Pop-up production of "A Christmas Carol" a holiday tradition

Contact Reporterhbridges@vagazette.com

The 2,000-pound trailer has a way of turning heads.

From the minute it rolls into Merchants Square, seemingly out of place amid 18th-century-style buildings decked in holiday greenery, to the moment it opens to reveal a fully outfitted, 5-by-8-foot stage — the setting for a 30-minute production of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."

It's the Virginia Theatre Machine, the brainchild of Mark Lerman, and turning heads is the point.

"Often, street theater is a couple of people and a few props," Lerman said. "Ultimately, why I'm doing this gets into the motivation for the Virginia Theatre Machine, which was how do I introduce people to theater in a way that's, what I think, a full theater experience."

When he started the company, now in its ninth year presenting the Dickens' classic for free in Merchants Square, Lerman never anticipated the productions would become a holiday tradition. Nearly 4,000 to 5,000 people see "A Christmas Carol" each year, he said, and many families return.

"I've seen kids grow up," Lerman said.

The ice cream dream

The idea hit Lerman while mowing the lawn.

After 15 years running a small professional theater in Rhode Island, The Perishable Theatre, Lerman and his family moved to Williamsburg in 2005. But he found Williamsburg didn't have many professional theater options and began exploring other outlets.

While mowing the lawn on a stifling summer day, Lerman thought he found the solution, though he admitted the heat might have added an element of delusion. Why not start a gourmet ice cream truck with a puppet stage, too?

He bounced the idea off Jeremy Woodward, a friend and fellow theater professional, who countered: "Why not take this idea and build a trailer and ditch the idea of ice cream, because you really know nothing about ice cream," Lerman recalled, laughing.

With dreams of gourmet ice cream dashed, Virginia Theatre Machine was born. Lerman's not too upset.

After Lerman got the gig at Colonial Williamsburg's Merchants Square, construction began on the trailer, designed and built by Woodward primarily. Lerman also started assembling the rest of the team, which has largely remained the same for the past nine years: master thespian Ed Whitacre, sound designer Bart Fasbender and costume designer Janea Whitacre.

"One of the things about the Virginia Theatre Machine is a commitment to having a fully realized theatrical production in a portable, small space," Lerman said. "It's a very tiny footprint, but the set is pretty extensive."

The stage, at 5-by-8 feet, is lit from three sides. It's outfitted with everything from a fog machine to a desk that pulls down into a bed. Believe it or not, the stage is larger than an anxiety-inducing 3-by-8-foot backstage packed with props, costumes, sound and lighting equipment. Everything has its place, and Lerman has his movements backstage precisely choreographed.

"Shaving seconds matters," he said.

An impossible task

The Virginia Theatre Machine take on "A Christmas Carol" is a story within a story. Those familiar with the 30-minute production know the shtick: Master Thespian Ed Whitacre, played for the past nine years by Ed Whitacre, and Stage Manager Bob, Lerman's character, attempt to perform the Dickens' classic in under 20 minutes. Every year, they fail for a different reason.

"This year, we hope it's going to work," a joking Lerman said.

He rewrites the show every year. This year, Master Thespian steps onstage only to discover Stage Manager Bob has gone to Europe and sent a mime in his place. Laughs ensue.

Gary Dawson, from Arlington, and his sister Doreen Hoppy, of Buffalo, N.Y., lingered after a Sunday afternoon performance to talk with Whitacre and Lerman. The siblings have visited Colonial Williamsburg on Grand Illumination weekend almost every year since 2009. That was the first year they saw Virginia Theatre Machine's "A Christmas Carol," and they've seen nearly every version since.

"They're very witty and clever, and they do so much with so little," Dawson said.

Whitacre and Lerman make it look easy. Of course, it's not.

"You have to be on 200 percent of the time. Your audience is not trapped the way they are in a theater," Lerman said. "You're fighting a ton of distractions, you're fighting the cold, so you have make sure that every second you're out there there is something happening and that is engaging them."

Whitacre has performed around the region for more than 30 years, but he said Virginia Theatre Machine is unlike anything he's done before. He enjoys the challenge.

"The awareness of the audience, I think, is heightened. And how to react to them, because it's so close up," he said.

Making theater accessible

Curious onlookers often linger, heads turned by the trailer, as Lerman and Whitacre set up. Some might camp out, waiting for shows to start, and others walk up midway through the production. You'll often find children sitting on the ground at the front of the audience.

"I think it's a good way to expose people to theater, to see that it can be done that way, that it's not just some 'Let's put on a show,'" Whitacre said. "There's value in that, but there's value in making it simple and making it accessible."

Lerman believes live theater is more important now than ever, a way to connect amid the isolating effects of technology.

"I think street theater, which is ultimately what I'm doing, is a very in-your-face way of bringing theater to people, often to a group of people who might not otherwise go to theater," he said.

Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.

To see a show

Visit virginiatheatremachine.com or email virginiatheatremachine@cox.net.

All performances occur in Merchants Square. Visit merchantssquare.org/events for weather cancellations and rain dates.

Dec. 10, 17 and 24 - 3:30, 5 p.m.

Dec. 11 and 18 - 12:30, 3:30 and 5 p.m.

Cost: Free

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