SKANEATELES — Ed Becker of Nelson can’t help himself, donning Victorian England garb and mingling with Skaneateles shoppers at Christmas time, pretending to be “Old Joe,” a pawn broker in a Dickens-era story.
The 67-year-old is taking part in the 28th Dickens Christmas, where theater players mix fantasy with history to add to the holiday cheer, creating a Renaissance fair-like atmosphere in the lakeside village.
“Except for the pandemic year, I’ve been doing this about 20 years,” said Becker, a mathematician, on Nov. 14, at a practice session for improv techniques at the First Presbyterian Church on East Genesee Street.
“At the root core, it’s fun,” He said. “I really have a blast giving tired shoppers something to smile about. And I love singing.”
Dickens’ Christmas, which brings characters from “A Christmas Carol” to life, opened Nov. 26 and runs weekends through Dec. 24. It takes place noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays in downtown Skaneateles. An abbreviated show takes place noon to 2:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve. At 2 p.m. at the gazebo in the park, a mass Christmas carol sing-along is not to be missed, Becker said.
Jim Greene of Dryden, the producing director of the show, and the “czar” of Scarlett Rat Entertainment, which sponsors the event, plays Dickens.
Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor
Jim Greene of Dryden.“Our premise is that Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria are visiting Skaneateles. It is 1842. But this is not historical, he said. “Queen Victoria was never here. Charles Dickens did visit Syracuse and traveled on the Erie Canal,” he said, but as far as he knows, Dickens never made it to Skaneateles.
Dickens’ friend, Washington Irving, author of the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” also makes an appearance as Dickens is walking around the village seeking inspiration for his story.
“(The queen) wants me to write ‘A Christmas Story,’” Greene says of his Dickens character. “In reality, Dickens published ‘A Christmas Carol’ in 1843. We’re theater people. We are not trying to be historical.”
In the Skaneateles version, Dickens meets Ebenezer Scrooge, a Skaneateles businessman, Greene said. “We meet Jacob Marley. This year we have Tiny Tim. I don’t have a Bob Cratchit. The cast changes every year. … It’s not just Dickens characters but Skaneateles people.”
Photo provided by Sandi Mulconry
Scrooge has a fancy for dogs! A scene from a past Dickens Christmas in Skaneateles.
Like the McGlaughlin family who developed the teasel industry, growing the thistle-like plants to comb wool. The Skaneateles area shipped the plants all over the world.
“We mostly have fun,” Greene said. “We mostly walk around and talk to people. And we sing carols.”
He’s working with a cast half the usual size, because of strict COVID policies. His cast is vaccinated and wore their masks while practicing. During the Dickens Christmas, the Skaneateles Chamber of Commerce recommends people wear masks indoors.
“A lot of us have an improv background,” said Greene, who’s job is acting year round at Renaissance festivals across the country. “Not everyone has to be on the big screen. We just want people to walk around, say ‘happy Christmas’ look them in the eye, be excited. The people of 1842 Skaneateles are very excited that Dickens and Queen Victoria are visiting.”
There is a group of pick pockets (who do not pick visitors’ pocketbooks in real life), upper-class school girls and others in the mix. The cast are volunteers led by professional actors.
The crew meet at 2 p.m. daily at the gazebo by the lake to sing Christmas carols for the queen and the visitors.
“It’s pretty fun. There are horse-drawn wagon rides, samples of chestnuts being given away,” Greene said.
Emma Carver, 17, of Marcellus, a high school senior, is making her debut as the Ghost of Christmas Past. She’s been doing the show since she was 9.
“It’s just kind of become a tradition for me. It’s part of my Christmas,” she said. “It’s a really fun experience.”
But improv is weird, she said. “I am a very reserved person normally. It’s hard for me to step out.”
Getting in costume helps. “You are a whole different person,” Carver said. “Your job is to make everyone’s Christmas a little better. It’s easier in costume.”
She’s been a finishing school girl, a Skaneateles historical figure, Fanny Seward, and an apple vendor. Being a ghost is a bigger role.
Eve Fouser, 12, of Skaneateles, a seventh-grader, will play Tiny Tim. This is her first time.
“I mostly have to walk around with crutches, be nice, and say, ‘Merry Christmas to all and God bless us everyone,’” she said. “I was in a group chat with my friends. They were talking about Dickens. I’ve loved Dickens my whole life. ‘We should do that. Let’s sign up together.’”
Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor
Eve Fouser, left, a 12-year-old Skaneateles girl, will play Tiny Tim this year. She learns basics of improv with Tabitha Whitney.
The cast sat in a circle as Maria DeMitchell led them in improv techniques.
Each member had to say, “Whaaaaa” to one person and look him or her in the eye and turn to another person and say Whhaaaa” to them.
Another technique: A person had to say, “Jeepers Creepers” with their head dropped. DeMitchell would say, ‘1, 2, 3 Jeepers Creepers.’ The person would look up, look to the right and the left. When they see someone, they had to scream.
The actors were learning to pay attention to their subject, look them in their eyes, be loud enough to hear over their masks, and be positive.
Don’t resist the crowed, said DeMitchell, go along with what they say and expand on it.
“The goal is to play together,” she said. “If you offer resistance, there is no play.”
Becker and Fouser found the “Whaaaa” exercise most helpful.
“I think people don’t focus on each other in conversation,” Becker said. “This helps us focus on each other.”