God Bless Them, Everyone! An Interview with Henry Cyr & J Purnell Hargrove about Third Wall Productions’ A Christmas Carol Radio Drama Podcast

“It’s true wherever you find love— it feels like Christmas!” My favorite quote from my favorite adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas CarolA Muppet Christmas Carol— and while we may not be gathering at big Christmas parties this year, or packing into the theatre to see the latest area rendering of the Dickensian holiday classic, the statement stands— wherever you find love, it feels like Christmas. Henry Cyr and J Purnell Hargrove, of Third Wall Productions, are bringing much-needed Christmas love and cheer to 2020 with their podcast adaptation of A Christmas Carol for all to hear. Harkening back to the days of radio dramas, adapted to the podcast-listening craze of the new era, this dynamic duo has sat down with me (via Zoom, of course, in the interest of safety!) and given TheatreBloom readers an exclusive sneak-peak at what to expect from this upcoming aural holiday treat.

It’s so good to see you both, and I’m so excited that I get to sit down and chat with you— now that I’ve figured out this Zoom thing—about this incredible theatrical endeavor you’re undertaking this holiday season! How did this holiday event come to fruition?

Henry Cyr

Henry Cyr: Well, we were looking for something to do to occupy ourselves because we had started rehearsing Chess (Third Wall Productions’ previously scheduled Spring2020 musical) and then everything shut down, so we needed something to do. And we’re still planning to do Chess whenever we can— maybe, hopefully the end of 2021? But we were itching for something to do and J (co-collaborator J Purnell Hargrove) said “I love radio dramas.” And while I don’t have the association with them that J does, it sounded like kismet, the perfect thing. We started talking seriously about this back at the beginning of the summer. I suggested we try and do something for the holidays. Let’s take our time, write it, and put it out. Very quickly, A Christmas Carol came to mind as it’s one of my favorite stories and it always has been. I said to J, “What if we did it as a radio drama, put together with a bunch of Third Wall actors, but also do something different with it?”

We came up with the idea of setting it within a modern framework. So the context is that J and I are doing a podcast, which we have actually played with this concept before, it’s just never seen the light of day. There are episodes; we’ve recorded episodes, but we’ve never put it out there. Maybe now we will. Anyway, the premise is that we are having an episode of our podcast, and it’s our holiday special, which turns into A Christmas Carol, and we bring in other actors to read parts. It’s been a great outlet for us to keep being creative during this Pandemic.

That sounds amazing! I’m so glad that you guys have something that is keeping you going! Just listening to you guys talk about it is really making my heart sing in ways that it hasn’t had much of a chance to do this year. What do you think, J?

J. Purnell Hargrove

J Purnell Hargrove: It’s been really great. I know so many people that haven’t had that opportunity. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been doing things that keep my theatre juices flowing, but I know so many people that haven’t. To give this opportunity to the Third Wall stable of actors, some of these people who have been with the company since the beginning, is really wonderful. To be able to say, “Hey, we’re going to do a thing and we want you to be part of it,” that to me is a really great opportunity for the community.

And we have cast people from the very beginning— from five years ago right up to Blonde (Legally Blonde, produced by Third Wall Productions in February 2020.) There are even people who aren’t living in town anymore who are a part of this and we’re just so excited to be able to bring this opportunity to everyone.

Was that always the plan? To get Third Wall performers of Past & Present involved?

Henry: Yes. When J and I scripted the whole thing out— I mean, it’s the story of A Christmas Carol so you know different bits of what’s coming— but as we were writing it out we’d say, “so-n-so would be perfect for this part, or that part.” And then we would hear it in their voice while writing the script. When we finished writing the script, we just reached out to all these people and all but one said yes!

J: It was very important to us to be able to work around everybody’s schedule. To get someone ‘Zoomed’ in just for three lines was important to us.

Henry: The funny thing was, when we started, we were very diligent with all the actors that we got involved with the project— we asked them about their recording preferences. We started this back in the summer, and back in the summer we didn’t know how things (with the pandemic) were going. We thought maybe things would get better, and we could record one person, in person, at a time. But then we started doing rehearsals over Zoom and realized that that worked just as well.

Everything was recorded over Zoom. We would rehearse a scene with Scrooge and Bob Cratchit, and they would be “Zoomed” together, and we would record that rehearsal and its those takes that we’re putting into the actual podcast.

