This holiday season Grand Theatre’s artistic director, Dennis Garnhum, shows commitment to his pledge to “ignite conversations about issues, ideas, and ways of thinking” with his feminization of A Christmas Carol. This year the story gets a gender flip. Meet the new Scrooge: Jan Alexandra Smith. The role will be played as a woman, by a woman.
Garnhum calls it a fresh take on a classical tale of rebirth. “It will have the spirit of last year with a magical dose of fresh talent. It is meant to be fun — for the audience to wonder ‘What if?’”
Smith was Garnhum’s first choice to take on the female Scrooge role. She has been acting professionally in Canada for 32 years. Smith and Garnhum first met at Shaw Festival and then worked together again at Theatre Calgary. Interestingly, she was at the Grand 1992-93 in the same play. She played the roles of Martha Cratchit and Belle, the beautiful young love interest of young Scrooge. Now it is her turn to be Scrooge. Back in the 1992 production Aidan Desalaiz was Tiny Tim to her Martha. Desalaiz is also back on stage for this year’s production as Fred, Scrooge’s nephew. “We were brother and sister and here we are, all the years later, and he is Freddie and I am his Aunt Scrooge. He has matured into a beautiful man and actor and it’s special to do this with him,” says Smith.
This year’s A Christmas Carol is the same production adapted by Garnhum, which ran last season. However this year it will be directed by Megan Watson, Grand Theatre Artistic Associate. Joining Smith on the Spriet Stage are Sean Arbuckle, returning in the role of Bob Cratchit, and Steve Ross as Mr. Fezziwig. Both have years of experience on the Stratford stage. This is always the Grand’s gain, to pick up national talent during the Stratford off months.
The script will be feminized to reflect Scrooge as a woman. Garnhum says that Smith’s powerful force on the stage, along with her intelligence, makes her ideal to take on this gender switch. Last season she proved herself to Londoners as Johannah Donnelly in the local cultural epic, Vigilante. Smith is back in that role this year for the Grand’s reprise of the hit production in late February/early March 2019. As well, she recently played Mrs. Ross in Timothy Findley’s The Wars, also adapted and directed by Garnhum. Next April she will play Tanya in Mamma Mia!
Smith says she takes inspiration from colleagues Seana McKenna who played Julius Caesar at Stratford this past season, and from Nora McLellan who also played a female Scrooge in a Theatre New Brunswick production in 2017. “I think it is great for the Grand Theatre to shake things up in this way and to have a female in this role. When I came to the opening of A Christmas Carol at the Grand last year, Ben Campbell came on stage and said iconic lines and I thought this stuff is so good, why can’t a woman have a chance to say those words and play that role? And, what do you know, a year later they are going to do it and I’m the lucky one who gets the opportunity to do it!”
Both Garnhum and Smith are especially excited to see the female adaptation of the ending of A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning, shedding her curmudgeonly ways to embrace a new, joyful approach to life. “People think they have seen it but they forget the details and emotions of that scene,” says Garnhum. Smith is excited to get into rehearsals to explore what happens when a woman shuts herself down from her heart and humanity and then is reborn. “It is fair to say that different genders have different emotional priorities. So it will be interesting to explore what happens, comparing how a man opens up his heart again and how a woman opens up her heart again — to realize it’s not too late to experience love for her fellows,” says Smith.