Suwannee Democrat

Suwannee Democrat

November 27, 2012

Bell’s ‘Christmas Carol’ a hit

Branford — Can one man successfully perform live theatre portraying multiple characters and narrate a beloved classic of English literature? Like the Dickens! Especially if you’re referring to John Bell’s adaptation of Charles Dickens timeless classic, “A Christmas Carol”. Bell did two stellar performances at the Branford Public Library on Nov. 16. In case you missed it, you have another chance coming soon. To catch John Bell Presents: “A Christmas Carol”, he’ll be performing Dec. 6 at 6:30 p.m. at the Live Oak Public Library on South Ohio Avenue in Live Oak.

Bell, 70, an actor originally from Olean, New York found his way down to McAlpin back in 1993, where he and his wife Susan now reside. Bell explained that years ago, he wanted to move to Florida, but to live as far north in a rural area, but not too far from the urban. Other criteria to consider was that hopefully be in Florida far enough away from the typical hurricane paths.

“I had pulled up information on the last 80 years here,” said Bell. “They (hurricanes) all came through Suwannee.”

Although the tropical storm and hurricane track record didn’t seem too favorable, Bell still found the McAlpin area to be the place he wanted to live.

“Crime was also getting rampant,” said Bell. “I didn’t want to look back in 20 years and say, ‘what if’ I had moved to the country.”  

Bell first got “bitten” by the drama bug back in high school. From the graduating class of 1960, Bell’s passion for the arts bloomed when he made his theatre debut in “The Diary of Anne Frank”. It has grown ever since.

Bell decided about four years ago to take “A Christmas Carol” and revise and adapt it into a one-man show with little in the way of props, often pantomiming different objects within the performance.

“I don’t do the entire story,” said Bell. “I’ve picked out the highlights.”

Bell calculated that he, probably from inception, put a good 300 hours of intense work into memorizing and blocking (stage direction and movement) the entire piece.

“I was getting up at 4 a.m. working on the script,” said Bell. “And of course you’re always making changes. Something that works on paper, might not work out loud.”

Besides the memorization, the breathing and the movement play a huge part in how the lines are delivered. Before show time. Bell often does warm-up exercises, methods vocal coaches encourage to “save” one’s voice from straining too much.

“Sometimes I sing the script,” said Bell. “I’ll move my voice up and down and it actually relaxes the vocal cords.”

Bell explained that “A Christmas Carol” was a work in progress as it’s been written, revised, revised some more and is constantly being tweaked for improvement and to keep fresh. Bell gets much-needed feedback and advice from his wife Susan.
“She’s an honest critic and my stage manager,” said Bell. “She provides the audience’s point of view.”

Bell explained that while you’re performing, there are things you may be unaware that you do or don’t do.

Bell continued on how Susan was a vital and integral part to his success. She not only honestly critiques his performances, but she also has talent for set design and utilizes so little to the utmost.

“She has a great eye for the arrangement of a set,” said Bell. “Down to the smallest details, even something like where to place the doily on the table.”

One of the advantages that Bell has during his extremely small, intimate venues, is that he’s able to greet the audience prior to the performance. He’ll get acquainted with the different people and often parents will bring their young children to see it. One of Bell’s favorite things to do is to include audience participation especially the younger children for the ending of the play. He’ll “coach” the kids before the performance, so that at the very end, he’ll point to the kids to recite Tiny Tim’s line of, “God bless us all, every one.”

Bell recently had one of his little performers say the line incorrectly, but it was obviously a funny, and even more heart-warming experience he’ll always treasure.

“I had a little girl before a recent show that was going to say the ‘God bless us all, everyone’ at the end,” said Bell. “I had asked this little girl’s mother if it was okay and she said yes, so I kept asking her if she knew it and she would say it.”

Bell even went as far as to wanting the little girl to stand up to say the line. The mother was of course in agreement. Bell assured the girl that although you might not do this during a normal performance, this was okay.

When it came to the end of the play, Bell with all confidence and assurance in his little actress, pointed to her to deliver the final line.

“I pointed to her and she stood up,” said Bell. “She said, God bless America.”

Bell and the audience, mother included, loved it.

Bell’s short term goals and aspirations?

“To keep theatre alive in some form,” said Bell. “I’m pleased to what a good job Miss Bass (Emily Bass, Suwannee High School Drama teacher) is doing. I hope it encourages other adults.”

Bell is a firm believer in the arts playing a vital role in the mental development and growth in kids and sees art in most things.

“There’s art in sports, in a car designer, how they approach or prepare, a farmer or even a well digger,” said Bell. “Art is a wider spectrum than most are aware of.”

It’s been in Bell’s experience, that most parents like to see their children involved in the arts in some way and encourage it. He believes they instinctively know that being involved in the arts is a natural and vibrant necessity to a person’s well-being.

Bell’s long-term goals are among other things, performing “A Christmas Carol” but through the eyes of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s long-time partner whose ghostly visit after seven years warns him on Christmas Eve of things to come.

Bell would also like to see Live Oak and the surrounding areas have a community theatre. He stressed how important it would be to have a theatre or space for the performing arts, but along with the expense and the conflicting schedules for people, getting a practice/performance place will be quite a challenge.
Bell is currently the vice-president of the Live Oak Artists Guild. To be a member of the guild and to help support the arts in the area, you may email liveoakartists@liveoakartistsguild.org

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