You’ve talked about the process of how you’re recording this amazing cast of actors from the Third Wall pond during the Zoom rehearsals, who is doing your sound editing?

Henry: J has been our sound designer. He’s picked all these great effects and music, and I am the engineer I guess you would say? I’m editing it all together on my Mac. I got a Mac recently and it’s been pretty good for editing. It has been a good learning experience.

J: It has been a great learning experience. We have some skills now that we did not have before.

Henry: J and I keep talking about this. When we get back to a place where we can be on stage in person together, we of course want to do that, but we’ve discovered that we enjoy this podcast so much that we already have a couple other projects that we’re planning. We’re going to try and do this for the foreseeable future.

J: It’s something we can sustain— I mean, we have ideas! Even when live theatre comes back, people are always itching for something to do and this is something that people can do from the comfort of their own home.

You’ve talked now about the “what”, that this is a “J & Henry podcast Christmas episode that spins itself into A Christmas Carol”, and you’ve vaguely mentioned the “who” in so much as you’ve said it’s all former people involved with Third Wall Productions. Can you talk about who specifically is involved or are you keeping that a secret?

Henry: I don’t know, J, what do you think?

J: We can talk about it!

We can safely assume that you’re both in it? Since it’s the Henry & J podcast?

Henry: Yes. We’re both in it. J takes on the role of Scrooge.

J: And Henry does narration.

Henry: I’m Charles Dickens, I’m telling the story, it’s my favorite story.

See, now I just want Henry to be Gonzo. Because Muppet Christmas Carol is my favorite version and when he says he’s playing Dickens, I’m just picturing a blue, furry Henry.

J: Haha! Yaaas! Muppet Christmas Carol, one of my favorites also.

Excellent. So who else is involved?

Henry: Well, we kick the story off, from our podcast, J assumes the role of Scrooge, and then everyone else comes in to read different parts. So we have—

J: Hold up— I need to say this. He had to sell me. Henry had to sell me on this role. Because, as we know how the world is, Scrooge is not a role that was ever in my thought process. I don’t look like an old white man. So to do this and know that it’s just audio— it’s something else. And I’ve listened to it, and now I’m sold.

I find it so ironic that you say that, because when Henry told me you’re playing Scrooge, my immediate thought, knowing you as I do, J, was “he would make a perfect Scrooge.” Because Scrooge has to have a lot of drama and I don’t know anybody that has more drama than J!

J: See, now that’s funny because I don’t have a lot of drama-drama but I am drama!

Right— you don’t have interpersonal drama, you’re just brimming over with stage drama!

J: Exactly.

You’re going to make an excellent Scrooge; I can’t wait to hear it. And if you weren’t being cast for Scrooge, my next guess would have been Nephew Fred.

J: Which is also funny because the only other time I’ve done A Christmas Carol, I’ve played Fred. It’s so funny because I really am just not Christmasy. This is not my time of year.

Well, Christmasy or not, I’m glad Henry sold you on it. Who else did you guys round-up for this performance*?

Henry: We have Stephen Foreman (of Third Wall Productions’ In The Closet, January 2020) as Bob Cratchit. And we have Lizzy Fleischmann (Vivienne Kensington in Third Wall Productions’ Legally Blonde, February 2020) as The Ghost of Christmas Past. Also from ‘Blonde’ we have Christopher Kabara (Professor Callahan in Third Wall Productions’ Legally Blonde, February 2020) as The Ghost of Christmas Present.

J: Oh we had sooo much fun! It took a long time to record our scenes. It was a fast friendship and he is now a person I talk to every day. He is delightful! He has so much depth and so much to give and his voice just sings.

Ooh— you said ‘sings.’ Is there singing? IS THERE SINGING?

J: There’s a skosh of singing.

Henry: There’s some singing.

Alright. So we’ve got a little singing, Christopher Kabara, Lizzy Fleischmann, Stephen Foreman, and you two. Who else?

J:. I’m having a brain fart right now. But there are others! I promise!

Henry: How about I just look at the cast list? Let’s see…we have Alex Pecas (Kyle in Third Wall Productions’ Legally Blonde, February 2020) as Marley. We have Mike Zellhofer (Artistic Director and Founder of Third Wall Productions) as Mr. Fezziwig, and Amy Rudai (Resident Scenic Painter & Set Designer for Third Wall Productions) as Mrs. Fezziwig. We also have Max Wolf (ensemble of Third Wall Productions’ Legally Blonde, February 2020) is playing Nephew Fred.  

