The actor Katie McFadzen was feeling grateful.
When the Herberger Theater Center built an outdoor stage and asked its resident companies to propose work they might present on it, professional kids’ theater Childsplay offered McFadzen’s one-person take on A Christmas Carol.
“They asked and I said, ‘Hell, yes!’” is how she remembered it. “The opportunities for an actor to perform during a pandemic are rare, and I feel lucky and thankful.”
She’d performed the piece, which she adapted with director Matthew Wiener in 2014, twice before — once for Arizona Theatre Company and later for Childsplay, where McFadzen is a longtime associate artist. For this production, she and Wiener trimmed the play down to 70 minutes. “You’re outside and it’s nighttime and it can get cold,” she pointed out. “You don’t want to ask people to sit there for a long time.”
McFadzen, who plays all of Charles Dickens’ Carol characters in the one-act, likes the strict COVID protocols the Herberger has in place. But it’s sad to live in a time when a theater staff has to disinfect audience seating after each show, when masking and social distancing are mandatory. “The closest audience member to me is 12 feet away,” she explained. “It seems like a lot farther.”
She was glad to be far from virtual rehearsing, she admitted. “You have an actor in one room, the stage manager in another one, and the director is at his house. You’re rehearsing via Zoom. Which is crazy. You can’t have two people talking at once, because no one gets heard, and the director would give me a note to change something and I’d say, ‘I did that. Did you not see it?’”
Acting outdoors in downtown Phoenix meant plenty of what McFadzen called “unknown city noises” during any performance.
“I thought a helicopter was going to land onstage one night,” she recalled. “We had the St. Mary’s Basilica bells going off a lot. That was cool, but it never happened in the right spot. And I think there are more cars with noisy mufflers driving past the Herberger than any other place in town. Believe me.”
Smells were a thing, too: “Some nights I’ll get wafts of deep-fried chicken wings from the Hooters across the street. The other night there was a huge puff of killer marijuana floating in the air. I was thinking, ‘Wait, is someone in the audience smoking that?’”
A good actor can dodge smells and sounds while working, McFadzen said. “Especially in a one-person show, I’ve gotta be on my game the whole time. There’s no stopping; you have to keep rowing.”
She didn’t love working in virtual, online theater, but thought it was important for artists to keep creating. “I applaud everyone who is providing something for their audience and keeping their company alive,” was how she put it. “At first, my attitude was I’d do whatever I could to stay involved and relevant. But then I got tired of trying to make virtual work of quality. It didn’t bring me joy. It made me sad. So I stopped. But that’s just me. Other people are having different experiences. There are some good virtual play readings and stuff.”
McFadzen wants to think we’ll all come out of the pandemic with some gratitude about things we once took for granted. “People who’ve come down to see A Christmas Carol have said how grateful they are to see a live performance after nine months of not going to the theater.
“But it’s strange to even think about a time where we’re considering whether it’s safe to go to the store or the movies.” She paused for a beat. “Or the theater.”