Hearst, who is Jewish, was hosting her first family Christmas and she turned to Kavanagh for advice: ‘Do I hide my menorahs? Do I have to feed them ham?’ One night, Kavanagh woke up and wrote a note on his phone that was basically ‘What if Elise’s family Christmas, but A Christmas Carol?’ Now the two are collaborating on a new commission for NEXT STAGE, A Very Jewish Christmas Carol, and they answered some questions together.
You both joined MTC as NEXT STAGE writers in residence last year. Did this collaboration develop out of that?
We were lucky enough to both be resident writers and have the added bonus of getting along swimmingly. After spending a lot of time together in the literary department [at MTC], as well as at the Japanese takeaway down the road, we had time to share ideas back and forth, and get to know each other’s writing, as well as make each other laugh. We very quickly became firm friends.
‘We’re just so thrilled to have this opportunity to work together, especially in a time when so many of us have been forced into isolation.’
And then this play came about kind of accidentally. Elise was hosting her first family Christmas and came to Phil for advice like “Do I hide my menorahs?” “Do I have to feed them ham?” At the same time, we were coming up with pitches for plays to write for MTC and Phil asked Jenni Medway [MTC literary associate] if there were any books the company were interested in adapting. She jokingly mentioned that “Martina [Murray, the Company’s director of artistic operations/senior producer] has always wanted us to do A Christmas Carol.” So Phil woke up in the middle of the night and wrote a note on his phone that was basically “What if Elise’s family Christmas, but A Christmas Carol?” He texted it to Jenni, half as a joke, half hoping she loved it.
She loved it! She mentioned it to literary director Chris Mead, who was immediately on board. Phil then mentioned it to Elise, and Elise started having ideas for where we could take it. We kept bouncing it around, and the idea grew. And when we pitched all our new play ideas to artistic director Brett Sheehy in a Zoom meeting a couple of months ago, this was the one that he wanted to see on the stage.
What can you tell us about A Very Jewish Christmas Carol?
When we dressed up as the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present at the MTC Christmas party (the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come thought the party was the following week), we didn’t know that this would actually be a foretelling of the play we were destined to write together – A Very Jewish Christmas Carol – our wacky adaptation of the Charles Dickens’ classic tale.
So far we have our central character, who we’ve named Elysheva (she’s Ebenezer adjacent), and who is a control-freak and a tyrant (of sorts) who is heavily pregnant, and hosting Christmas for her gentile in-laws and her Jewish parents, who’ve invited themselves along. She is visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet To Come, along with her infamously bad-tempered grandmother, who died the year before. But, as her Rabbi tells her, while it is technically rabbinically sound to believe in ghosts, a good Jew must NEVER speak to one.
How do you see your collaborative process working?
So far, there’s been a lot of riffing back and forth, like we’re in a two-person improv troupe. We had a meeting with Chris and Jenni the other week, and the two of us met an hour before to hash out some ideas. By the time we got on the call with Chris and Jenni we’d worked out characters, subplots, themes, setting, stage images. It was amazing how quickly we were able to make choices when there’s another person there, so you can’t just spiral into self-doubt like each of us would on our own.
‘It’s really nice for us to get to make this together, working to make each other laugh and then hopefully, eventually, you.’
We’ll keep this process going for our full treatment, and then when it comes to writing the scenes, we’ll probably have a lot of back and forth attempts in a Google doc. And streaming as many Christmas Carol adaptations as we possibly can (including a very suspect one starring Tori Spelling and William Shatner)!
What does having a NEXT STAGE commission mean to you?
We’re just so thrilled to have this opportunity to work together, especially in a time when so many of us have been forced into isolation. We are excited to bring to the stage a happy, joyful Christmas show, where we can all have a good laugh at ourselves and (respectfully) each other. And, on a personal note, it’s really nice for us to get to make this together, working to make each other laugh and then hopefully, eventually, you.
NEXT STAGE is made possible with the support of our Playwrights Giving Circle Donors, The Ian Potter Foundation, Naomi Milgrom Foundation, The Myer Foundation, Malcolm Robertson Foundation and The University of Melbourne.
Published on 26 October 2020