Q&A with “Christmas Carol Untold”

Q&A with “Christmas Carol Untold”

One of the first projects Phillip Webster, Thomas More University’s new theater director, took on once arriving on campus was commissioning an original Christmas play. Renowned Northern Kentucky playwrights Alexx (Rouse) Robinson and Zach Robinson jumped on board to write the piece. Below the group discusses the process of putting together the upcoming production, “Christmas Carol Untold.”

Christmas Carol Untold will be showing Friday | Dec. 1 | 7:30 p.m, Saturday | Dec. 2 | 7:30 p.m, and Sunday | Dec. 3 | 2 p.m. at the Thomas More Theater. Tickets can be found HERE.

Background information on each contributor:

Alexx (Rouse) Robinson has been writing professionally full-time for the past six years. You might have seen her work at The Carnegie, The Know Theatre of Cincinnati, The Cincinnati Fringe Festival, and Madcap Puppets, or you might have heard her mentioned on Travis and Teresa McElroy’s podcast “Shmanners,” where she’s head researcher. She’s also the head writer for the podcast Chasing Immortality, a ten-episode mini-series about people who have attempted to live forever. Her theatrical writing credits include: All’s Faire, Could’ve Said It Deader, The Great Space Caper, Stories of the Sea, Stow Your Baggage, Busted Bumpers and Other Metaphors, and Seventeen Sweet Potatoes That Look Like My Mom. You might have caught her onstage throughout the city many times too! She has a BFA in Playwriting from Northern Kentucky University. That’s also where she met Zach’s talented and handsome self and where she decided it would be a great idea to marry him. It has, in fact, been the best move she’s made. 

Zach Robinson is an Actor, Director, and Writer, and has been involved in pretty much every other role you can think of in theatre. Previously he was the Artistic and Community Relations Manager at the Know Theatre of Cincinnati, where he produced the Cincinnati Fringe Festival through the pandemic, managed the Second Stage programming, as well as the Radio Know Audio Play’s to Go program, and much, much more. His writing credits include: All’s Faire, Could’ve Said It Deader, Stories of the Sea, Bad Poetry Night and A Christmas Carol Untold. He toured for two seasons with Madcap Puppets, where he played Scrooge in A Madcap Christmas Carol. He is currently working in I.T. and loving it, as it gives him time to continue his artistic passions. He has a BFA in Acting from Northern Kentucky University, but more importantly, he has two cats and is super lucky to be the husband to Alexx Rouse.

KY playwrights Zach Robinson and Alexx Rouse

Phillip Webster joined Thomas More University as the full-time theater director in 2023. He is a musician, actor, and director, who has performed in everything from Shakespeare to operetta to experimental puppet theater. Originally from the Northern Kentucky area, Webster brings a fascinating and diverse background to the role. He served in the U.S. Air Force, spending four years as an Arabic language analyst. In 2021, he founded SouthBank Shakespeare in order to provide free outdoor Shakespeare productions to Northern Kentucky’s river cities. Webster is currently working on a doctorate in history through the University of London’s Institute of Historical Research, focusing his studies on the mostly forgotten Pike’s Opera House in Cincinnati.

2. How did the idea of commissioning a play come about?

PW: Pretty much the first thing I did after getting hired at Thomas More was start planning the first season of shows. I really wanted to choose wisely and set the tone for the kind of productions the students could expect to work on and for me doing new work is just as important as doing the classics.

Thomas More Theater Director Phillip Webster

3. How does a newly commissioned play give theater students a different experience?

PW: A majority of the typical college theater experience is performing in classics and tried and true shows, which is valuable, but working on a new piece brings the students into the creative process more. They get to see the creative process from start to finish. 

AR: I know I’m biased since I’m a playwright myself, but I would argue that approaching a new work is one of the most valuable experiences you can have as a student. Classic plays are wonderful whether they’re Shakespeare or “Death of a Salesman,” but those plays are relatively set in stone. When you get to work on something new, you’re in the room watching the process of bringing something to life from seed to tree. Students get a chance to originate roles without any previous guidelines, they get to say words aloud that have never been spoken onstage, and offer input to the director on what feels right, what feels awkward, and what feels too wordy. It gives them chances to trust themselves and their own artistic intuition about what works best onstage for them and then collaborate with the rest of the team to make the piece work for everyone. And they get to see the work grow, change, and evolve in real time. After all, Tennessee Williams didn’t just write one draft of The Glass Menagerie and have it become a theatrical classic. It’s important for students to see that every play starts somewhere. 

