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December 4, 2012

Memories of A Christmas Carol – by actor and speedy fiddler Stephen Guy-McGrath

Stephen Guy-McGrath

One of my earliest theatre memories is sitting in the cold drafty back row of the Longshoremen’s Protective Union Hall in St. John’s NFLD watching A Christmas Carol. I don’t think I had ever seen a play before, and I certainly didn’t know that being an actor could be a job. I was transfixed by the experience and was painfully curious as to how the little boy playing Tiny Tim got to do that. “I want to do that!” was the chorus I sang in my head as others sang “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”.

I did get to “do that”, well sort of… In addition to this second pass in the Soulpepper production I have done staged readings of A Christmas Carol and played Marley and the ghost of Christmas Future in other productions. (I am still waiting for my chance to play Tiny Tim!)

I had the good fortune of seeing this production before being asked to be in it. It is truly beautiful. The minimal set, the costumes, lights, and sound design all capture the essence of the book. To say nothing of the definitive performance of Scrooge by Joseph Ziegler. So when I was asked several years ago to be in it I was thrilled. This production and this company of artists is everything an actor hopes for in job. And they want me to play fiddle for the Fezziwig party. This keeps getting better.


That was what I thought when I first heard the music that I was being asked to play in Michael Shamata’s production of A Christmas Carol.  As a fiddle player I am wont to play things fast but even by my standards this was a little on the far side of crazy. Triplet arpeggios at 92 BPM. That means I’m playing about six notes per second! And it’s three and a half minutes long. Do the math. That’s a lot of notes for a long time.

Learning to play it was only half the battle. Then I had to go in front of a full house night after night and with no real lead in or warm up play this tune at a blistering pace while dealing with all of the gremlins that plague the live musician. I skipped notes, repeated sections, lost the beat, couldn’t keep the tempo, slowed down, I even sped up a few times. One night two of my four strings went completely out of tune and the cast was forced to dance to the very basic backup track with no lead line to follow. (THEY WERE NOT IMPRESSED!) And one time in a fit of exuberance I lost the grip on my bow and shot into the second row of the audience. I scrambled to retrieve it and managed to get back on the horse to finish the tune… barely.

Stephen in rehearsal

This time around things are a little less frantic. I am no longer the “new guy”. The costume changes don’t seem so fast, I’m not getting lost in the labyrinth of the “in the round” back stage, I have yet to hit my head in the trap room and I have had the experience of playing the Fezziwig dance dozens of times before an audience. I am ready to go. And looking forward to it.

So is my six-year-old daughter – an avid theatregoer – she can’t wait to see it again. And she always asks how the show went the night before over breakfast. Her insights and questions are always fascinating. And sometimes she gives notes too!

As I was leaving for the theatre last night she wished me luck, gave me a kiss and then said “Daddy… don’t drop your bow”.