Jeremy Rabb & Deborah Strang CAROL-ing & Making NOISES Together

Gil Kaan

Writer, Registered Critic

A Noise Within continues its annual Christmas tradition of presenting A CHRISTMAS CAROL. The sixth edition of ANW's Producing Artistic Directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott's distinctive take on the Charles Dickens classic has already opened earlier this month. Many cast members return to perform in the same roles they've inhabited before. We had the chance to chat with two of them - Deborah Strang, who's currently playing Ghost of Christmas Past and Charwoman and Jeremy Rabb, alternating as Marley.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Deborah and Jeremy!
How long have you two been Resident Artists of ANW?
Deborah Strang: 26 years!
Jeremy Rabb: I was asked to join the company in 2014.
How did your becoming a Resident Artist come about?
DS: Total luck and chance. I was in the process of switching careers and had gone back to school to pursue a biology degree to get into environmental science. My husband, Joel Swetow, was doing a couple of shows with ANW. So I met everyone, and Joel dropped off a resume. I auditioned, not really expecting there to be any openings, and the rest is history. My first three years at ANW, I continued my science studies, but eventually theatre won out.
JR: I can't speak to what ultimately put me over the top since Geoff and Julia alone determine what that is, but becoming an RA was something I aspired to ever since my first show back in 2009. I've always loved the idea of a repertory ensemble that works together so closely and for so long that they bring a level of artistry to their work that doesn't exist elsewhere. I've loved working on plays elsewhere, but once a production finishes, there's usually a let-down since the cast will most likely never work together again. The idea of having an artistic home and developing connections with a professional family is much more gratifying. When I did my first ANW show, there hadn't been a new RA added to the roster in years, so it felt like a pipe dream. I decided not to worry about the result, but instead to focus on the process, figuring that even if it never came to pass, the journey itself would be worth it. My hope was to just keep getting cast in one more show. I brought a strong work ethic to each production, striving not only to be open to direction, but to actually embrace it as well. I loved Geoff and Julia's aesthetic, so that wasn't particularly difficult. I think the degree to which I expressed how much I cared about ANW, how deeply I embraced the theater's culture and community, and how eager I was to take on a variety of disparate roles, all contributed to my receiving the honor.
As Resident Artists, do you get dibs on a role before 'general auditions'?
JR: We do receive casting priority and are either offered or given the opportunity to read for roles in the season before the postings go public. There's no guarantee that any of us will be cast in the season, but it's the rare show at ANW that doesn't have at least a few of us in it. I've been fortunate to be cast in five of the seven shows produced at the theater for the past two seasons, so I have very much benefitted from the leg up, which I hope to exploit for as long as I can. 
DS: Geoff and Julia make the play selections and offer casting suggestions to the various directors. They always try to take care of the Resident Artists, but casting is always subject to director approval and the needs of the production. I have found that I just say, "Yes!" They are much more imaginative in how they have cast me than I could ever be.
How many productions have you two worked together on?
DS: Oh gee, I'll bet Jeremy will be able to answer this, but my brain doesn't work that way, I'd have to look at a list and add them up. I'm going to guess between 12 and 14. Let's see how close I get.
JR: NOISES OFF in the Spring will be our tenth production together.
Can you name the shows and your characters off the top of your head?
DS: No way! Once a show is over, my memory gets wiped clean for lines and characters. But two come to mind immediately because we had such fun together in our scenes: YOU NEVER CAN TELL and ALL MY SONS.
JR: I can, partly because I'm a huge fan of Deborah, and partly because I'm a bit of a weirdo: Queen Margaret & Buckingham in RICHARD III, Maria & Aguecheek in TWELFTH NIGHT, Prospero & Stephano in THE TEMPEST, Mrs. Peachum & Tiger Brown in THE THREEPENNY OPERA, Kate Keller & Jim Bayliss in ALL MY SONS, Mrs. Clandon & Finch McComas in YOU NEVER CAN TELL, Toinette & Dr. Purgeon in THE IMAGINARY INVALID, Christmas Past & Marley in A CHRISTMAS CAROL (twice).
Jeremy, one of my all-time favorite productions I've seen in the past years has got to be ANW's MAN OF LA MANCHA, in which you played Padre and Paco. Would you tell me some fun memories you had in that show?
JR: That was a very special show to be a part of. Sharing in the emotional outpouring from our audiences during the final moments of the play and through the curtain call was always so beautiful and moving. I had a lot of fun messing around with the other muleteers as we jumped into those fearsome characters head first. To switch back and forth so quickly between the unsavory Paco and the kind and gentle Padre was a blast, even though trying to juggle all the costume changes and myriad props could be tricky. Getting Cassandra Murphy (Aldonza) to laugh at me as Paco in rehearsal was also very entertaining. I'd express my lust for her character by getting on the ground and imitating a panting dog in heat, which always cracked her up. She finally figured out a way to keep a straight face... she stopped looking at me during the scene. She also never backed away from the aggressive fight choreography, urging her "assailants" to really go for it: "You can hit me harder!" I was so inspired by her ferocity during the final note of "It's All the Same" that I nearly blew out my voice during the guys' final cry of "Aldonza!" Even though I knew it might make my later solo a little harder to pull off, I didn't care because it was so fun.
This is the sixth year A Noise Within has presented A CHRISTMAS CAROL. How many times have you had a role in it?
DS: All six. We had done different versions of the play a few times in earlier years, and I was in those as well.
JR: This is only my second year, but I did play the same role in another production at Indiana Repertory Theatre years ago as well. 
 Deborah, did you always play Ghost of Christmas Past, and/or Charwoman?
DS: For the past six years, those are the roles I have always played. In our earliest version in the late 90s, I was Mrs. Cratchit. But in our next version in 2000, I was Christmas Past and that was actually when they built the dress I wear now – which makes that costume 17 years old. Each year they seem to add an extra layer of petticoat – it feels like it weighs about 50 pounds, but I'm sure that's an exaggeration.