4. Zach and Alexx, how long have you been writing plays?

ZR: As a playwriting team we have been writing plays for eight years. Our first collaboration was the original production of our Renaissance Faire, mystery, musical “All’s Faire,” for the Know Theatre of Cincinnati’s Serials! Theatre competition. Since then, we have written five more plays together: “Bad Poetry Night,” “Could’ve Said It Deader,” “Stories of the Sea,” a fully realized version of “All’s Faire,” and now “A Christmas Carol: Untold.” 

AR: We’ve had our shows go up all over the Cincinnati area (The Carnegie, The Know Theatre, Madcap Puppets), plus Indianapolis. The furthest away we’ve ever had our work performed was in Sri Lanka at the Sri Lankan International Buddhist Academy and we’re hoping to do even more theatre all over the world over the course of our careers. Plus, we just got married last year so we’re going to be making theatre together for a long time! We have a whole list of projects we’d love to do and we’re always open to anyone who wants to commission a show. 

5. Can you give us a synopsis of the play?

PW: When a local theatre troupe stumbles upon Charles Dickens’ lost diary they accidentally summon his restless spirit from the afterlife. He proceeds to hijack their production of “A Christmas Carol” and restore his totally bonkers original, unedited version. Holiday hijinks ensue.

ZR: The group of actors and their stage manager now cannot leave until [the ghost] is artistically satisfied. 

AR: Basically think of Charles Dickens as George Lucas making the Star Wars prequels. He’s got some okay ideas, but no one should have ever let him be in charge of anything. Thus, chaos ensues.

6. What were the inspirations behind the story?

ZR: We love “A Christmas Carol” and we’ve always toyed with the idea of writing a holiday-themed show. When Phil asked us to write one, we thought for a long time about which direction to go. Eventually, after thinking about our favorite Christmas stories, we landed on the idea of parodying “A Christmas Carol” and the ideas just started taking off from there.

AR: We’re giant Christmas dweebs ourselves and we’ve both been in multiple productions of “A Christmas Carol” as young actors. Zach has even played Scrooge (and he was amazing for the record). Many of these bits were based on silly things we noticed from our past productions that we wanted to bring to life on stage. The plot of the show was 100% Zach’s idea. I was actually unsure if it would work or not. But like always when we started writing together, the narrative came out so naturally and we had so much fun brainstorming bits and revisiting our favorite Christmas and comedic tropes. So I’ll say it here where he can have it printed: My husband was right. 

7. What makes this material a good fit for Thomas More?

PW: It is a good fit because I asked Alexx and Zach to write something specifically for us. Thomas More has a strong group of actors who are good at really broad, outrageous comedy, and I thought that would fit well with the kind of work Alexx and Zach are known for. 

8. Will the playwrights be involved in the rehearsal/preparation of the production?

PW: They came to our first read-through and will pop in from time to time. And they are constantly fielding questions from the director to help us bring this premiere to life. 

ZR: Mostly we are hands-off. We cannot wait to see what they do with the material. 

AR: We love handing over scripts and seeing what the team brings to life! We try to be there for the first read and a few run-throughs, but that’s it. We want the other artists to be able to do their work without feeling like the writers are aggressively breathing down their necks. 

9. Do you plan to do more original pieces?

PW: Absolutely! I want to bring in more local talent as we begin to offer more playwriting classes and workshops. I really want to feature some Thomas More students’ work as well. 

AR: We quite literally have a list of projects we want to do [laughs]. And we’re hopeful to get other commissions too! But yeah, absolutely, we are going to be writing more original pieces until someone tells us to stop. And when someone does tell us to stop we’re gonna laugh at them and keep writing more original pieces anyway.

10. Are there any opportunities for students to get involved in writing future projects?

PW: 1000% yes! If we have any creative writing students out there with a script sitting in a drawer, I want to read it!

AR: I mean, I hope that Phil hires us to commission something again! I’d love to talk to the students more about playwriting and creating their own works if they would be interested. Students need to see that there are endless ways to carve a home for yourself in this wacky business and engaging with new works is such an amazing part of that.

To read the full release and more details about Christmas Carol Untold, click here.