A hit in Europe, Rantoul man's play to open here

The two lead actors in Kenny Chumbley’s “The Goblins and the Gravedigger” — Pete Barrett as the Goblin and Rodney Woodworth as Gabriel Grub — rehearse the upcoming performance of “The Goblins and the Gravedigger.” Barrett is a production manager and four-time Emmy winner at WCIA-TV, and Woodworth is a professional stage and voice actor. The show will be presented this weekend at Rantoul Historical Society.

RANTOUL — A retelling of “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole A Sexton” — Charles Dickens’ first Christmas fairy tale that seven years later became the model for “A Christmas Carol” — will be presented this weekend in Rantoul.

Local author Kenny Chumbley’s “The Goblins and the Gravedigger” will be staged at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 1, at Rantoul History Museum, 1040 Klein Ave.

Following are some questions  posed by Press Editor Dave Hinton answered by Chumbley on how the whole thing came into being.

Please give me an outline/overview of what it’s all about (Obviously I know the story of “A Christmas Carol,” but how does this differ from the original?)

The Goblins and the Gravedigger is my retelling of Charles Dickens’ first-known Christmas fairy tale. We don’t exactly know when he wrote it (sometime in his early 20s), but it appeared as chapter 29 in The Pickwick Papers, which was published in 1836.

Seven years later, when he wrote “A Christmas Carol,” Dickens followed essentially the same outline he used in his goblins story: instead of Ebenezer Scrooge there is Gabriel Grub; instead of ghosts there are goblins. Both stories occur on Christmas Eve; both involve the redemption of a wretched man.

How did you come to write it?

Goblin artwork

The original drawing of the story as it appeared in The Pickwick Papers.

In September 2017, I staged my musical play “The Green Children”; then, in December 2017, I produced Rod Sickler’s presentation of “A Christmas Carol.” I enjoyed those experiences, and knowing Dickens had written Christmas plays other than “Carol,” I decided to retell one of them.

Dickens’ original goblins story was very short, so I had to lengthen it, which I did by writing a backstory. To do this, I drew on my own imagination, but put my part of the story into a Dickensian context. In Dickens’ story, the gravedigger Gabriel Grub physically strikes a young boy on Christmas Eve.

To expand this, I drew on a scene from Dickens’ “Nicholas Nickleby” and its sadistic schoolmaster, Wackford Squeers. In “A Christmas Carol” there are three ghosts for Christmas past, present, and future. In my retelling of the goblins story, I introduce a book with three pages that reveals to Grub his past, present and his passing. My retelling, however, stays true to Dickens’ story, which is the redemption of a miserable man.

On the last day of 2018, I received an email from a theatrical colleague in Dundalk, Ireland, who had been asked to submit a radio show for broadcast over Irish public radio. She had seen a copy of my retelling and thought it would be perfect for a radio show. So I converted the story (which was published in May by Adelaide Books, New York) into a radio script. The script was named a winner by the 2019 Moondance International Film Festival and was named “best script” by the 2019 (Fall) California International Shorts Festival.

An official with the world-famous Dickens Fair, held every December in San Francisco, wrote to say he’s never known anyone to do with the Goblins story what I’ve done with it.

In April, an American cast in Champaign recorded the play, and in June, an Irish cast did the same. It’s a 50-minute show that I’ve been marketing to radio stations in English-speaking countries. Forty stations in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Canada, the U.S, and Australia are set to broadcast the show at Christmas. Dublin South FM, Dublin, Ireland, has already aired the show and plans to do so several more times before Christmas. In fact, I have just now received this from the station manager of Dublin South FM:

Everyone here at our station really enjoyed every minute of the broadcast; we got a fabulous response from our listeners.  It was an extremely professional production, and everybody, not only admiring the wonderful story and voice-overs, all commented on the sound effects. We are so happy with it, we will be playing it many times from now and over the festive period.

Tell me about the director and cast

The Champaign cast that recorded the show in April was made up of local actors in community theater. We had so much fun doing the recording that it was decided we would stage four live shows ahead of Christmas.

These live shows will be done like an old-time radio broadcast. Actors will dress circa 1939; they will stand before microphones and read from the script; and there will be a Foley table for special effects (sound of the wind, footsteps, doors opening and closing, etc.). The show we’ve put together is 90 minutes long. It will open with the CUTC Dickensian Carolers, a wonderful group of singers who dress in period costumes (1840) and sing traditional carols.

There will be an intermission during which refreshments can be purchased (coffee, wassail, shortbreads and other cookies), and then the cast — which we call the Prairie Theatrical Ensemble — will perform the 50-minute show. There will also be a celebrity cameo at each performance. It will be pure fun and family entertainment. Anyone who likes “A Christmas Carol” will like our show; it’s familiar, but fresh.

Talk about having it at the Rantoul History Museum

Earlier this year, in talking with my friend Jim Cheek, director of the Rantoul Historical Museum, I learned he would like to make the museum auditorium available for theatrical performances, musical shows, etc. I suggested holding two of our live performances there. Jim was immediately receptive and has encouraged and facilitated this happening at every step of the way.

This will be the world premiere of the live play. It’s hard to get through December without Dickens, and if area residents would like to kick off the Christmas season by coming out to see a never-before-staged Dickens show, we would love to see you. Seating is limited. Tickets can be purchased online at prairie-papers.com or at the door.