‘A Sherlock Carol’: The Art of Combining Two Epic Stories

Writer/Director Mark Shanahan on changing the meaning of the word “Scrooge”

| 16 Dec 2021 | 10:31

Mark Shanahan is a born and bred New Yorker and a veteran actor, director and writer for the theater. He has appeared on Broadway in “The 39 Steps,” and Off-Broadway in “Tryst” and “Small World,” and his directing work has been seen across the country. Shanahan is the author of the Off-Broadway comedy, “The Dingdong,” and of “A Merry Little Christmas Carol,” as well as original radio drama for NPR, featuring Judith Ivey, Christopher Plummer, Rhonda Ross, and others. His new play, “A Sherlock Carol,” is currently Off-Broadway at New World Stages, and has been hailed by the New York Times as a “clever, crowd pleasing comedy” for all ages. It runs until January 2, 2022.

What is “A Sherlock Carol” about?

“A Sherlock Carol” is a combination of the worlds of Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” adventure series. It takes two great stories, and puts them together to make a fun new tale that stays true to the spirit of both of the authors’ original works. In “A Sherlock Carol,” Sherlock Holmes meets the characters from “A Christmas Carol” in a kind of a sequel which takes place many years later when Tiny Tim is all grown up and Scrooge has lived a wonderful and full life.

What was your inspiration?

When I was a little kid, I absolutely devoured the Sherlock Holmes stories. Then about five or six years ago, I was commissioned to write an adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” and it’s been done in theaters all around the country. I admit I had never really studied it in depth, but the more I studied the story I realized it was deeper than I ever knew. And so, my inspiration came from these two legendary authors, Dickens and Doyle, who were essentially my collaborators. In a way, I’m only renting or borrowing the characters that they invented through their genius and then trying to play with them to create something new.

How has the play been doing so far?

I am pleased to say that it’s selling like gangbusters. People are absolutely coming to the production at New World Stages. I think it’s helpful that the play has an uplifting message. It’s fun; it’s a mystery, and it can sometimes be really silly - with the actors flipping hats and changing costumes in the wings really quickly and then coming right back on as a different character seconds later. This cast of six plays so many different characters and the audience is always wowed by what they’re able to do. The play is a really joyful romp, which I think is just exactly what people want after the difficult couple of years we’ve all had ... People are happy to come together again to create an audience, even with the strict COVID rules we have in place to make sure everyone stays healthy. People are coming back to the theater for the first time in a long time and it feels really good.

Where do you see the play going?

Well, there’s been lots of interest from other theaters from around the country and I hope the play might be back next year in New York City as well. I loved being able to direct it and be involved in this production, but I also think it will be really fun to sit in the audience for a change and see the productions of it that other people create.

Do you think “A Sherlock Carol” will become a Christmas classic?

I hope so. There are a lot of Christmas shows out there. During the Christmas season, people want a bit of pageantry to get them in the mood. A big part of that is the tradition of going back to these stories they love year after year. However, “A Sherlock Carol” is a mystery that takes place at Christmas. It’s a Christmas setting, but that’s not the only thing it’s about.

What’s your advice for aspiring playwrights?

In this case, I wrote “A Sherlock Carol” so that I could direct it so I was thinking the whole time about how it could be staged. When you’re writing a play, it’s very important to know what kind of story you want to tell and how you intend to tell it. One way to do that is by studying great plays you admire and thinking about how they work. You’re writing a script which will be performed by actors and shared with an audience, so you really have to think about the way in which a production can be made from your ideas. It’s very hard to launch a new play in the American theater, no matter what, and you’ll want to keep sending your play to any theatre or producer you think might be interested. But above all, you have to write and re-write until you have something you truly believe in. You will have many wonderful collaborators along the way, from actors to designers to producers, who will ask you questions. But it all starts with you as the writer, so you want to really be sure about what the story means to you, personally, first and foremost, and then stay true to it as it comes to life.

What’s something you took away from your experiences?

We often use the word “Scrooge” as an insult. It usually means a miser or a crank or a really mean old man, and it seems to be a nasty term. But in fact, I’ve come to realize that being called a “Scrooge” should be a compliment. A Scrooge is somebody who can change and become a better version of themself. A Scrooge is someone who can look in the mirror and recognize personal flaws and weaknesses and say, “I want to lead a better life in the time I’ve been given and do good things with my time on earth.” We should all be so lucky to have the kind of awakening that Ebenezer Scrooge did, and become our best selves.