J: That is some perfect casting.

Henry: Grace Dillon (Jo March of Third Wall Productions’ Little Women, May 2017) is playing Belle.

J: I just adore her! And I adore getting to work with her on this! I think I told Henry if she’s not in this somehow I’m not doing it, full stop.

That’s most of the characters? Isn’t it? Ooh wait, Mrs. Cratchit and Cratchit kids? Who are they?

Henry: Amy Haynes-Rapnicki (Paulette Buonufonte in Third Wall Productions’ Legally Blonde, February 2020) is playing Mrs. Cratchit and she actually produced for us, she did a lot of stuff, helping to get the cast together with scheduling and everything. And for the Cratchit children— Bailey Gomes (Les in Third Wall Productions’ Newsies, February 2019) as Tiny Tim—

J: Again, absolute perfect casting.

Henry: Yep. We got him and then we’ve got Cecilia & Lucy DeBaugh (co-choreographers of Third Wall Productions’ Legally Blonde, February 2020) they’re a couple of Cratchit sisters. And Grace Volpe (ensemble of Third Wall Productions’ Jekyll & Hyde, May 2018.) Oh! And also— they are featured in small roles, but we have both Will Zellhofer (Musical Director of Third Wall Productions’ Man of La Mancha, November 2019) and Andrew Zile (Pit Conductor Emeritus of Third Wall Productions’ musicals), Andrew all the way out in California now.

Oh that’s so wonderful! They’ve both been such an instrumental part of Third Wall Productions for so long! I’m really glad they’re both a part of it!

J: Henry and I did talk about this. We didn’t want just all the actors, we wanted all people who had been involved with Third Wall Productions, the tech people too. And a lot of the tech people double up as actors, they read scripts. Everybody’s in for this one!

What is it that you’re hoping this unique and amazing podcast-rendering of A Christmas Carol will bring to your audiences?

Henry: Well we want them to have a pleasant distraction. Since this story has been such an important part of my Christmas celebration through the years, and theatre has been so important to me, I wanted to try and do something to merge the two. Getting so many people— even people that I didn’t know very well from Third Wall’s past, that J has had a good relationship with— getting all of those people together and saying, “we all love working together, we know we can’t do it in person, let’s do something nice for each other, our families, our friends, and put it out there for whoever wants to listen to it.” That’s what this has been about. If it brings you some joy this year, that’s what would mean something to me.

J: The December holidays are looking very different this year. We even said it in the teaser for this production, 100 years ago people were in a very similar situation. Like Henry said, the story is very personal to him? The style we are doing it in, is very personal to me. To blend that and be able to give people something to sit around and listen to and just distract them for a little while? That means more than anything to me. I know that I’m here to make people feel things. Any way that I can do that is a good thing.

Henry: Just speaking for myself, I’ve been working from home ever since March and I don’t even know how many miles I’ve logged walking and running around my neighborhood and because of that how many podcasts I’ve devoured in that time. If there are people out there who need to go on a mental health walk for the holidays— listen to this!

That’s really wonderful. And how long is this? An hour? 90 minutes? 30 minutes?

Henry: We’re splitting it into three episodes. Total of 90 minutes, approximately. I think we were talking about putting the full— spliced all together version— out on Christmas day, either on our YouTube page or the Third Wall Productions website.

Are you planning on a staggered release or are you dropping all three episodes at once?

Henry: I think it’s no more than a week apart.

J: And we’re aiming for it to drop next Saturday— December 12, 2020.

That’s great. So we know it’s going to be available on the Third Wall website, where else can we expect to find this audio treat?

J: We’re being very hopeful that you will be able to find it on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play— as many places as we can put it out podcast-wise. Probably the Third Wall Facebook page too. And of course we are discussing some other options as well. We have some Third Wall people that are— not as “tech savvy” or “with the podcast scene” and we want to make sure everybody can get a bit of it, so we’re going to find some alternate ways of sharing it for those people as well.

Will you be etching it into the old gramophone records and making contactless-doorstop deliveries?

J: When I tell you that I’m like “can we put this on a cassette tape and send it out?” I am so serious. I have plenty of tapes downstairs. I can totally do this.

