To begin his holiday theater performance, Jeff Steitzer entered the stage with no costume or makeup. Then he stepped into a makeshift recording booth. Altering his voice to a gruff grumble, he delivered his character’s catchphrase: Bah humbug.
In pre-pandemic times, the seats were packed each year for ACT Theatre’s A Christmas Carol. Since the theater’s founder first adapted it in 1976, the play has solidified into a Seattle holiday tradition with sold out shows throughout its yearly run. But ACT had to adapt this year: A Christmas Carol became an audio play. Across the city companies like Book-It Repertory and 5th Avenue have reworked shows into audio experiences.
Like many professions, acting this year changed fundamentally. When Broadway in New York shut down because of the spike in Covid cases, Steitzer was in the city, subleasing a room from a friend. After a week of lockdown, he returned to Seattle; if he was going to be cooped up, he might as well do it in his own apartment and, at nearly 70 years old, near his doctor.
Steitzer knew how to keep busy because “an actor is out of work so much more than they are in work that it’s not unusual, especially if you’re of a certain age, that you’re going to be hanging around the apartment anyway.” He’d pass the days reading or calling friends.
Besides the occasional voice job, Steitzer notes that he didn't have a lot of work during the weeks the pandemic first swept the streets of Seattle empty. He recognizes his age has allowed him a somewhat steady income—from Social Security and pensions—though young actors may not have a similar safety net.
This should be, he says, “the busiest times of their lives. And they can’t do what they love to do. That breaks my heart.” With the pandemic forcing productions online, Steitzer thinks actors, especially younger ones, embrace whatever projects do exist not just for the money but because “just the idea of being in something that resembled a rehearsal situation, where you can see your fellow performers and interact with them, was such a reward and so welcomed after so many months of not having that.”
The shift to an audio Christmas Carol didn’t faze Steitzer, who's played the role of Scrooge about a handful of times for ACT. His portfolio includes recording audiobooks and being the multiplayer announcer in the Halo games. “I do an awful lot of voice work. So getting in front of a microphone? Not a problem for me,” Steitzer says. And while it comes with some limitations, the audio production allows some new freedom, mainly in how he delivers lines.
Take the scene where Scrooge awakes from his time traveling night to a beautiful Christmas morning. On stage Steitzer leaps out of bed and opens the windows, and says, “Glorious. Glorious.” Previously he’s had to temper his instincts: “The impulse is to almost make that a whisper: Glorious. Glorious.” But whispers don’t work on stage. An audio play permits the new intimacy.
Steitzer thinks the story’s themes—that we can always change for the better and create a kinder world—will resonate more with people after a year of unfathomable loss and difficulties. For him, part of what’s made A Christmas Carol such a timeless tale is its reminder of “how much we are all responsible for each other” even in difficult times.