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Dancing With Dickens

Ilove happy endings,” says Eric Johnston, my jovial guide to a new retelling of the tale of Ebeneezer Scrooge.

I mean, it’s no spoiler alert that Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, in any variation, lands on a joyful note, but I quickly gain the impression that the Scrooge story I’m about to encounter will be quite different indeed. Now switching gears, Johnston launches into a true recollection of a Christmas that wasn’t all carols, gifts, and figgy pudding to prepare his audience for their own holiday reflection and thoughts of change.

Dickens may have been the first author to place his humanitarian concerns in the context of a holiday fable. However, Good Medicine Productions and director Kristie Koehler Vuocolo seek to personalize those concerns with Uptown Scrooge, an interactive, improv-based performance/walking tour of ten businesses in Uptown Westerville where the audience collectively takes upon the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, introspection and all.

“It’s one of my favorite stories because of the moment—the happy ending,” Koehler Vuocolo confesses. “But in order for an audience to really get there, I want them to experience it. I think to feel that joy you have to go through the journey with the actors. That’s the unique style of this piece and our aesthetic.”

Raising a hand into a coil and rotating it, Koehler Vuocolo explains what Uptown Scrooge is. “That’s what we’re trying to do with A Christmas Carol. Dickens is our umbrella, and we take that story and we twist it and twirl it and make it our own.”

Koehler Vuocolo, a Westerville native, made a recent return to Columbus to be with family after spending two decades in the Chicago improv comedy scene working with groups such as Chicago’s Neofuturists and Barrel of Monkeys, a sketch comedy writing project for students in Chicago’s urban schools. She was also a member of the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit, an ensemble that uses improv and clown performance to uplift the ill. However, shortly after returning to Columbus, the birth of her son and the unexpected death of her mother left Vuocolo questioning her purpose.

“For a while, I was in this fog here, missing my art community in Chicago—in a fog of grief and a new baby kind of thing. And then last December I started listening to Hamilton the musical and it opened up something inside me.”

In Koehler Vuocolo’s Christmas stocking that December was a note from her husband that said, “Kristie, don’t ever feel stuck. Go see Hamilton and make some art in 2016.” It was accompanied by a ticket to see Hamilton on January 23, 2016.

That date unfortunately happened to coincide with a blizzard that shut down the entire New York theater district, so a group of Vuocolo’s friends pooled together enough money to buy her a replacement ticket for the fourth row of the show. The pilgrimage became her creative unblocking.

“It was all for the sake of art. No one died. It was like love and art, and it was a really moving experience,” she explained. “I felt that when it was done, I had a duty to create something here.”

Koehler Vuocolo took her background in improv and creative nonfiction and began to write a script that would bring together both spontaneity and transformation. During Uptown Scrooge, Scrooge (as played by the audience) is taken on a journey. They encounter Bob Cratchit at a coffee shop furiously typing away on a laptop; join the Fezziwigs in the cha-cha slide at the entryway of 8 State Bistro; and finally, they face the Ghost of Christmas Future (and redemption) at The Parlor—a holistic and metaphysical center. All the while fending off volunteers from the Westerville Area Resource Ministry (WARM) as they ask for donations, with a “Bah Humbug!” or two along the way.

WARM serves Westerville residents in need year-round, providing material assistance and paths to self-sufficiency through education and mentoring. While ticket sales will go to Good Medicine Productions, Vuocolo hopes that the experience of stepping into Ebenezer Scrooge’s shoes will encourage the audience to consider a donation to WARM as well.

Uptown Scrooge is interactive, but introverts shouldn’t be worried about having a “singing waiter” moment—good actors read the room and support each individual’s desired level of participation. Koehler Vuocolo hopes that both children and adults will find a certain magic in caroling on the streets.

“That’s where our improvisation comes—taking audience reaction and celebrating whatever they give us.”

Uptown Scrooge will run Saturday and Sunday afternoons through December 18. A portion of proceeds directly benefit the signature programming of Good Medicine, which serves pediatric and senior living  facilities.

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