The year was 1991, the month was December. The actor Patrick Stewart, then in the middle of his Jean-Luc Picard-Star Trek: The Next Generation years, was announced to make his not-quite-debut on Broadway in a solo version of A Christmas Carol that Stewart himself adapted directly from the Dickens classic. It was his “not-quite-debut” because Stewart had appeared on the Great White Way once before, back in 1971, in a Royal Shakespeare Company revival of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that most theatregoers, respectfully, probably did not remember (even if it was directed by the unsurpassable Peter Brook). And if some folks did remember it, again respectfully, they probably did not remember his performance as Tom Snout, one of the mechanicals. How rude, we know.
In retrospect, of course, producing Patrick Stewart’s A Christmas Carol was a real slam-dunk: Stewart’s star was huge then, huge as it is now, and the play became an informal New York performance staple, returning to the boards in 1992 and again in 1994 and again in 2001. Clearly the skeptics about the show, and they certainly did exist, were fools at best, idiots at worst — the reviews was raves and the audiences were rapt. Producer Timothy Childs saw something well beyond the novelty of Stewart’s fame and name recognition; he sensed that wonderful thing about the play itself that the professional naysayers and nincompoops did not. He was smart to do that, instinctual even. That’s called producing.
You might say that Childs — who almost always co-produces with his wife, Terri — specialize in leaps of faith and landing on their feet. Like any commercial producers, they’ve gotten into some tabloid-worthy scrapes along the way, but bumps and bruises are implicit in their profession: you can’t scale mountains if you’re not brave in the first place. And you sense the bravery in their choice of projects — not just Patrick Stewart doing the dickens out of Dickens but everything from Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, the musical version of the camp film in which they produced and invested, to one of Arthur Miller’s final Broadway outings, Broken Glass, which not a few critics disputed as shattering drama. There’s a great bio of Timothy Childs on his blog, iblogbroadway, and overall the Childs’ achievements speak for themselves.
Now, more than 20 years after the Childs’ first Dickens dabble, they’re back with another one, but this time not with a solo version but a five-actor version by Patrick Barlow, whose kicky and kooky stage version of The 39 Steps racked up 771 performances in three Broadway theatres in both nonprofit and commercial runs during the ’00s. Barlow’s take (which the Childs’ are co-producing by the ever-enduring Rodger Hess), has its own minimalist ethos: there is little onstage but five actors (Peter Bradbury, Mark Light-Orr, Jessie Shelton, Franca Vercelloni and Mark Price), a few props, and Joe Calarco‘s fine direction.
In other words, if you see A Christmas Carol at Theatre at St. Clement’s (423 W. 46th St., 212-239-6200), where it runs until Jan. 4, you’ll have to use your imagination. Can you imagine? How wonderful! And how wonderfully brave.
And now, 5 questions Terri and Timothy Childs have never been asked:
1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
Terri: “For a Broadway show, how do you choose between casting a star, who will sell tickets and give a good performance, and a non-star who is a much better stage actor?” My answer has changed over time. When we first started producing, 25 years ago, I would have cast the better actor, believing the tickets would sell off the quality of the show. That’s still the right approach for a musical, but if you’re casting a Broadway or London play, you better have a star.
Tim: “Would you produce a play you knew would be absolutely wonderful but you felt sure would lose money?” I both produce and direct, so my director’s head says “Sure, I would”, but my producer’s head says “Are you out of your mind??!!” Since I’ve yet to meet an investor who doesn’t care if he loses his investment, my producer’s head rules, while my director’s head sulks.
2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
Terri: “How do the lead actors memorize all those lines?” Because actors have to memorize lines, and they’re actors.
Tim: “I want to co-produce with you, but I want to be the producer who deals with the artistic part of the production. Is that okay?” Not no, hell no! Every producer — everyone in the theater — thinks he or she has a brilliant artistic eye. Leaving aside the question of whether that’s true (it’s not), one becomes a producer by investing or raising money. It’s an easy-entry position if you can do one or the other of those two things.
3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
Terri: Our first production was Patrick Stewart’s A Christmas Carol. We tried to get several producers to come in with us, but none would. One suggested we get lobotomies. Then the tickets started flying out of the box office, and one of those who turned us down asked if it was too late to come in. I think he was kidding.
Tim: “Will you join me in producing a show about a masturbating ape?” True. No, really. The question wasn’t put in those terms, but the play — Prymate, which departed Broadway in a week — featured a masturbating ape. Apparently not a lot of theatergoers were that kind of kinky.
4) Please answer the Passover question: Why is this Christmas Carol different from every other one — including the Patrick Stewart Christmas Carol? How will you plan make audiences see the difference?
Terri and Tim: That’s easy to answer on both counts. This adaptation, for five actors, is by the writer of The 39 Steps, Patrick Barlow. By producing this five-actor version, and Patrick Stewart’s one-man version years ago, we may have produced the two most unique versions of A Christmas Carol ever. The one-man version was a tour de force for Patrick Stewart, the five-actor version a tour de force for Patrick Barlow and our director, Joe Calarco. We make ticket-buyers aware of the difference by mentioning The 39 Steps, which paints an immediate, and we hope compelling, picture of what they’ll see.
5) There are supposedly many rules of thumb for theatre producing, like “never invest your own money.” Which of these “rules” is spot-on? Which is complete BS? Why?
Tim: I’ve never been much on rules of thumb, but I’d sadly have to say casting a star in a Broadway play is spot-on. The BS rule of thumb is “never to put your own money in a show.” I agree with that most of the time, but we’ve done very well putting our own money in selected shows.
6) Is there a property you know is totally not producible but which you totally love anyway and would give your back molars to produce? You can name the property if you like, but more to the point, what makes you love it so much? Just generally, what kind of property really gets your hearts beating faster?
Tim: My first directing gig was Pirandello’s Six Actors in Search of an Author, which we did in a since-demolished 99-seat theater on 42nd Street. I love plays where the audience needs to decide what’s real and what’s fantasy. Six Characters has been commercially produced a couple of times, both dismal failures at the box office. I’d love to produce it, if I could direct the show, of course, but can’t imagine raising money for the production, or putting our own money in.