unseated – both metaphorically and physically – from modern life by being ensconced in a place wherein time seems to have stopped quite a while ago.”
Campbell House is one of the oldest pieces of architecture in Toronto, and not a theatre but a home where people have lived and died. At Soup Can Theatre’s A Christmas Carol, “You are there, and good Lord, so are the ghosts.”
Getting to Know Kat!
Scheduling hours so the company’s employees are just shy of full-time, which means they’re indeed essentially full-time, but aren’t legally entitled to full-time benefits. What a shifty Scrooge move.
First off: you can’t hear it, but I just made a strangled “hnngghaww!” noise that indicates my genuine inability to handle compliments.
Second off: it’s helped me meet people where they are, if that makes sense. Par example, I was in an Uber the other morning and I was quite tired, so all I wanted was to sleep in the car on my way to rehearsal. However, my driver (who obviously works harder than me) wanted some gentle conversation, so who was I to say no? He’s driving me! Yes and!
We’re telling each other jokes, THEN HIS SON PULLED UP IN HEAVY TRAFFIC BESIDE US ON SPADINA. It was one of the loveliest things I’ve seen in awhile. His son rolled down his window, my driver rolled down his, and they both just started laughing, clearly delighted this had happened. Once they checked in with each other, I rolled down my window and introduced myself to the son, because YES AND.
The son is a nice boy who works in finance, and he was having a good day. We all just couldn’t stop laughing. The rest of the ride was my driver telling me excitedly about how proud he was of his son, that they had wanted to meet up earlier in the morning, but my driver couldn’t because he had to work; but “now we did! We did meet up!” It was chatter about our families all the way to Campbell House. When he dropped me off, he said, “You’re my good luck charm for today.” I said, “Hey, you’re mine too.” We hugged, and I left for rehearsal with the biggest smile on my face.
To think I had just wanted to sleep.
Ooh, I have some good celebrity stories. One time I played blackjack with Mel Brooks for hours at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, and I kept calling him David Cronenberg as (what I then thought was) an obvious joke because that was the first Canadian body horror director that came to mind and I thought Mel Brooks was telling me joke facts about The Fly but nope, found out he was an executive producer on The Fly years later and those jokes were all facts.
But my latest one is William Hurt. While filming in Toronto, he came and saw Confederation Pt. 1, in which I was performing with VideoCabaret at Soulpepper, and he stuck around to chat with us outside the theatre. He came the next night to see Confederation Pt. 2 (we were performing two shows in rep). He said my Col. Garnet Wolseley was very funny and I kinda sorta melted. I refrained from making a real troll move by asking him what it was like to work with Matt LeBlanc in Lost In Space, and to this day, I’m proud of my restraint.
What truly counts is that the next time I bomb at a comedy show – and there will absolutely be a next time, probably soon – I can yell at the audience, “OH YEAH? WELL, WILLIAM HURT THINKS I’M FUNNY!”
What a delightfully weird flex to have in my arsenal that won’t appeal in the least to a comedy audience.
I’m somewhat obsessed with the Arctic, specifically the history of the Northwest Passage. Did you know tin buttons explode at -50 celsius? Members of the British navy brought this to light, and the navy’s response was, “Yes, but that is the British naval uniform. Let the buttons explode and let us hope you succeed.” When other officers managed to make it back and explain how the Inuit lived and worked, the Naval office said, “But we are British! We shall not use their means.” No wonder so many white people died.
Also, Charles Dickens was responsible for spreading false rumours about Inuit cannibalism. (It was Franklin’s expedition that engaged in cannibalism, but it was Franklin’s wife, Jane, who hired Charles Dickens to change the narrative in England after cannibalism was discovered at the Erebus and Terror’s wintering sites).
Also, a gin distiller named Booth paid an explorer to name something after him, and that’s why we now have Boothia Island on English-speaking maps. That’s a slightly more fun fact.
News You Can Use
What: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, with an original text by Justin Haigh; presented by The Three Ships Collective, with the support of Soup Can Theatre
Cast: Thomas Gough, Heather Marie Annis, Jim Armstrong, Chloe Bradt, Justine Christensen, Marcel Dragonieri, Tayves Fiddis, Diana Franz, Carolyn Hall, Aliya Hamid, Michael Hogan, Kat Letwin, Cihang Ma, Nicholas Koy Santillo, and Callum Shoniker
Creative Team: Directed by Sarah Thorpe; Written by Justin Haigh; Musical Direction by Pratik Gandhi; Co-Produced by Sarah Thorpe, Justin Haigh and Wendel Wray; Stage Management by Ellen Brooker; Designed by Madeline Ius
Who: Audiences 10 years of age and older
*Audience Advisory: Due to the immersive and mobile nature of this production, audience members will be required to stand for a significant portion of the performance, navigate stairs on multiple occasions, and will, at times, be in close quarters to other audience members.
When: 2 shows performed daily until Sunday, December 22, 2019; run time: approximately 85 minutes (no intermission)
Where: The Campbell House Museum, 160 Queen St West, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: ChristmasCarolTO.com
© 2019 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine