Ghost writing

It’s the 20th anniversary of A Christmas Carol, and at this point you probably think of the Sacramento Theatre Company’s evergreen adaptation—penned by playwright Richard Hellesen—as a fixture on the seasonal landscape. But for Hellesen, the show was a breakthrough—and now the source of many memories.

“It was the first commission I ever got,” Hellesen recalled. “Dennis Bigelow, the artistic director at that time, wanted a new version for STC, written for the company.”

Back then, there weren’t many Equity-level shows in Sacramento. Bigelow was out to change that. “Dennis was the one, along with Carson Wiley, who took STC from a community theater to a professional theater,” Hellesen said.

Hellesen recalls Bigelow’s energy. “He was incessant. During rehearsals, he’d get up like he was conducting an orchestra. And we really fed off that.”

Bigelow paired Hellesen with actor/house composer David de Berry. “Everything David did was infused with theatricality,” Hellesen remembers. And the composer put a great deal of thought into the music. “He knew what he wanted,” Hellesen said. “I recently found a letter from him—he wrote ‘I’m a hopeless perfectionist. … I’ve sweated over every note of this music.’”

The rehearsals for this ambitious production were long, arduous and sometimes chaotic. But the new adaptation clicked with audiences—and then took on a life of its own, becoming established in other cities. “There were five productions around the country last year, and four this year,” Hellesen said.

Of the three main creators, only Hellesen is around to appreciate the 20th anniversary. De Berry died in 1995, taken by AIDS. Bigelow moved north for an ill-fated attempt to establish a Portland stage for the Ashland festival. He died in 2005.

For Hellesen, who continues to write plays while teaching at American River College, the show is now a literal brush with powerful ghosts from Christmas past. “There are songs that I hear that break me up. When Fan comes out to sing her song in Act I, I’m gone.”

But he remains fond of the piece. “It’s like having a very successful child that goes out in the world and sends you checks”—a nice feeling for a playwright. “That’s the surprise … that it’s done as well as it has, for as long as it has,” Hellesen said. “I don’t think any of us would have guessed that when I first wrote it.”