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Improvising Dickens

In order to create “Songs for a Sixpence” we had to take a deep dive into the world of Charles Dickens, through the filmed versions of his work, his writing and his history.

We looked at the 1968 movie version of “Oliver!” (which won best picture that year), and watched the 2005 BBC series “Bleak House”. There is actually another musical made from Dickens’ work (“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” created in 1985 and based on Dickens last and unfinished novel), but we stayed away from that and also from Christmas Carol, which in many ways is very different from most of Dickens’ work.

Dickens was sharply aware of poverty and the often extreme economic divide in Victorian society. His father’s spendthrift nature had gotten the family into financial difficulties when Charles was a boy. His father was sent to debtor’s prison. Charles, then aged 12, was forced to pawn all of his books and work in a dirty and rat-infested shoe-blacking factory.

Dickens’s literary success began with the 1836 serial publication of “The Pickwick Papers”. Within a few years he had become an international literary celebrity, famous for his humor, satire, and keen observation of character and society. His novels, most published in monthly or weekly installments, pioneered the serial publication of narrative fiction, which became the dominant Victorian mode for novel publication.

But at the end of 1842 he had fallen on hard times again. His serialized novel “Martin Chuzzlewit”, while one of his personal favorite works, was a major flop financially, and Dickens was in need of another successful publication.

Dickens had written three Christmas stories before, so it seems it was a topic he enjoyed writing about. “A Christmas Carol” was written following a visit to the Field Lane Ragged school, one of several establishments for London’s half-starved, illiterate street children, but he was also hoping to capitalize on the rapidly growing English popularity of celebrating the holiday. Queen Victoria started the trend of going all out for Christmas and it spread throughout England because of their beloved monarch. Prior to that, the holiday wasn’t the all-out decorating extravaganza it is now. That’s probably why so much holiday imagery involves Victorian settings.

“A Christmas Carol” was published on December 19, 1843. In five days the first printing had completely sold out. By the end of 1844, thirteen editions had been released. He began readings of the story in 1852, which were tremendously popular and financially lucrative. He read an abbreviated version of the story 127 times, including his last public appearance before his death in 1870.

The fact that he was able to create such a popular and lucrative story, which also centered around his own social commentary, probably delighted him to no end.

What We Worked On
The world of Dickens, while set in the mid-18th century, is much more tightly focused.

Dickens created grand archetypes of characters as asocial criticism of Victorian society, and its huge economic disparities. He used orphans and criminals to challenge middle class polemics about criminals, making impossible any pretense to ignorance about what poverty actually entailed. He believed that “virtue shows quite as well in rags and patches as she does in purple and fine linen”.

Most of the people in Dickens world are, well, despicable. They don’t care who they have to step on to attain material wealth – that includes the upper class and the criminal class, who often have a lot of personality traits in common. Dickens heroes – Oliver Twist, Pip, Esther Summerson, etc. – are often kind, good hearted people who get batted about by those in both the criminal and upper classes.

Kindness, when it came, came from out of nowhere. Oliver happens to get caught attempting to pickpocket his (heretofore unknown) wealthy grandfather. Pip finds a benefactor in a chance encounter with an escaped criminal. Dickens loved extraordinary coincidence as a literary device, probably inspired by one his favorite writers Henry Fielding, author of the extraordinary-coincidence-filled novel Tom Jones.

As a company, we looked at how the different social strata worked, within their own groups and between them. Dickens criminal characters are especially fun to play because they often try (unsuccessfully) to come off more sophisticated than they are.

One of the more fun things (for improvisers and readers) about Dickens is his use of character names. He used very obvious and onomatopoetic names so there was no uncertainty in readers’ minds as to what sort of character was on the page. He named thieves “Mr. Krook”, and lawyers “Mr. Tulkinghorn” (said with a British accent it sounds like “Talking Horn”, or a megaphone). He named wealthy stalwarts who stymied progress “Mr. Dedlock”, and sycophants always hanging around willing to do anything to be fed (aka paid) “Mr. Guppy”.

And of course there are the wonderfully rich settings of Dickens world. Everything from dirty orphanages and cold, moldy dock houses, to lavish estates and well-appointed carriages. And of course there are surprises – like Miss Havisham’s estate in “Great Expectations”. An expansive mansion and grounds on the outside, but a dusty, crumbling home for spiders on the inside, not unlike Miss Havisham herself. And by the way – during rehearsal we made the wonderful discovery of how descriptive Miss Havisham’s name is as well (Miss “Have a Sham”…very clever Mr. Dickens!).

To sum up, Dickens world is a wonderful place to improvise – it’s drawn in stark lines, but shaded with pastels. There’s a wide variety of characters and large world that needs to be peopled with them. It’s a world as quaint as a Victorian portrait, but can be as socially biting as the Daily Show. I have a feeling the BATS company will be visiting Mr. Dickens again.

Posted in Backstage, Study Guide