Welsh Christmas in Philadelphia: Interview with the cast of Walnut Street Theatre’s A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS IN WALES

A Child’s Christmas in Walesa book by Wales’ most famous poet Dylan Thomas (1914-53), began as a text that he had written for the radio in 1952—a year before he passed away in New York City. Thomas relived part of his childhood experiences during Christmas through this work, seen through the eyes of a child, somewhat romanticizing the past through various entertaining anecdotes, including an alcoholic old aunt.

Together with Under Milk Wood, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” “And death shall have no dominion, A Child’s Christmas in Wales became one of his most widely read and now widely performed masterpieces.

The production at Walnut Street Theatre with Aaron Cromie, Scott Greer, Maggie Lakes, Matthew Mastronardi, and Amanda Jill Robinson was directed by Philadelphia’s much sought after Aaron Cromie. The innovative Matthew Mastronardi orchestrated and music directed this play in ways it had never been done before. [Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut Street] November 15-December 23, 2016; walnutstreettheatre.org.

Cast of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas In Wales at Walnut Street Theatre. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Cast of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas In Wales at Walnut Street Theatre. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Henrik Eger: Tell the story of A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS IN WALES from the perspective of your character.

Maggie Lakis: We sort of decided that we, as characters, were a family celebrating Christmas, and one of our traditions was to recite A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS IN WALES.

Matthew Mastronardi: We all tell the story as though we are Dylan Thomas. I try to highlight the joy and amazement in these stories of Christmases long ago. A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS IN WALES is the story of specific Christmas events that happened to Dylan Thomas when he was a boy—long before all the commercialism, before all the big sales, and before all the spectacles that we have for Christmas today. It was a simpler time when being with family was the major event—and not only the presents or new toys. It was all about being together, celebrating the season.

Scott Greer: There isn’t really a story in the traditional sense. The text is Dylan Thomas’ stream of consciousness, his meditation on childhood and Christmas. Our “characters” really are versions of ourselves. Five friends getting together in a living room, playing music together, sharing poetry, and celebrating Christmas and family.

Aaron Cromie: The cast plays a theatricalized version of themselves, and we each, in a way, play Dylan Thomas—and occasionally act out characters in the story.

Amanda Jill Robinson: To Auntie Hannah, Christmas is a marvelous excuse to spend the holiday spiking her tea with rum—“only a sip!”

Henrik Eger: Share some of the best lines from the prose text by Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet, that spoke the most to you, and tell us why.

Amanda Jill Robinson: When I first received the script, rich with vivid language, I had such a pleasure imagining myself into Dylan Thomas’ magical Christmas world that I couldn’t help but put little hearts next to the lines that particularly delighted me, such as,

“We would walk on the white shore and wonder if the fishes could see that it was snowing,” and, “Then a small, dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long time, joined our singing; a small, dry eggshell voice from the other side of the door.”

Matthew Mastronardi: Thomas sets up the story beautifully. It immediately transports me back to my childhood memories, when my brothers, sister, and I would sled down the backyard hill together.

“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”

Scott Greer: I love the tumbling nature of the prose. It works the way memory does: multiple images, stories, and sensations crashing together at the same time.

“All the Christmases roll down towards the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged, fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.”

Aaron Cromie: I love the way this description makes me visualize the waking up to a snow filled town: “Snow grew overnight on the roofs of houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely white-ivied the walls and settled on a postman at the gate like a dumb, numb thunderstorm of white, torn Christmas cards.”

Maggie Lakis: My favorite line is about wondering if the fish can see that it is snowing. That’s such a sweet thought.

Henrik Eger: Would you be willing to share a moment or two from the rehearsals that stood out for you?

Scott Greer: We had a lot of fun rehearsing. The original musical arrangement is just for piano and voice. Matt Mastronardi, re-orchestrated it so that we all play various instruments as well as sing, so we spent most of the first two weeks becoming a band. We had a blast.

Maggie Lakis: It was very exciting when we got the handbells for the first time in rehearsal. We had a lot of fun working with them. However, I believe it was more difficult than we all thought it would be.

Aaron Cromie: When the handbells arrived, we were all just thrilled how the sound made the show sound so much more Christmasy. Also, we laughed a lot in rehearsal.

Amanda Jill Robinson: Rehearsals were such a treat—especially the music rehearsals. After unpacking all the instruments, we’d gather at the table with our tea and coffee and musical menagerie, and arrange music all day. It was a dream! I believe those days of learning and playing music together brought us much closer and solidified us as an ensemble.

Matthew Mastronardi: I was the music director for the production, so I focused on how the music helps us tell the story.

We open the show with “Deck the Halls,” and each instrument gives a little solo to welcome the audience in. Another unique arrangement for our production is “Ring Out the Bells,” a new song, written especially for this show by Charlotte Moore (both music and lyrics), arranged by Mark Hartman, and orchestrated by me. It has the feel of an old Christmas carol that you would hear bellowing from a church bell tower. So, for this song, I only wanted to use hand bells to give the audience the feeling of hearing all the church bells ringing throughout the town.

dylan-thomas-reading-for-the-bbc-photo-courtesy-of-the-bbc

Dylan Thomas.

