The Children of McCarter Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol”

Liam McKernan and Greg Wood (Photo by T. Charles Erickson).

By Donald H. Sanborn III

It is good to be children sometimes,” writes Charles Dickens, “and never better than at Christmas.” For children who enjoy acting, singing, and dancing, it is even better to live in the Princeton area. Xander Kurian, Julianna Pallacan, Michael Karnaukh, and Camille Grove are four of the child performers who have been selected to be part of this year’s Young Ensemble in McCarter Theatre’s production of A Christmas Carol.

The Young Ensemble comprises one of three segments of the cast. The other two are the Community Ensemble, for ages 14 and older; and the principals, professional performers who are members of Actors’ Equity Association.

“Our director, Adam Immerwahr, came up with an idea, I guess two or three years ago, of this reimagined A Christmas Carol,” says Emily Zetterberg, McCarter’s assistant producer. “[We continued] with the script by David Thompson, but reimagined our A Christmas Carol to include these Community Ensemble members.”

“The central concept of this version of A Christmas Carol is that Scrooge’s behavior has an impact, not just on him, but on all those around him,” Immerwahr says. “He then discovers that has an impact on an entire world of people he had been ignoring this entire time.”

For Zetterberg, the fact that most of the members of the Community and Young Ensembles are not professional performers enables them to make a unique contribution to the chemistry of the cast. “What they bring is a genuine excitement at being onstage and engaging with the professional actors,” she says. Although the youngest member of this year’s cast is age 7, candidates can be 5 years old.

Auditions for the older members of the Community Ensemble are held in April and May, whereas “we wait until fall to begin casting our Young Ensemble, because we know that kids grow,” Zetterberg says, laughing. “We are looking to cast children who are going to look and sound much the same in late September as they do when we start rehearsals on November 9.”

Kelsey Carroll and Graham Beers (Photo by Matt Pilsner).

Of the 173 children who auditioned this year, “I would say that the majority have some prior theater experience,” Zetterberg notes. “We do get plenty of kids who say, ‘this is my first time auditioning. What can I do?’ And it’s really great to see those kids as well. The kids who have no experience at all end up bringing a real joy and youthfulness that we’re looking for.”

There are two audition days. “Each child is only being seen once in the audition process, and then once in callbacks,” Zetterberg explains. “We have a 10-minute group activity at the top of each hour. That allows us to see how the children interact, take direction, and participate in collaboration. After that, we see each child individually. We have them sing a short clip of a song, and then read one scene from the show. If they can’t read, which happens sometimes with our youngest contingent, they tell us a short story instead.”

“We were looking for dynamic, charismatic young people who clearly showed enjoyment in playing characters and being onstage,“ Immerwahr says. “We were looking for young artists who were very genuine; we want the performances to feel real. And we wanted to have a cast that was as diverse as the greater Princeton area is. We wanted that in the adults, and in our Young Ensemble.”

“We want to represent not only the community that Scrooge is living in, but also our community,” Zetterberg adds. “We’re thrilled to welcome back those who are returning, and to reinvigorate the cast with the new energy that’s coming in.”

Despite the varying degrees of theatrical experience held by the cast members, Immerwahr sets a high standard of professionalism for all of them. “We raise a high bar for our young actors; [we expect them] to function as young professionals,” he says. “They are members of the community, but we believe that if we raise the bar high enough, they will reach it. And they do, every year.”

(top row, left to right) Alya Delvalle, Michael Karnaukh, Adeline Edwards, Jamai Brown, Romy Johnson, Ethan Chang. (bottom row, left to right) Julianna Pallacan, Xander Kurian, Camille Grove, Roman Engel, Amelia Cutter, Stefan Naumoski (Photo by Noah Befeler).

Xander Kurian

Kurian, 10, is a student at Community Park Elementary School. Although McCarter’s A Christmas Carol is the first play for which he has ever auditioned or performed, he was in the show last year. He is returning to reprise the role of Archie, a boy at the party given by Scrooge’s nephew Fred.

“Last year I didn’t know what was going on; I just wanted to try,” Kurian said. “This year I was worried, I really wanted to get in. I was super stressed when I made a mistake.”

“Xander is a terrific young actor,” says Immerwahr. “His reading of that role was just extraordinary. In the guessing game at the party, Archie is the one who finally gets the answer right. Xander brought such joy and life to his audition, for that guessing game. It was a great pleasure to be able to cast him, once again, in that role.”

“My favorite part of being in A Christmas Carol was [and] is performing,” says Kurian. “I love performing because it’s fun to make the audience connect with the play, with all the emotions.”

