How Tyler Johnson Grimes Gave New Life To ‘A Christmas Ghost Story’
Though Tyler Johnson Grimes hasn’t always been the biggest fan of A Christmas Carol, he also didn’t find it hard to start getting excited about putting his own spin on the classic story. After his successful, Carbonell-nominated turn as the sound and Foley designer of last season’s radio play version of It’s A Wonderful Life, Grimes was tapped by New City Players’ team of artistic leaders to write an original adaptation of Charles Dickens’ famous holiday tale, a task for which his extensive background in playwriting left him exceptionally well prepared.
After leaving Florida to study theatre education at NYU, he would go on to serve as resident playwright and managing director of New York’s Distilled Theatre Company. But, eventually, he would move back after being offered a position at Lovewell Institute for the Creative Arts, where he had previously created original work as a student and could now guide others through the process.
Since, he has come to realize that the home front is the “best place” for himself. This is especially true now that, via New City Players, he has also found a place for himself in the local theater community—one where he has the privilege of making art with collaborators who he also considers friends.
Like most, Grimes has been familiar with A Christmas Carol for most of his life. “You’re just sort of just born knowing it… you can’t escape it,” he reflects.
And though he’s had a few adaptations of the story he’s been particularly partial to over the years, he admits that he’s often found other theatrical adaptations of the story lacking in the “excitement”. Not that he necessarily blames other playwrights for not breaking the mold- since, after all, the traditional story is what many people want to see – but he was always more impressed by versions that were able to do something new with the story.
But, after being presented with the opportunity to put his own spin on Christmas Carol during preliminary meetings about the project with the New City Players team, he realized that the prospect of trying his own hand at bringing something fresh to the story is one that he found quite exciting. And he felt even more inspired after coming across the recent movie adaptation Spirited—which, though not among Grimes’ favorite Christmas carol takes, is one that he found impressively clever and that succeeded in doing something genuinely original with the new tale.
So after being approached by NCP’s creative team in late spring of this year, he put together three potential outlines for what his own version of Christmas Carol might look like. And the one that they found most promising was actually the one that Grimes preferred as well! His concept utilizes the same core conceit as It’s A Wonderful Life, in which the play’s actors play a set of performers who are themselves performing a radio version of A Christmas Carol in front of a live studio audience.
But this time, he takes the conceit a step further by incorporating a parallel story for the actors to play out, which eventually overtakes the Carol they are performing to become the main action. The show is also set in the same “world” as It’s A Wonderful Life—with central character Alistair Filmore being the son of host Freddie Filmore—which is a world that Grimes also described himself as having become very attached to while working on last year’s production. Thus, it was important to him that this show felt like a part of that world, continuing the process of “world-building” that NCP had begun. Thus, anyone who was lucky enough to see last year’s show will get to enjoy a few extra callbacks, though Grimes also made sure that the work would be just as accessible to new viewers.
Another shaping force for Grimes’ adaptation was his love of horror and the Halloween season, which, along with the Christmas season, is one of his favorite times of year. Christmas Carol is, after all, a ghost story—and Grimes wanted his version to feel like a ghost story again.
“One that still had all those sort of warm christmas fuzzies, but sort of made you work a little harder to get them,” he describes.
“I think ghost stories have a really great opportunity for people to reflect upon their lives, and the things that might kind of haunt them in their own day to day existence. ”
While developing the work, which Grimes also describes as “a very faithful adaptation until it isn’t,” he spent a lot of time immersing himself in all things Christmas Carol—reading and watching various adaptations of it and closely studying Dickens original, which he noted was short enough that he would sometimes read the whole thing more than once in a day! He wanted to be “very specific” in the ways that his version broke away from that original, but not for them to be so jarring that audience members felt like they were watching a different play.
“The idea is that you almost don’t even realize that you’re no longer watching the Christmas Carol you know, and you’re watching something entirely different,” he describes.
Achieving this effect and drawing out the parallels between these two stories took a process of writing and rewriting, during which Grimes describes characters continuously being changed around until a final script was achieved. From there, it was up and into the rehearsal process, during which he had the chance to see the show’s cast “elevate” the piece into something “more than it ever could have been without them.”
“The way that they bring so many different characters to life, and they’re also doing that while adding all of these wonderful folly sound effects, and then dealing with the fact that it’s a ghost story where things get weird… It’s been very very cool seeing all of that work,” he says.
So far, judging by audience response to and formal reviews of the work, the show’s viewers have found it very cool as well! But if all the holiday cheer and sound effect fun weren’t enough reason to go see A Christmas Carol, Grimes is also hopeful that his version of the work highlights the same powerful truths that the story now has for centuries.
“The idea that nobody is past the point of being humbled, and being saved,” he says.
“During the coldest time of the year, that we can still be reached, and we can be warmed back up, and that we can make these connections with these people. And that sort of central line that everyone associates with A Christmas Carol, God bless us everyone . . . that is something that we can believe in. Everyone deserves a second chance, deserves our patience, and deserves that memory connection.”
And because his version brings a “new angle” a story most are already so familiar with, he also hopes audience members may find something in it that they didn’t notice before, or perhaps that connects to them personally. Grimes will next be showcasing his masterful sound design skills in New City Players’ upcoming world premiere of Vanessa Garcia’s 1000 Miles, and is looking forward to the opportunity to jump into something brand new. And while he hopes that he’ll be able to revisit the radio play genre in the future, in the meantime you would be remiss to miss his Christmas Carol!