Jeremy, did you always play Marley?
JR: I have. I guess there must be something about me that reads "eternity of regret and agony." I do also get to play some other fun characters like Fezziwig and Old Joe, but Marley's the most memorable and far and away the most exhilarating to play.
Must be nice to be able to 'step into' a familiar role, much like putting on comfortable slippers?
DS: I do hope that I get a little closer to being word perfect each year, but remember I'm the one whose memory is wiped clean when the show ends.
JR: It's definitely comforting, not just in terms of picking up the lines more quickly, but also in the added luxury of relaxing into a part while making new discoveries. Because Geoff and I have done the show before, and have acted together in many other plays, the ease and chemistry we have in the Marley scene is a delight. That said, I have to admit that familiarity can also breed concern. This particular production is a major workout with quick costume changes, warp-speed character switches and races to make entrances while avoiding a crush of other actors flying by. The first day of rehearsal invariably brings with it the question, "Am I really going to be able to pull this off this year?" So far, so good.
What tricks of the trade do you utilize to keep your portrayals fresh from year to year?
DS: Geoff and Julia keep us pretty honest. Each year they approach the play with new eyes and give us new direction and tweaks. The cast changes a bit each year as well, so there's new blood and energy. But it's the audience that really keeps it fresh. When I first enter, I have a perfect vantage point to gaze out at those wonderful faces – both the young and the young at heart – and they are looking up at me in awe and wonder, totally accepting the stage magic. No matter how cynical I might have felt before my entrance, the audience delivers me right into Charles Dickens' timeless tale of hope and redemption and I invest anew in delivering the story.
JR: They're not exactly secret tricks of the trade: I listen actively to my scene partners, and reinvest in what my character needs to accomplish. No two live performances are the same, so that moment-to-moment uncertainty and not knowing how an audience might respond, keep the performance fresh. We have a saying at the theater: don't try to be perfect, just try to be present. The more present I can be, the more alive the performance feels, so I don't have to try to make things fresh. Plus, new cast members this year bring their own rhythms and energy to the piece, which also helps transform it into something new and exciting.
What satisfying response from a past audience of ANW's A CHRISTMAS CAROL just warms the cockles of your heart?
JR: An adorable little girl once came up after a performance to comfort me. She said she was sorry that Marley was so sad, but that he was a good person because he helped his friend, Scrooge, live a happier life.
DS: After the show, we stay and meet the audience and take pictures. One little girl just clung to me. She couldn't even speak – just kept looking at me, touching my dress – as if she couldn't believe I was real.
What's the most surprising response to ANW's A CHRISTMAS CAROL you've experienced?
DS: What's most surprising is how many people return each year. One family has taken pictures with me each time they come. The children keep changing and growing in each picture, and I remain the same.
JR: Kids and adults alike are often startled by my first entrance, which is intended to shock. I've heard screams, curses and even seen some people jump in their seats. The most memorable response came from a boy who was so freaked out that he started yelling. It became so intense that he had to be taken out of the theater by his mom to help calm him down. I found him after the performance and was relieved to find that he not only felt a lot better, but actually loved the show and the character of Marley as well. He explained that I was very scary, but that he liked being scared.
Any particular role you are looking forward to in tackling in ANW's upcoming season?
DS: We're bringing back NOISES OFF this year – one of the funniest plays ever written. We laugh rehearsing it, the audience laughs, we're backstage laughing – we laugh so much and run so much that we all lose weight. Laughing must adjust your body chemistry because I'm always happier when we do that show.
JR: I'm really looking forward to playing Freddy in NOISES OFF. Having been in the audience for each of the previous mountings of the production and wanting desperately to be a part of it, I'm thrilled that I finally get to share in the fun. Freddy will be particularly fun to tackle, not just because he has great lines and hilarious moments of slapstick, but because he'll be a nice contrast to the more aggressive and less sympathetic characters I've played as of late (Crofts in MRS. WARREN'S PROFESSION, Cornwall in LEAR). I've also had the pleasure of working previously with everyone in the cast, so I know just how wildly talented and funny they all are. I can't wait!
Deborah, is being a part of ANW's A CHRISTMAS CAROL, the most Christmas-y thing you're doing this Holiday season? Or is there a much more Christmas-y tradition you will be partaking in?
DS: This is my tradition, otherwise I'm afraid I'm much more of a Scrooge in real life. Getting together with the cast and the play each year brings me right into the holiday spirit. Some of the young people in the play have been in it every year, we've watched them grow up. Rigel Pierce-English has been Tiny Tim, then Turkey Boy, and now Scrooge's sister Fan. I imagine that one day she will be the Ghost of Christmas Past. It's a beautiful thing.
Thank you again to you both! I look forward to experiencing your CHRISTMAS CAROL magic!
For available tickets and A CHRISTMAS CAROL scheduling through December 23, 2017; log onto

Gil Kaan, a former Managing Editor of the now-defunct Genre magazine, has had the privilege of photographing and interviewing some major divas in his career, including Ann-Margret, Diana Ross, Faye Dunaway, Carol Channing, Shirley MacLaine, Catherine Deneuve, Liza Minnelli, Sandra Bernhard, Anna Nicole Smith, Margaret Cho, and three Catwomen—Eartha Kitt, Lee Meriwether and Julie Newmar. He had the fortuitous opportunity to conduct Lily Tomlin’s coming out interview. Gil has since reviewed movies and theatre for a number of local and national outlets.
A photo montage of Gil’s Halloween Carnavale photos through the last decade was recently included in the WeHo@ 25 juried exhibition.