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One man, many voices

Ben Carling channels Dickens with ‘A Christmas Carol’
MORE PHOTOSBen Carling mesmerized those who attended his performance of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” at the North Liberty Community Library on Friday, Dec. 1. Carling read from the very same script that Dickens adapted specially for his first reading of the work in Boston 150 years ago. (photo by Janet Nolte)

NORTH LIBERTY– On Dec. 3, 1867, the New York Daily Tribune ran a review of Charles Dickens’ first reading of “A Christmas Carol” in Boston’s Tremont Temple the prior evening:
From first to last there is no trickery in it,—full of action, abounding in gesture, with a voice for every character in every mood; with a face for every man, woman, and child, reflecting every feeling. There is no straining for stage effect, no attitudizing, no affectation. The most effective reading we ever listened to—it was the most beautifully simple, straightforward, hearty piece of painting from life.
The same might be said of Ben Carling’s one-man performance last Friday evening at the North Liberty Community Library. By way of introducing Carling, Adult Services Librarian Elaine Hayes noted that it was 150 years ago to the day that Dickens himself delivered the first reading of his story in America before an audience that included most of New England’s literati.
“Marley was dead: to begin with! That was certain….” Bursting into the room from a side door, Carling spoke the opening words of the very script that Dickens himself adapted for public reading.
On taking the podium, Carling settled into a memorable presentation that recreated many favorite characters from the classic Christmas story, all of them differentiated by gender, age and social class through nuanced Victorian English accents.
Born in Fillmore, Utah, Carling started acting at an early age.
“I started with my first paid gig at 15 at a dinner theater in the railroad hub city of Ogden, Utah, and a performance in ‘Charley’s Aunt’ as Charlie,” said Carling. “I had been encouraged to audition by my drama teacher from junior high. I guess it kind of went from there.”
Carling got a scholarship to attend Utah State University to study theater. Then he taught drama and Spanish in Utah public schools for 14 years while acting in regional theaters as well as any film or TV projects that happened to be in production in the area. After moving to New Hampshire with his family in 2000, he did more theater there and eventually transitioned into voice work, such as narrating a series of Sherlock Holmes books on Audible.com.
“I got old is kind of what happened,” Carling said. “I wasn’t really leading man material any more, so I looked into voice and you know, I’ve been doing it and it pays pretty well… There’s an expanded opportunity, although there’s a lot of people doing it now.”
Carling says that audiobooks are growing in popularity. As some people dabble in audio but aren’t that good, he thinks the demand for the best talent will increase. “The cream will rise,” he observed. “And hopefully by developing a reputation over time, I’ll get more of that work.”
Carling ended up in Coralville about a year ago when his wife’s job brought them to this area. Though neither of them had been to the Midwest before, they find the like Iowa.
Early in his acting career, Carling played Fagin, in “Oliver!” at the Roger’s Memorial Theatre in Bountiful, Utah. But it was only about 10 years ago that he began doing public readings of “A Christmas Carol” after running across the very text that Dickens had adapted specially for public reading.
Carling explained that as a dramatist Dickens understood the theatre and parameters for reading his work aloud: “He knew that as a reading, he couldn’t go very long. It just doesn’t play well to go too long. So he would do these performances of segments or condensed versions of his novels.
“I’m most interested in the Dickens because of how well it translates into audio. It’s almost written for that purpose,” he added.
“Dickens did ‘A Christmas Carol’ repeatedly with this edited version that I’m using… I read a newspaper article that the actual original piece was going to be under glass at a library in New York City,” Carling recalled.
He clicked on a link embedded in the news story and retrieved the full text of the script.
“I printed the script from that news story in 2006, marked it up, wrote notes, start practicing it. It condenses it to about 70 minutes. If you were to read the whole thing, it would be two to two-and-a-half hours, pretty long,” Carling said.
Since then, Carling has been bringing his live rendition of ‘A Christmas Carol’ voluntarily to nursing homes and libraries to inspire people to think about the still relevant social message that Dickens intended. He says that he likes the idea of there being a social benefit, of exposing audiences to entertainment with a more profound purpose.
The early scene in which two men call upon Scrooge to contribute funds to provide “meat and drink and means of warmth” to the poor, for example, suggests a neat parallel to various charitable projects that abound in most communities throughout the holiday season. In fact, attendees to Friday’s reading in North Liberty were asked to bring a non-perishable food item to donate to the North Liberty Community Pantry.
Not that the entertainment value should be sacrificed for heavy social criticism however. Carling makes sure it is not. One only need witness the laughter that erupted among the North Liberty audience as he performed the comical dancing scene wherein the Fezziwigs remind Scrooge what keeping Christmas is all about.
As a dramatist, Carling said, “I do look for things that I think I will have an effect whether it’s noticeable or not. I think that’s kind of an obligation to the art form to use it for what it serves the public best for.”
Currently, Carling is thinking about making an impact along such lines, possibly by starting a youth theater project modeled after one he witnessed in Manchester, New Hampshire. Carling said he was very impressed with a resident theater company there that invited student populations to experience the immediacy and thrill of live performances in the city.
“The organization reached out to these kids who had very little opportunity to be exposed to any of the plays that they otherwise might have only read in their English books,” said Carling.
“It was very nice to have these kids be so amazed at something that happens in real time, in real space with actual human beings not on a screen, that was still kind of glorified with the lights and costumes and sets but not exaggerated with camera work or computers. It was just real people in space across an expanse of air from them. And I think there’s something about our mind that kind of identifies with that or responds to it in a way that is different from what we can bring up on our screens.”