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January 6, 2024

The Making of A Christmas Carol

January 6, 2024
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Creating an Advent Tradition

Much like Ebenezer Scrooge’s journey from miserly grouch to holiday hero, the production process behind The Merry Beggar’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol was full of twists and turns, unexpected appearances, and perhaps even a scary moment or two.

Production of the audio show began in 2021. Founder and Executive Producer of The Merry Beggars, Peter Atkinson, had the bold idea to adapt the beloved classic into an audio advent calendar, releasing a snippet of the story daily through the first 25 days of December.

The original A Christmas Carol Advent Calendar

“I grew up reading an advent calendar of A Christmas Carol—the most abridged version of Charles Dickens you’re ever going to read—in 24 little booklets,” Atkinson recalled. “I took inspiration from that and thought, ‘What if we created an audio advent calendar of A Christmas Carol and split it up into twenty five separate episodes so that people could listen to it through advent? And I just ran with that idea.”

“He wanted to do it as an audio advent calendar, and that was a genius idea,” said Buzz McLaughlin, script consultant for The Merry Beggars, accomplished playwright, and author of The Playwright’s Process. “Nobody’s ever done it before.”

McLaughlin and Atkinson met in New York City, in the lobby of The Sheen Center, after the performance of McLaughlin’s award-winning play Sister Calling My Name. After connecting, the two worked together on The Quarantine Plays, with McLaughlin assisting Atkinson in selecting the winning scripts. In 2021, they reunited again to adapt A Christmas Carol into a 25-piece audio advent story.

“If we could find a way to introduce each episode in an entertaining way and not massacre Dickens’ masterpiece—that was the challenge before us. Peter and I were really working as partners on making that happen,” McLaughlin said. “Peter would write an introduction, and I’d go through it with him, and we tried to set it up so that A ChristmasCarol—the actual story—was delivered to the listener… And we managed to do it. It was a very ambitious project.”

McLaughlin and Atkinson made the creative decision to focus their story telling on the original storyteller: Dickens.

“Part of the charm of A Christmas Carol is actually Charles Dickens’ description of things, how he described the characters, how he sets the scene,” Atkinson explained. “A lot of adaptations struggle because they try to make Scrooge the main character. He is, of course, but Charles Dickens is the main person that the audience gets to know and love.”

Zeuben Painter-Edington as Charles Dickens

By focusing on Dickens as storyteller, McLaughlin and Atkinson could also bring listeners into the story, casting them as the eyes and ears in the crowd at Dickens’ first reading of his book.

“We wanted to go back in time to Victorian England in London, on a specific day that Dickens was giving his first public reading of A Christmas Carol in 1843,” McLaughlin said.“Our intros were all about bringing the radio listener into the theater, where this famous novelist writer, Dickens, was going to appear and read this new piece that was just published a week before… then, the story comes to life.”

McLaughlin and Atkinson worked together to create a brilliant, faithful adaptation of the cherished classic. And they succeeded in their efforts.

The job, however, was far from done. Three ghostly challenges were peeping their heads around the bedpost, ready to jump out and make the production process of A ChristmasCarol a bit more adventurous. 

The First Challenge: Scrooge

Like a ghost in the night, the first of a series of unexpected challenges appeared almost immediately before production. The actor who was set to play Scrooge dropped out of the cast only a couple days before recording was set to take place. The story was without its Scrooge!

Scrooge. The name that rattles the bones of Christmas-haters and humbug-sayers. The absence of a Scrooge meant doom for an adaptation of A Christmas Carol.

“We had our Scrooge pull out right before we were supposed to record, and we didn’t have a backup,” Atkinson recalled.

Luckily—or providentially—Scott Lynch-Giddings stepped up to the stage, ready to take on the iconic role in the nick of time. Originally, Lynch-Giddings had been cast in the role of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s former business partner. However, at the unexpected disappearance of his Scrooge, Atkinson asked Lynch-Giddings to switch roles in a blink. Despite the negligible prep-time, Lynch-Giddings was more prepared for the role than anyone could have predicted.

Scott Lynch-Giddings as Scrooge

“It was providential. It turns out that Scott had done an entire one-man play all about A Christmas Carol, so he knew his story backwards and forwards,” Atkinson said.

“It was in 2010,” Lynch-Giddings explained. “The idea of [the one-man play] was that the audience shows up and the stage manager comes out, which would be me, and I’m telling them there’s been a snowstorm and the whole cast of the show hasn’t shown up; but I’ve got all the costumes; so, they pull all the costumes on stage, and Ido it. I do the whole show, that’s 29 roles… It was an amazing experience.”

Playing all 29 roles in the 2010 one-man show allowed Lynch-Giddings to develop an incredible depth of understanding of the A Christmas Carol characters, their motivations, and the way they shape and move each other.

“Scrooge has a history that you can see he was a good person. He chose the wrong path. And I think that’s why the ghosts, Marley specifically, come back to start the ball rolling. He knows that Scrooge was fundamentally a good person and can be redeemed,” Lynch-Giddings explained.

Lynch-Giddings was ready for the role—any role really, including the formidable Scrooge.

“I had very little time to see the script ahead of time, but I knew it really well,” he said.

“He brought a depth of character to Ebenezer that we could not have gotten any other way,” Atkinson said. “He makes Ebenezer come alive in such a beautiful, beautiful way.”

The first unexpected challenge, the eerie disappearance of a Scrooge, was overcome. Challenge two was right around the corner.  