This must be such a wonderful thing to help you both— and really everyone involved— stay connected to the theatre and to their Third Wall family, and certainly it’s helping everyone feel a little more festive this Christmas, but no theatre endeavor comes without its challenges. So what has been the biggest challenge for you guys during this process?

J: If you say me…I’m going to be so very upset.

Henry: Ha! No. You’re good. But quite honestly? J and I haven’t known each other long, only going on three years? But we’ve definitely gotten a lot closer through this process. It’s been really nice to have not only someone who is a good friend but someone who is a great creative partner. I come with up ideas that are stupid and he lets me know. And vice versa. We’re like cheerleaders for each other too. That’s been really nice. I think the thing that’s actually been hard, and it’s such a stupid thing, is adjusting to some of the technology, mostly some of the Zoom stuff. I was pretty much a Zoom newbie. When we started meeting and recording, J will tell you, there were a couple of rehearsals where I couldn’t get my Zoom to work— and I created the freaking meeting. I couldn’t get into my own meeting!

J: He’s not lying— and I’m trying to explain it like— “you just push the button!”

Henry: I don’t know. J, can you think of any big sticking points?

J’s biggest challenge was figuring out what to wear to each rehearsal.

J: I mean that’s funny because that’s sort of true. I have to be presentable! I’ve got the ring light here— but seriously— the tech thing has been the biggest problem. Trying to aurally visualize what this is before we had it was difficult too.

Aurally visualize. Wow. Just— what?

J: Yeah I don’t know how to describe that— you know what you want it to sound like, but how do you say those words to express that what you are hearing inside your head is what you need to hear coming out of their mouths? There aren’t words for that. Henry and I got it right off the bat; we understood. But it was definitely a hump to get over, figuring out the language, how to speak in audio— it’s a whole different thing.

Do you find this at least reminiscent of doing a stage production?

Henry: Yeah, sort of! Although it’s not a stage production, we did have a rehearsal process which was cool. We would get together, we “mapped it all out.”

J: We’re blocking!

Henry: Yeah. We’re blocking. We’d get our rehearsal schedules together— like let’s say “Okay, this is a Cratchit night, or this is a Scrooge and Fred night”, we’d rehearse, and a couple weeks later we’d come back and record. It was nice to have that sense of actually building the chemistry with the other actor. Especially when all you have to worry about is interacting and— like J said, how you want it to sound. We were able to get to the essence of the relationships without having to think about literal blocking, like— “you step two feet to the right and make sure your jazz hands are out”— just being able to focus on interpersonal relationships was such a nice thing. But we had to find our rhythm.

J: I can also say how much we had to jump around was difficult too, but no— actually, it wasn’t. I mean not for me. That was easy, at least for me, maybe because I write a lot. There’s a battlefield of scribbled notes I can’t read, all over this project. Actually— I take that back— I think I only had to ask where we were twice.

Henry: I mean, J never stops talking. Scrooge is in every scene…

You did say that you’ve modernized it a little bit. Should we all be on the lookout for Third Wall Easter Eggs? Like in Third Wall Stage Productions where the set and scenery are chock-a-block full of easter eggs of performances of Third Wall productions’ past?

Henry: So without giving too much away, the concept is that when we’re in the story— we’re in that time. When we’re setting it up and so on and so forth, we’re in the now.

J: There are some things that will pop up, Mandy, I’m sure you’ll get them. You’re going to hear something and just know. I know it.

Ooh goodie! So Henry, I know you said you’re quite close to A Christmas Carol, and J you have some working familiarity with it, what is your favorite moment in this version of the story?

J: So I have two. I love the Scrooge and Belle scene, especially in this version, because— for one— nostalgic reasons, me and Grace working together again felt so wonderful. We didn’t miss a beat, and we’re back to where we were before and I haven’t seen her in a while. The two of us work very well together. I know Henry sees this— as soon as we were in the Zoom together and we start speaking, there was something emotionally guttural about that entire scene for me. It’s that scene and then working with Max as Fred. Every interaction that I had with him is magic. Fred is such a ray of light and so is Max, especially after Scrooge’s turn— that is an emotionally resonate moment for me. As an actor, I don’t usually get to do a lot of heavily emotional stuff. I tend to do more “I’m the funny guy over here.” Getting to stretch that dramatic muscle has been really wonderful, especially with those two actors and those two moments. Those are my favorite parts.

And Henry? What about you?