Henrik Eger: When I saw you on stage, memories of my own childhood and Christmas came flooding in. Could you share with us one or two memories from your childhood during the Christmas period?

Aaron Cromie: The moment when we light candles during “Silent Night,” I’m reminded of the time when I sang in church (where my father was the choir director) on Christmas Eve. We’d pass the flame, lighting each others’ candles. Then we’d blow them out, the lights would come on, and we’d sing “Joy To The World.”

Amanda Jill Robinson: One of my favorite memories of Christmas Eve as a child would happen right before dinner. My grandmother kept a little silver bell tucked away in a drawer of her dining room server. It was tactfully hidden, so the kids wouldn’t run around ringing it all night, but just as dinner was placed on the table, she would always let me, the oldest grandchild, take out the bell and announce, “Everything is ready!” I took such pride in ringing that little bell.

Maggie Lakis: When we would go to my Grand mom’s house, the tradition was to make her recipe of raviolis and meatballs together as a family—and then, together, we would eat the food we had cooked.

Scott Greer: The tree was a big deal. We would play “I Spy” with the ornaments on Christmas Eve, and open the presents on Christmas morning as “Joy to the World” played on the stereo.

Matthew Mastronardi: Growing up taking piano lessons and loving to sing, I would learn to play Christmas carols and make my family sing along with me at Christmastime. I still make them sing with me every year, and my brother takes out his guitar and we have our little family Christmas band. I would also write some songs and perform them for my family when I was younger.

Henrik Eger: Share anything with us that you brought to this amazing production—from the instruments you played to the way you interacted with each other and your audience.

Aaron Cromie: It’s really great to play such positive celebratory music with colleagues you consider your friends and for audiences who really appreciate it. It’s also wonderful to get to play music in a 5-piece band.

Scott Greer: I like to think I bring enthusiasm and a high bodily tolerance of wool. [Scott and all the other actors have to wear authentic woolen outfits throughout each performance.]

Amanda Jill Robinson: In this production, I play the violin, guitar, xylophone, a few fun percussive instruments, and we all learned the hand bells! Actually, our hand bell rehearsals were funny enough to have a show of their own.

Maggie Lakis: We all play our own instruments with the exception of the bells and the melodica that Matt plays.

Matthew Mastronardi: I play the cello and piano. The original production of this show only used a piano for all the songs, but this cast is made up of actor/musicians. As the music director, I looked at each song and thought about all the instruments we could play, and then I tried to put together what would work best for each song. I also wanted each song to have a feeling as if we are making it up as we go—but, of course, everything was carefully planned out.

Since each arrangement of the songs was made especially for this production and for these actor/musicians, my hope was that each arrangement would feel fresh and exciting, because it is something that we built together in the rehearsal room from the ground up. The opening song in particular has a unique arrangement that I wrote to set up the way music and our instruments will be used throughout the evening.

Henrik Eger: Share anything else you wish to add.

Maggie Lakis: I’m so happy to be finally working at the Walnut Street Theatre. Also, it’s been a pleasure to spend the holiday season doing this lovely show with a great group of fellow actors and musicians.

Matthew Mastronardi: In this play, we use a lot of folk sounding instruments. It was important to me to have all acoustic instruments that you may be able to find in Wales during Dylan Thomas’ childhood.

We therefore play Violin, Cello, Piano, Flute, Guitars, Banjos, Autoharp, Ukulele, and Mandolin—even some fun percussion instruments like a Toy Xylophone, Guiro, Wood Blocks, Hand Bells, Jingle Bells, and a few other surprises.

I think the biggest challenge was to not use every instrument for every song. We have such an incredibly talented ensemble, and I wanted to make sure everyone was featured throughout the show, but it was also important to have a variety of arrangements from song to song. So some of us don’t play certain songs, not because we can’t, but in order to have more intimate arrangements for certain songs. It was very exciting and fun to put together the instruments used for each song.

[Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut Street] November 15-December 23, 2016; walnutstreettheatre.org.

70 minutes, with no intermission.

 

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About the author

Henrik Eger

HENRIK EGER, editor of Drama Around the Globe. Bilingual playwright, author of Metronome Ticking. Born and raised in Germany. Ph.D. in English, University of Illinois, Chicago. German translator of Martin Luther King, Jr’s Nobel Peace Prize mail. Producer-director: Multilingual Shakespeare, London. Retired professor of English and Communication who taught in six countries on three continents, including four universities and one college in the U.S. Author of four college text books. Longtime Philadelphia theatre correspondent for AAJT, the world’s largest Jewish theatre website. Articles published in Classical Voice, Los Angeles; Kayhan International, Tehran, Iran; Indian Express, Mumbai, India; The Jewish Forward, New York; Philadelphia Jewish Voice, Phindie, and Broad Street Review, Philadelphia; The Mennonite, Tucson; and New Jersey Stage. Contact: HenrikEger@gmail.com