Full of Christmas Spirit
Jim Greene doubts he resembles Charles Dickens, the character he has portrayed each December for the past eight years. But the actor, who produces and is executive director of the annual Dickens’ Christmas festival in Skaneateles, does have a youthful sensibility and is filled with good humor. Biographers have attributed both traits to the enduringly popular 19th-century English writer whose A Christmas Carol inspired the lake-front celebration.
Greene, a former Floridian who honed his improvisational skills at Disney’s Epcot Center, lives in what he describes as a “150-year-old money pit with apple trees and a pond.” He treasures the life he and his wife, Tracey, have made for their family in Dryden. The couple has three children, the youngest a high school senior.
Dickens’ Christmas has grown from a low-key event enjoyed mostly by village residents to an annual mainstay that draws interest from all over Central New York. Other festival staff include artistic director Maria Wechsler and music director Kelly Stallard.
Besides the actors doing street theater in Victorian costumes, weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve are filled with sing-alongs, readings and special performances. Greene needs 40 to 50 actors to handle all the Dickens-inspired activity.
This year, Greene and his cast be seen in “A Very Merry Musical,” a mix of English tradition, comedy and holiday music. The performance takes place Saturday, Dec. 15, 5 p.m., at the First Presbyterian Church in Skaneateles. (Call 685-0552 for more information.)
Throughout the year, Greene juggles other acting projects. Central New Yorkers may recognize him from his summer gig, playing Rat Catcher Emrys Fleet at the Sterling Renaissance Festival. His work takes him all over the Northeast. Greene says he is grateful to be among those whose job description includes spreading a little holiday spirit. He chatted with Family Times about it during a recent interview.
Q: How has the festival changed in the eight years you have been producer?
A:When I came in eight years ago, it was already established. This is an event that was started by the merchants in Skaneateles to draw people to the area for some holiday shopping—to make it something special. Steve Dornan (who had been artistic director of the festival for years) had to stop, and he asked me to step up. So I started Scarlett Rat Entertainment, my own little production company, and relied heavily on my contacts from the Sterling Renaissance Festival.
We did change the scenario in which the festival takes place. Instead of Skaneateles being the setting for the story Dickens wrote, we have it set in 1842; Skaneateles was actually there back then. We have Dickens visiting Skaneateles before he writes these characters. So we kind of set the village as the place where he meets these characters which form the story.
Q: How much do you actually draw from the original story?
A: Each weekend of the festival we focus on a different chapter of the book, basically two-minute glimpses from the story. This is a story people are familiar with, and we hope they take something away from this. But we don’t pretend to be literary experts. We are entertainers. Dickens never was in Skaneateles. But framing the story in that way adds something. It’s about giving the people an experience.
Q:Why do you think Central New Yorkers are so drawn to Dickensian Christmas imagery?
A: I would say that, No. 1, it’s fun. The fact that people are interacting with you is a different experience than going to see a play or a reading of the same story. It’s just a happy, positive experience.
It gets crowded, but it’s a different kind of crowded than at the mall. And that kind of ties in with what Dickens was saying with his story—having compassion for one another.
Q: How big a role do young people have in the festival?
A: We have about a dozen, maybe 15, children in the cast. I think it’s awesome. I have the privilege of watching these young people grow up, as many of them have been involved for years. We want them to enjoy themselves, but we also institute a sense of values and pride for what they are doing.
The youngest kid was 7 when he started, then we have people in their 60s. The cast is like a big, giant extended family and we really promote a positive atmosphere. I think the people who come to the festival pick up on that, too.
Q: When children come to the festival, do you get many questions about the period in which A Christmas Carol is set, or about the story itself?
A: We get some of that. But we’re entertainers, not educators. I play Dickens, but I’m not a re-enactor. But by engaging the kids personally with something like this, you’re sparking an interest. Kids ask their parents about the story and, perhaps, that leads them to the book.
Q: Do you get questions from aspiring actors during the festival?
A: I do. In any audience there are young people who are interested in theater or performance. I just tell them, “Do what you love to do and do it with passion.” You can apply that to anything.
Q: How do you juggle family life during the holiday season, when the festival keeps you so busy?
A: My wife, Tracey, is brilliant and awesome and has taken such great care of this family. I just wouldn’t be able to do this without her. Yes, I miss stuff, not just while the festival is going on, but during the year when I’m doing other projects and have to travel. But I try to be there when I can. My kids know I’m there for them, and Tracey knows what it’s like to be doing this. (She’s played both Queen Victoria and Scrooge’s cleaning lady, Mrs. Dilber, in the Dickens festival.)
Q: What’s the most rewarding aspect of “being” Charles Dickens?
A: I’d be lying if I said there isn’t a lot of Jim Greene in my characterization. Sure, there are days when it’s harder than others to keep things fresh. But for the most part, I’m blessed to be able to share the positive aspects of Dickens’ story with other people. That’s really the beauty of it.
It’s certainly not an exact portrayal of Charles Dickens. I’ve done research on him and actually been to Dickens’ house. But there are certain negative aspects of the Dickens era that are not part of my show. My characterization is based on the values that he (championed). That makes people feel good.
Q: What’s the most difficult aspect of directing a holiday-themed festival?
A: Not getting jaded. By the 50th time you’re singing “Joy to The World,” it can be tough.
Q: So how do you keep yourself fresh in the role?
A: Well, that’s the challenge, and I can’t tell you how you do that. I just try to remind myself that these people haven’t seen (the festival) before. If you connect with the audience, then each performance is new for the actor as well.
I’m the one of those people: I basically wake up in a pretty good mood every day. I’m 51 years old, and the older I get, the more I wake up and say, “Enjoy the day.” For the last 30 years, I’ve made my living making people happy. For that, I count my blessings every day.
Q: So how long will you “be” Charles Dickens?
A: I’ll do it as long as I’m able. With any luck, I’ll still be acting when I’m 100.