Decades of ‘Christmas Carol’ tradition behind scenes
By Lou Fancher
Dig deep in the wardrobe racks at Center Rep’s costume shop or scroll back in the Lesher Center resident theater company’s history and you will find the threads of “A Christmas Carol.”
Like the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future in the stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’ well-loved book, the costumes tell a story — not just about the magic of theater, but of the skilled, hands-on work of master designers and craftspeople.
People like Michael Berg.
The 67-year-old Concord resident, who has been involved in the annual holiday production since 1981, is good-humored, animated, imaginative, generous and quick to problem solve. These qualities, combined with his masters in technical theater and costuming and decades of experience, add up to a skilled, sought-after costume designer.
Berg is also an actor, educator, director and set designer. His work in the Bay Area most often appears in productions by Ross Valley Players, Marin Shakespeare Company and Center REP.
“In my brain, I’m primarily an actor, even though my bread-and-butter is costume design,” he says. Berg hasn’t been “on the boards” for a few years, but has recently acquired “a brand new set of hips” and hopes to return in future.
Berg recalls his first encounter with the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and the ghostly visions that cause the miserly old man to change.
“It was a family tradition to watch the old black-and-white Reginald Owen movie. I fell in love with the magical insanity of it. It grabbed my soul. The sea change that Scrooge goes through — it sounds hokey, but I live in eternal optimism.”
Surprisingly, Berg realizes he’s never seen a live production from start to finish.
“I’ve never seen it completely. One year, I sat out in the house when I wasn’t on stage and saw the magic that we do.”
Of course, it’s not “magic” that Berg and others bring to the annual production. Behind the fabric and fantasy are philosophies, time-tested practices, resourcefulness and constant innovation.
Berg’s process for any new show is to read the script five times to get the “flow” in his brain. Then, it’s a methodical, page-by-page excavation to identify locations, weather, characters’ socio-economic status, time frame and more.
A grid flow chart of the entire play places characters, costume changes and scenes in order. Throughout the process, Berg says the “back of his brain” is making color, texture and thematic connections.
In a perfect world, meetings with the director result in happy collaboration and there’s time for drawings. Berg makes a storyboard for each character: a collage of images, fabric swatches and anything that helps transfer his concentration from design to character.
“It’s all communication, theater is,” he says.
In the end, he believes in “gut-level juggling” to make the most informative picture.
General manager and director of “A Christmas Carol” Scott Denison says Berg is a “true professional” whose experience as an actor is a plus.
“He knows what actors want in a costume to help them create a character.”
Berg says that fabrics that don’t bend, a restrictive pattern that fails to flow with the body and materials not sturdy enough to last through the run of a show are important to avoid.
“Actors feel guilty if they have to ask for repairs. You try to make things that don’t rip.”
Or things that burn or turn from white to pink. Berg recalls a battery pack in a costume with lights that burnt holes in the fabric, as well as a maroon “fuzzi wig” neckerchief that got into the laundry with white tights three years ago.
“They’re still pink. We just went with it,” laughs Berg.
Bethany Deal, costume shop manager and designer for this year’s production, says she’s giving “facelifts” to costumes that to her eye will benefit from a fresh color palette.
A final scene in which Scrooge accepts Christmas into his heart will have everyone dressed in reds and greens to signify love and unity.
“It’s a reaction to the chaos of this year,” Deal says. “As a society, we’re becoming more separated. Why can’t we come together as one? I think we can.”
While the complexity of new-fangled fabrics like felt that can be molded or hidden lights that transform a dress from gold to green are dazzling, ultimately, there is just theater and costumes that weave cohesive stories.