The Second Challenge: The Studio

With the first challenge faced, the second materialized.

“We didn’t have a recording studio. We had zero recording space,” Atkinson said.

The recording studios that The Merry Beggar now has at its disposal were not yet built. There was no obvious space to record A Christmas Carol. A less obvious space would have to be used, it seemed.

“I did some creative thinking,” Atkinson recalled. “I took the executive boardroom, and we bought a bunch of soundproof blankets and a bunch of photographer’s backdrop folders and tripods… We created a ring of soundproof blankets in the circle around the executive boardroom table… And then, since it was Christmas, we decorated with little red bows.”

The team bought several directional microphones, which record only the sound in front of them, and set the microphones in a ring facing outwards. The actors were able to gather in the improvised space and act together while the microphones recorded them simultaneously.

“Because of the blankets and the makeshift studio we set up, we were able to get twenty different tracks of different actors performances and edit them as if they were all recorded individually in a studio environment,” Atkinson shared.

Setup took one day, and the makeshift space was left up for three or four days, then deconstructed.

The make-shift recording studio

“The whole place felt sort of makeshift,” Lynch-Giddings remembered. “But the recording studio itself, what they created there, was pretty solid. They have really good recording equipment, and the engineer was in the room with us. That’s actually the way we still do it, except now we’re in a much nicer studio.”

Atkinson commented on the make-do set, “It worked so well that three years later, there’s no need to change any of the audio recorded.”

The scrappy setup allowed for an intimate, fluid acting experience that the actors involved are unlikely to forget.

“It was a great experience, kind of beautiful,” Lynch-Giddings said.

A new challenge, however, was creeping closer.

The Third Challenge: Sound

Both Scrooge and studio had been salvaged, but a third challenge remained: the sound design.

“We had never sound designed something this intricate,” Atkinson said.

“It’s an audio drama,” McLaughlin commented, “and there are so many opportunities in that show for sounds: the chain of Marley, all kinds of ghosts, the sounds and the music that would come in with the doors opening and closing, the rapper on the front door.”

The complexity of the audio assembly, the squeeze of the production schedule, and frankly, the importance of audio to an audio advent calendar—all of these factors made audio assembly challenging.  

“Sound design was taking a lot longer than we thought, such that we would not have the episodes ready for Christmas,” Atkinson recalled.

Luckily, Kevin Conroy—currently, the Lead Audio Producer for The Merry Beggars—joined the team at the eleventh-hour. Conroy had been working at Relevant Radio for six years at that point, producing their sales and underwriting content. “Crispy,” a sales solicitation spot he wrote and produced around that time, had won a One Voice Award.

Conroy joined the team of A Christmas Carol as they were launching the show. In fact, episode one had already been released and episode two—at the time unfinished—was set to be released the next day.  

Kevin Conroy at the Sound Board

“We were sound designing the episodes the day before they were supposed to come out,” Atkinson said. “We were up against the wire. It was absolutely insane.”

Conroy was in charge of“all things sound,” from the recording room to the final master.

First, he leveled the voices, ensuring dialogue was clearly audible and consistent. He arranged the dialogue in the correct order, from start to finish, then met with Atkinson and the writers to discuss sound vision.

“You start by creating the environment,” Conroy explained. “What does the wind sound like here? What are the environmental noises in each scene?”

With the dialogue and environmental cues set, he worked next on action sounds.

“There’s someone setting a cup down. You hear that. If someone’s opening or slamming a door, you hear that,” he said.

Then comes the final honing process, ensuring all audio is mixed, polished, and ready to be publicly heard.

“[Conroy] came in and started editing and finishing the episodes. It was because of him that we were able to succeed that first year,” Atkinson said. “He has an attitude of ‘We’re going to do whatever it takes to get it delivered on time.’”

Thanks to Conroy and crew, the audio advent calendar was ready to ring in the Christmas holiday.

God bless us, everyone!

In A Christmas Carol,Scrooge learns life lessons from his ghostly visitors, opening his eyes to a glorious Christmas day. While the challenges that faced The Merry Beggars may not have been as spooky and spectral as Scrooge’s ghosts, they were similarly instructive.

“Looking back at it, I view A Christmas Carol as our first expedition into producing this typeof entertainment,” Atkinson reflected. “We didn’t know how to create a studio.We didn’t know how to record this many actors. We didn’t know how to run the whole sound design process. We didn’t know how to adapt scripts into radio dramas. We had little experience with any of this.”

Those initial challenges provided the manual for successful storytelling and a sense of stick-with-it-ness that The Merry Beggars crew wouldn’t forget.  

“For me, it’s a lesson in perseverance,” Atkinson added. “By being creative and trying to problem solve and having a vision of the type of beautiful storytelling we wanted to do, we were able to get there. And God’s hand was through it all.”

Since that initial production process in 2021, the audio advent calendar was re-released the following two years, each time with additional improvements in structure and sound quality. While tens of thousands of listeners tuned in the first year, over one hundred thousand families listened the next year. And each year it has charted at #3 in the Apple Fiction Podcast charts.

This year, The MerryBeggars also released accompanying (and gloriously free) educational materials: coloring pages, activity sheets, discussion questions, and other resources to help families dive deeper into the Christmas classic.

“We knew that, if we did it right, this would be something that every advent would be available and people would want to tune in,” McLaughlin said. “As it turns out, that’s exactly what’s happened.”

Truly, A Christmas Carol is the gift that just keeps giving.

Actors recording The Pawn Shop and A Legacy of Ash
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