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Behind the Scenes

An unusual plantation Christmas

Scrooge and Tiny Tim replace Pilgrims for reading in Plimoth

Plimoth Plantation’s Cooke house was destroyed by fire last month. Plantation staff will stage a reading of “A Christmas Carol’’ to raise funds to help replace it. Plimoth Plantation’s Cooke house was destroyed by fire last month. Plantation staff will stage a reading of “A Christmas Carol’’ to raise funds to help replace it. (Plimoth Plantation)
By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / December 8, 2011
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Plimoth Plantation’s historical interpreters will stage a Christmas play this weekend to help build a new house for the Pilgrims, a devoutly religious band who didn’t celebrate that holiday.

“It’s a welcome change of pace’’ for museum staffers who take on the roles of prominent Pilgrims such as Governor William Bradford, Elder Brewster, Miles Standish, John Alden, and less well-known Pilgrims, said interpreter Jessica Guyon. Bradford complained in his famous journal that some less devout Colonists were whooping it up on Jesus’ birthday, she said.

Plantation interpreters will stage their dramatic reading of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol’’ as a benefit toward the cost of replacing a replica 17th-century dwelling place that burned down last month. The Cooke house, named for a family living in the original Pilgrim settlement, caught fire when sparks from its hearth caused a beam to smolder overnight. When workers relighted the fire in the morning, the wood began to flame and spread to the house’s thatched roof.

While the Pilgrims’ strict religion regarded their savior’s birth as a purely religious observance, Dickens’s popular tale helped establish familiar holiday traditions such as family feasting, gifts for children, and carol singing.

Guyon’s notion to stage a dramatic reading of the tale arose independently of the fire but on the same morning that the blaze claimed the Cooke dwelling. When she learned of the fire, she thought, “Ah, this could have a mission.’’

The 23 plantation staffers who have volunteered to take part do not as a rule have theatrical experience aside from learning the accent, vocabulary, and biographical and cultural history of the Plimoth persons they represent. Guyon is an exception, with degrees in theater and education, including a master’s in theatrical arts from Royal Holloway, University of London.

“A Christmas Carol’’ has received many dramatizations, she said. “There have been some really good ones, and some really terrible ones.’’

The version she chose emphasizes Dickens’s narrative voice and sense of humor.

“The version I chose is extremely faithful to the original book,’’ she said. “He has a really dry sense of humor and talks directly to the audience.’’

The narrator role will be divided among eight different actors. Everyone else plays a character. Ray Byrne, who ordinarily portrays the religious leader Brewster, takes on Scrooge.

Whitney Chapman, who often plays teenage roles in the village, plays Tiny Tim, whose innocence and goodness epitomizes the Christmas spirit that Dickens’s tale helped to establish as a cultural norm.

“She has the most adorable little-child voice,’’ Guyon said. “When she read in the practice, everybody ‘ahhh-ed.’ ’’

“It was gorgeous at the read-through,’’ she said of the rehearsal.

While the fire cost the plantation the use of one of its houses, it created an opportunity to replace one of the replica buildings with a new period structure based on updated studies of what the villages would have looked like in 1627, said Michael French, who heads the plantation’s interpretive artisans.

The 1984 Cooke house was built “earthfast,’’ its posts set into the ground instead of on a stone foundation, in the Pilgrim manner. The house would have been replaced soon, but the fire accelerated the schedule, French said.

The new Cooke house will also be built earthfast, with timber-frame, post-and-beam construction, thatch roof, clapboards on the outside, and daub on the interior like its predecessor. But it will be built with a larger footprint to make space for the additional room the family may have been able to add. Most of the current houses are single-room with a central chimney and two sleeping lofts above the main room, French said.

The Pilgrims learned how to hew wood from trees and use a pit saw, said French, who represents William Wright, a Pilgrim whose possessions included carpentry tools.

When the fire was discovered, the Plymouth Fire Department arrived quickly, extinguished the blaze, and sprayed the neighboring Allerton house to prevent the fire’s spread - a serious danger in 17th-century settlements.

While insurance will cover the value of the structure, a building project in the village becomes part of the museum experience and workers spend much of their time talking to visitors and explaining the process. The fund-raising is to meet these additional expenses.

Saturday’s dramatic reading is free, but the event will raise money through a bake sale that includes Victorian specialties and by donations. Interpreters will pass their Victorian top hats for donations at the program’s end.

Susan Loucks, the plantation’s director of development, called the benefit “a grass-roots fund-raiser. It’s is a good representation of what Plimoth Plantation is all about. It’s low-tech and meaningful, and really heartfelt.’’

The interpreters are volunteering their time, Loucks said, during a season “that’s about giving.’’

Interpreter Kathy Devlin heads up the bake sale. She’s looking up recipes for figgy pudding, a Victorian Christmas favorite, Guyon said.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.

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“A Christmas Carol”” A Staged Reading Plimoth Plantation

Visitor Center

137 Warren Ave., Plymouth

Saturday, 7 p.m.

Free; donations accepted

www.plimoth.org