Paul Morella calls his one- man production of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” a “pop-up book come to life.”
“The [audience] becomes a part of it because it is direct address,” says Morella about the style of performance in which a speaker or performer speaks directly to his audience.
Starting Friday, for the third year in a row, Olney Theatre presents Morella’s one-man play, “A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas.” Morella started writing the play in 2009 and, soon after, had it workshopped at the Arts Barn in Gaithersburg.
Unlike other versions of the classic Christmas tale audiences likely are to see this holiday season, Morella’s show is a narration with 99 percent of the play’s text coming directly from Dickens’ 19th century novella.
“The beauty of this piece is that it’s the actual ‘Christmas Carol,’” says Morella. “The real text and presented the way [Dickens] intended it to be told.”
Morella says the play is an “interactive combination of storytelling and theater.” Instead of acting out the story, Morella tells it to his audiences, as if he were sharing an original story for the very first time. But Morella is quick to point out that he’s not playing the part of Dickens.
“I don’t consider myself Charles Dickens but the Dickensian version of myself,” says Morella. “I think of myself not as an actor, but more as a guide on this ghost tour ... I don’t want it to be like [audiences] are detached observers.”
Morella might not think of himself as an actor, but he does voice upwards of 40 characters in “A Christmas Carol.”
“Sometimes I’ll play three characters in one scene,” he says.
Morella says he adjusts the tone of his voice or his stature to indicate a change in character.
The interactive nature of the show encourages audience involvement.
“It’s the kind of piece where it is very receptive to feedback,” says Morella. “I tell [audiences] some of the same things Dickens would tell his audiences ... ‘Feel free to respond happy or sad, without any apprehension’ ... it does create a kind of intimate, warm kind of dynamic ...“
In line with that warm environment Morella has tried to create, the playwright welcomes people into the theater before each show, chatting and giving them some background on what they’re going to see.
“It keeps with the informality of the whole experience,” says Morella. “They become a part of it.”
The gesture of hospitality, which has become a regular occurrence before every show, actually started out as somewhat of an accident, or at least a result of the circumstances.
“When I did [‘A Christmas Carol’] at the Arts Barn, I couldn’t afford to hire anyone and that’s why I was the one greeting everyone,” says Morella. “It helped put them at ease.”
Despite being able to make audiences comfortable, Morella admits people often are hesitant if they’ve never seen his “Christmas Carol” before.
“It’s hard for them to wrap their heads around,” says Morella. “‘How does this work, ‘A Christmas Carol’ with one person?’”
But Morella says audiences usually come around, even those who weren’t expecting to see “A Christmas Carol” at all.
“Last year, we had people mistakenly buy tickets because they thought they were coming to ‘The Sound of Music,’” says Morella. “But they stayed and had a great time.”
One-man shows are nothing new for Morella. He’s been producing another one-person play, “A Passion for Justice,” for the past 12 years and says he’s learned the dos and don’ts of one-man theater.
“Sometimes when a person does a one-man show, it’s more about them and that’s no fun for the audience,” says Morella. “I felt like I would be foolish to let anyone but Dickens be the star.”
Though this is his third year presenting the show, Morella says it’s never the same year to year.
“The great thing about it is it’s different and unique because [each] audience is different and unique,” says Morella.
Morella adds that the show evolves every year thanks to new things he discovers in the text.
“It’s almost like archeology,” says Morella. “Going back to the text and making new discoveries.”