When Kurian isn’t performing, he enjoys video games. “In my free time I also make gaming videos.” He and his brother James share a YouTube channel called JX Gaming. “We have 10 subscribers!”

Asked about his goals, Kurian reveals a diverse set of interests. “I hope to act now, and when I am older I want to switch by being an actor, a doctor, an electronic engineer, and maybe a YouTuber.”

Julianna Pallacan

Pallacan, also 10, attends the Village School in West Windsor. This year’s  A Christmas Carol is the first production for which she ever auditioned. “I [have] seen the show twice and I really liked it,” she says.

“Julianna is playing Margaret, who also is a character at the party,” says Immerwahr. “The room came alive when she got in and started playing around with the scene. It was great fun for all of us; it was a very honest performance, but a very filled performance, full of childlike joy—which in that role is critical.”

Pallacan is taking lessons in music and dance. “I take lessons in violin and I take lessons in ballet and flamenco,” she says. “I took lessons for ballet at Dance Corner, West Windsor with Miss Roni Wilityer, who has been a angel in my life. I take flamenco at Arts Council of Princeton. And I take violin in my school.”

In addition to dancing and playing the violin, “I also like making arts and crafts and reading,” she says, and adds, “I love animals and science. My goals are to be good in school and get better at acting and dancing. [For] now I hope my performance in A Christmas Carol is going to turn out [to be] good and fun.”

The arts, and animals, are interests Pallacan plans to pursue. “When I get older, I want to still be a good person, an actress, a dancer, and a vet.”

Michael Karnaukh

Karnaukh, 13, is a student at Princeton Charter School. In 2016 he performed the role of Pugsley in the musical version of The Addams Family, at the Acting Manitou Summer Theater Program in Oakland, Maine. For A Christmas Carol, he will portray Boy Scrooge.

“Michael is a terrific young actor,” enthuses Immerwahr. “That role requires depth of feeling. His scene is short, but it’s a pivotal scene in Scrooge’s story. Michael is an actor who can really navigate it. It’s one of the more challenging roles in this play, but Michael came in and took us through the emotional journey of the character, responded beautifully to direction, and I think he’s going to be an incredibly moving Boy Scrooge.”

Karnaukh takes lessons in dance, music, and acting. “I take dance at Princeton Ballet School,” he says. “I take bass guitar, piano, and music theory at Westminster Conservatory. I also go to an amazing acting summer theater performance camp in Maine, called Acting Manitou. [It was] founded by Steve Borowka and Tim Brownell, [who] both worked at McCarter.”

In addition to dancing and singing, “I like to write stories and plays,” says Karnaukh. Asked about his goals, he replies, “I hope to give the audience an amazing show at the McCarter Theatre in A Christmas Carol. In the future I hope to live life to the fullest and go wherever I was meant to go.”

Camille Grove

Grove, 7, is a student at Maurice Hawk Elementary School. She will play Emilia, a girl at Fred’s party. Her A Christmas Carol audition was her first. “Camille brought extraordinary audacity to her audition,” Immerwahr recalls. “Her personality shone through! She responded really well to direction.”

Asked whether she is taking lessons in acting or music, she replies, “Yes. I’ve have been playing guitar for two years. My teacher is Mr. Jean Chamount, a jazz guitarist from France.”

In addition to acting and playing the guitar, she loves “to read, write stories, write songs, bake, play with friends, listen to music, and watch TV.” When she is older she wants to “keep practicing and learning so I can become better at guitar and piano.” Revealing ambition that belies her young age, she adds, “I also would like to get a Ph.D. one day. I also would like to start my own business.”

Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson

Darkness and Light

Against the bleak backdrop of Dickensian London, “The addition of our very loving cast is what brings in the warmth,” Zetterberg says. “What’s thrilling about this new production is that it brings you into the classic story, and gives you a new understanding of Scrooge’s journey—from his selfishness and lack of compassion, to his embracing of his community.”

“Scrooge opens the windows in his bedroom, letting light shine in for the first time,” adds Immerwahr. “He goes and brings presents to people, and suddenly it starts snowing. So we’ve gone from the rainy, bleak London to beautiful Christmas London. The hope I have for the audience’s experience of the production is that they’ll get to watch Christmas be invented every night, and by the end of the journey, you’re thinking, ‘Winter, that incredibly special time of the year. I’m ready for the holidays!”

A Christmas Carol is at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton from December 5-31. For more information, call 609.258.2787 or visit www.mccartertheatre.org.