Of the ghosts that haunt Albuquerque, our past, present and future struggles to help our neighbors experiencing homelessness are among the most daunting. It is hard to disagree with Mayor Tim Keller when he says, “homelessness is one of Albuquerque’s biggest challenges.” If we can solve that, we will have done so by solving so many other problems that contribute to the conditions that cause homelessness in our city. If art has a role in finding solutions to that problem, its most useful tool may be offering perspective. Playwright Pete Parkin has adapted the Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, cast it with actors playing the homeless and set it in Albuquerque circa 2019 to do just that. Albuquerque is far from Dickensian London, but we could be further.
Weekly Alibi sat down with Parkin to talk about his inspiration to adapt the classic play, homelessness and a little bit about the Christmas spirit. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
Weekly Alibi: Should we call you the writer and the director of An Adobe Christmas Carol?
Pete Parkin: I'm the adapter and the director.
Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol at a time when he was struggling financially and was said to have developed the characters and tone by walking miles around London for weeks at night. What was your process?
The first thing was the theater that I was working with in Los Angeles, North Hollywood, California. It was an interesting place. It had been the San Fernando Valley Stock Exchange way back when, which was originally a round building. Progress came in and they kept dragging streets through it, so that all that was left was one quarter of the pie that had a round back and a nice big lot adjacent to it. It had been a community center and these two guys that were actors somehow made a deal with the older couple who owned the property to rent the space for a dollar a year. They turned it into a theater. The area that it was in was practically in the barrio and there were a lot of homeless in the area, to the point where we found families that had snuck into our backyard, as it were, where we had a lot of props and storage and that sort of thing, living there. Sometimes even on the front porch of the theater. I hadn't seen it up close before, the desperation. That was sort of the impetus for (the play). We needed something at Christmas time, a Christmas show that we could do on a regular basis every year that's not going to cost us a lot of money. We had just done a play on Tobacco Road about that era when people were homeless. I said, what if we have some homeless people break into whatever set is on stage from the last show and then we'll adapt it to that. They said, that's crazy, but go ahead if you want to try it. So, I did. The first one was a 1930s diner with the counter and all that kind of stuff. It worked beautifully. The audience loved it. So different than any Christmas Carol.
The actors are portraying people experiencing homelessness?
The setting can be anywhere. Where is it this time?
This setting is Albuquerque, New Mexico at the Adobe Theater on Christmas Eve 2019. They'd come in that side door off the street at the top of the play.
How do you adapt A Christmas Carol and at the same time reflect the reality of people experiencing homeless?
They're the people that are coming in just to get out of a cold. They're all kind of down and out. They have all their stuff, their sleeping bags and somebody has a shopping cart. They find some old Christmas decorations. They're looking for stuff to burn to get warm. Somebody finds some old play scripts and somebody naturally, conveniently, finds a copy of A Christmas Carol. Somebody says, “Hey, you know what, why don't we read it and see what happens. We'll take our minds off being cold.” So, they do and they use the things that are found, in this case, in a theater that doesn't have anybody in it. A couple of racks of costumes. An old door becomes Scrooge’s bed on some milk crates. Another time it sits on two sawhorses and becomes the Cratchits’ dinner table. At one point, Christmas Past in the second act comes in in the shopping cart. It's a great entrance. A character takes it on to start to read as a narrator. That helps you skip around a lot of stuff and brings the audience up to speed.
Many adaptations try to find a way to make the play funny. Dickens’ version is decidedly not funny. Is yours?
There's humor in it. At the end when the poulterers come in to bring Scrooge the Christmas goose for the Cratchits, all they can find is a rubber chicken. That kind of stuff. No theater I've ever been in didn't have a [rubber] chicken somewhere.
A Christmas Carol is primarily about regret and redemption. What is the regret and what is the redemption in your version?
It's the same old story.
It's the story within the story?
It's a story within the story. The homelessness is in front of everybody for the whole evening. At the end, we have somebody come out with a shopping cart full of hot spiced apple cider. We bring it onstage and we share it with the audience. It's not really a regular curtain call.
Is there a message in the play about homelessness?
I think you can't get away from it. It's my feeling that the overall theme is, wouldn’t it be nice if we could all take the time to treat each other the way we do at Christmas [during] the rest of the year?
You've partnered with Roadrunner Food Bank for this production. How can theatergoers help?
Bring in [non-perishable] food. We take a trip there every week with what we get in the lobby.