Henry: I don’t know, it’s been a great experience hearing everybody do everything. I love this story. A couple of years ago I discovered that Ebenezer Scrooge is the same Meyers-Briggs personality type as me, which makes a lot of sense because I can totally relate to him. But, as much as I love A Christmas Carol, I don’t know that I would ever be able to do Scrooge. I can live as him and be grumpy in real life, but I can’t translate into that. For years I’ve wanted to do a reading of it. Charles Dickens used to do that, he had his script and he would act the whole thing out. 33 years ago Patrick Stewart, who is one of my idols, he did it.

Henry, I feel like you sell yourself short, I feel like you could absolutely pull off Scrooge, with enough character research and development, you would make an excellent Ebenezer.

Henry:  That’s fair, and I appreciate that, but I never— I don’t really want to do it. I don’t think I could do it well. But as I was conceptualizing it, I could hear J in my mind and I thought he would do really well. So to hear J actually doing every facet of it, that has been unbelievable. So honestly, my favorite section is probably J’s hardest section, which is the whole transformation. We did it in long takes, but the first time we did it— oh man.

So whenever we would have a rehearsal or a recording session, I would be there. (In the Zoom.) But I would mute my video, pace in my office, and just listen. The first time we were working that transformation scene with J? It was literal chills. It’s the same chills I have as a director when I’m watching people and they’re finally getting what I’ve been waiting for them to do. Knowing that they’re going to do it but now I finally get to see it. Finally hearing it with J, was that moment for me in this process.

I know you said you don’t want to play Scrooge, Henry, and you are the narrative figure here, but if you could be literally anyone in A Christmas Carol, no restrictions of any sort in place here, who would you be? And same for you, J, who would you be?

Henry: I think for me, because I love the story so much and I love the joy of Christmas, I think at some point I would love to be Fezziwig. He is just Christmas personified. One of my uncles, who is the biggest Christmas person I know, I call him Uncle Fezziwig. His holiday season begins at Halloween and lasts through Easter; every holiday is over the top. And Christmas, he is my role model for Christmas. So I would love to be Fezziwig one day.

J: I feel like I’d probably like to be Marley or one of the ghosts because that’s my type cast. Like I said, I’ve played Fred already, and that’s another character that I just never would have associated for myself, but its because of the Christmas thing that I don’t associate it. The energy is absolutely me. But this love of Christmas? Oh no. I am a literal Grinch. I really am. I am telling you— I cannot wait for January first to roll around. I will be very happy. December holidays are just a lot for me. It’s always been like that. It’s never been my jam. I like a good drinking holiday or a good eating holiday like Thanksgiving. I’m usually good up to Thanksgiving and then I’m over it. I do like Chanukah, though, I do like a good Chanukah.

I think we’ve just about covered all of the important stuff- right? Wait— no we haven’t— all the particulars— like when and where all the people out in listener land can get ahold of this magical Christmas podcast— and where they can make donations— let’s go over all of that.

Henry: We said that, right? December 12th? The where… well… both J and I were talking about that earlier today. The fine print of where exactly it’s going to be available is still being hashed out. Like J said, we’ll be putting it on the Third Wall website, and in some format we will be putting it on the Third Wall Facebook page, also— hopefully, we can get it on all the various streaming podcast platforms. That’s the hope. As far as a donation goes, on the Third Wall website there is a place for that. The really nice thing about this project has been not having to foot the cost of a full stage production. And having A Christmas Carol in the public domain so that we can take it and adapt it and honor Charles Dickens but not have to pay his estate? That’s been really great.

I am so, so excited for this. Normally by this time of the year, myself and other TheatreBloom reviewers have covered a good dozen or two Christmas-productions, at least half of which are A Christmas Carol. I know personally, I miss it. So this is really something that’s going to pick me— and I hope so many others out there in the theatre community— up and put me in the holiday mood.

J: And it’s something you can just listen to. We created a world. There’s an audio language— and I am saying this as somebody who has already heard a good chunk of this show— but this is just— it’s gonna get you! You’re going to have the Christmas feels. We can’t wait to get it to your earholes!

A Christmas Carol can be found at https://thirdwall.org/ starting on Saturday December, 12, 2020. For more updates and information, please visit the website of check out Third Wall on their Facebook page.

*Performers are listed with their most recent Third Wall Productions’ involvement, but many have been involved in multiple Third Wall productions since the company’s inaugural show— Oliver!— in February of 2016.

 


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