GUTHRIE — When Richard Lemin stepped onto The Pollard Theatre stage to audition for the venerable company’s upcoming holiday production, Jared Blount made a silent wish.
“Before he said anything, I was like, ‘Please be good.’ And he was. … We cast him, and then, at the first rehearsal, he’s like, ‘I have to tell you something: James Ong was my roommate in college,'” said Blount, The Pollard’s artistic director.
“And I was like, ‘Well, that was meant to be.'”
With a new lead actor and a new set, The Pollard is reviving its popular yuletide play “A Territorial Christmas Carol” — Oklahoma playwright Stephen P. Scott’s Sooner State version of Charles Dickens’ often-adapted holiday classic — live and in person for the first time in five years.
“It’s been a tradition for people. We open the day after Thanksgiving. A lot of families come together on Thanksgiving, and then the next day, they start Christmas. With all the family already in town, they come to see this show,” said Timothy Stewart, The Pollard’s development director.
“We’ve been doing ‘A Christmas Carol’ — this ‘Christmas Carol’ — for a long time.”
Theater brings back its Christmas show for the first time since 2017
The Pollard’s Nov. 25-Dec. 23 run of “A Territorial Christmas Carol” will mark the first performances of the theater’s all-time most popular show since 2017. That holiday season, the theater celebrated the 30th anniversary production of its uniquely local yuletide tale, which it has performed at least a thousand times for 150,000 patrons since 1987.
In August 1987, as The Pollard was launching its inaugural season, original Producing Director Charles Suggs II invited Scott to pen a Christmas show that the fledgling company could parlay into a beloved institution. The catch was that the writer would have to have the script ready for staged readings by the beginning of October.
“He liked the idea of an adaptation of ‘Christmas Carol.’ It seems like those are always fairly successful, and the territorial Christmas angle, that was already a tradition in Guthrie,” Scott told The Oklahoman in a 2017 interview.
“I had developed a reputation for delivering on tight deadlines. I didn’t sleep a whole lot in the time between starting and getting into staged readings.”
But he got the show done, and it proved so popular The Pollard only skipped it one time in the next 31 years.
The company’s 1990 production of the O Henry classic “The Gift of the Magi” just didn’t resonate in Guthrie like “A Territorial Christmas Carol,” so the theater brought back the local favorite.
Tragedy paused The Pollard’s run with ‘A Territorial Christmas Carol’
Along with playing nearly every other male character in the show, Ong, a founding company member at The Pollard, starred as Ebenezer Scrooge from 2000 to 2017.
“I think it’s a brilliant adaptation because he keeps in all the basic elements,” Ong told The Oklahoman in 2017. “It’s always fun to play somebody who receives redemption … and I think that’s one of the great things about Ebenezer Scrooge is he does receive redemption and he changes. He becomes a better man, as the script says.”
Just two months after wrapping his 17th holiday run as Scrooge, Ong died Feb. 25, 2018. He was 63.
Then, Scott died Aug. 18, 2018, at the age of 64.
Suddenly, even getting through a reading of their long-running Christmas show was too painful for the company. So, The Pollard started spending the holidays with another adaptation of a Christmas classic: “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.”
Except for the COVID-19 pandemic year in 2020 — when The Pollard’s former Producing Artistic Director W. Jerome Stevenson devised a virtual “fireside” production of “A Territorial Christmas Carol” — the Guthrie theater has stuck with Joe Landry’s stage version of Frank Capra’s cherished 1946 film — until now.
“It’s honoring their memory and doing what they intended, which is to bring it to the community,” Blount said of reviving “A Territorial Christmas Carol.” “Just to continue doing that, it seems important.”
The Pollard is debuting a new set with its comeback ‘Christmas Carol’
Before The Pollard could bring back its original holiday hit, the company had to build a new set to replace the old wooden one that had deteriorated badly since its debut back in 1999.
“Aside from just the fact that it was Swiss cheese … it was hard to see the old set go,” said Technical Director Michael Long, breathing in the still-strong smell of newly cut wood coming from the new set pieces.
“I view things very cinematically, and so I liked the vagueness of the old set. But I love that this set allows us to get more specific views of scenes.”
Set in Oklahoma shortly after the Land Run of 1889, “A Territorial Christmas Carol” takes place in the home of Ben and Liz Moody, who welcome a group of strangers on Christmas Eve only to find themselves transported into Dickens’ timeless tale.
With the goal of bringing back the beloved title for the theater’s 35th season, Long and Blount spent a year conceptualizing a new set design for the show. They opted for a slip stage that allows different scenery to slide into place from the wings as the story unfolds.
“Once we landed on the slip stage idea, it was like, ‘Oh, this will be a an expedited way of getting through the sequences,’ but hopefully, it also looks really cool. I’m hoping that it makes you feel like you’re in the setting: You’re in the middle of downtown Guthrie after the (land) run in the territory,” Blount said, standing on The Pollard stage, which was built in 1919.
“We’re trying to make it a bit more immersive: We’ve got some projectors that we’re using, and we’re going to try our best to make the paintings in the house come alive at times.”
“And I just unpacked our new snow machine,” Long added. “We’re doing a whole bunch of new stuff that will help us tell the story.”
New Scrooge actor says he hopes his predecessor is smiling
For The Pollard’s new Scrooge, “A Christmas Carol” has been part of his past, present and future since 1964, when he was a boy living in England watching the movie version starring Alastair Sim on the BBC.
“First time I did this show was 50 years ago: I played the Ghost of Christmas Present at the Arizona Civic Theatre. This is my 13th different production of this show … and I’ve played literally everything else except Scrooge,” Lemin said ahead of a recent rehearsal.
“In order, I’ve played the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge’s nephew, the narrator, Charles Dickens as the narrator, Mr. Fezziwig, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, various carolers when I had to fill in for actors who were absent — and now Scrooge.”
Lemin said he also has directed “A Christmas Carol” several times and even wrote his own adaptation of Dickens’ enduring story. At the time, he was attending graduate school at the University of Oklahoma and rooming with Ong and their friend David Watson.
“The very first time Jim ever played Scrooge was in my adaptation in 1978. A bunch of us had put together something … down in Norman called Actors’ Company Theatre, and I decided I wanted to try out my script. But I didn’t have a Scrooge,” recalled Lemin, who was recently named the new co-managing director of Jewel Box Theatre with his wife, Deborah Franklin.
“One night, I was just looking up, and I said, ‘Jim, read this.’ He started reading, and I went, ‘All right, there’s my Scrooge.'”
When he decided to audition for The Pollard’s comeback “A Territorial Christmas Carol,” Lemin said he didn’t necessarily foresee succeeding his old pal in the lead role.
“I thought I was just gonna come up here, I was gonna audition, maybe (play) the Ghost of Christmas Present, maybe Jacob Marley. And they called me and said, ‘Would you like to play Mr. Scrooge?’ I think I actually said, ‘Wow’ — and then I said, ‘Yes, I’d love to,'” Lemin said.
“Right after I hung up, I called David down in Texas where he lives, and I said, ‘I hope Jim is smiling.'”
‘A TERRITORIAL CHRISTMAS CAROL’
When: Nov. 25-Dec. 23.
Where: The Pollard Theatre, 120 W. Harrison Ave, Guthrie.