Dickens era to come alive in Southport

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By Sue MacCallum
Special to the Beacon
This year is the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth. There are celebrations around the world to honor this beloved literary genius and philanthropist of 19th century England. However, few may know the following facts about Dickens:
As a young child, he recited classical soliloquies and sang operatic arias at his father’s behest for his parents’ lavish parties. During a protracted childhood illness, he constructed a toy theatre and miniature performers in his nursery. He wrote, acted and directed his little theatrical creations. As an adult, he acted in and directed numerous productions.
When he had the financial means, he built a theatre in his home at Tavistock, and after he achieved prominence as a writer in England, he made two literary tours of America. Henceforth, he was esteemed an
international treasure.
Charles Dickens was honored in this year’s grand opening ceremony of the World Olympics in London, England. British actors, dancers and singers enacted events of the British Victorian era reflecting the class system, the industrial revolution, and child labor abuse. Dickens’ influence in major human rights reform was depicted in their performances.
In a stunning conclusion to the Olympic ceremony, hospital beds surrounded the arena stage. The children in the beds were recent patients of London’s Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital. The significance? The hospital was founded in the 1800s to treat indigent children, but lacked financial support to continue. Charles Dickens raised sufficient funds through public readings to secure its future. Ormond Street Children’s Hospital remains a vital health care provider today.
One of Charles Dickens’ most memorable quotations, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” is as true today as it was when he wrote “Tale of Two Cities.” In spite of the vicissitudes of current world economics and politics, there is no better time to commemorate the inspiration of Dickens’ life.
While his father adulated Charles in early childhood, he sent him to work in a boot-blacking factory with inhumane conditions, thus separating Charles from his family. His meager wages were sent home to support his parents’ excessive mode of living. It was a very dark, lonely period in his life, something he never shared with others. As he began to write, the young author’s characters were based on numerous adults who influenced his difficult childhood. Soon, the power of Dickens’ early periodicals and novels resonated with people of diverse socio-economic backgrounds in England. Over the years, Dickens’ brilliant writing caused enormous positive reform in England.
In celebration of Dickens’ 200th birthday, and for his inspiration to enrich and transform lives through the arts, the Brunswick County Arts Council and the town of Southport will sponsor a bicentennial Charles Dickens Christmas Festival in historic downtown Southport from 1-9 p.m. Friday, Nov 30, rain or shine. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children 7-12. Children 6 and younger are free to this family-oriented festival. Price includes two-day event for all venues and entertainment.
Tickets may be purchased in advance at www.brunswickartscouncil.org or email requests to artsinbc@gmail.com or call (910) 371-2641.
In the spirit of Dickens’ philanthropy, there will be collection sites for donations to Brunswick Family Assistance (canned and dry goods), Brunswick County Homeless Coalition (warm clothing and toiletries) and Brunswick County Literacy Council (books).

Highlights of Festival
Many surprises will occur during this first-ever Charles Dickens Christmas Festival in Southport, including:
•    Stroll on the streets in an historic recreation of a Dickens Village where singers, actors, dancers, town criers, puppeteers, merchants, storytellers and restaurateurs will interest all ages with Dickensian-era performances and culinary treats. This will include impersonations of a variety of Dickens’ most colorful characters. Lively British “Christmas Pantos” (based on pantomimes) will entertain strollers. At the same time, enjoy holiday boutique shopping and high tea at the Ruark Inn or Lois Jane’s B&B.
•    Professional guest artist Gina Gambony will perform puppet shows, including the famous British Punch and Judy characters (appropriate for all age levels).
•    Victorian Santa and his special elves will entertain and pose for photos with children.
•    Closing candlelight ceremony and carols ‘round the lighted gazebo will take place on Friday and Saturday evenings.
•    Merchants and museums will extend their hours for the festival.
•    There will be Christmas tree, wreath, costume and gingerbread house contests.
•    Watch woodturner demonstrations.
•    Public School ROTC students and many other community groups will participate in this event.
•    Enjoy a boutique holiday.

Inside Southport’s Historic Venues
Transport yourself to the world of Charles Dickens:
•    An Olde English nativity play (choral pieces by Ralph Vaughn Williams and Olde English dialogue) at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church sanctuary (about 55 minutes).
•    Charles Dickens as a young actor and director presents a Victorian variety show at the historic Amuzu Theatre (about 50 minutes).
•    Guest artist David Zum Brennan will perform “A Night Before Christmas Carol,” a depiction of Dickens’ life, on Friday and Saturday (about 80 minutes each). On Friday only, he will also perform “Food and Froth,” an entertaining comedy about Dickens’ favorite foods (about 80 minutes).
•    Guest artist Tony Palermo from Los Angeles, Ca., will perform four interactive “Sparx Sound Effects Spectacular’’ shows on Saturday. He has created this for all ages to enjoy (about 35 minutes).
•    Guest speaker Mark Sorensen, associate professor of costume design, UNCW theatre program, will share his expertise on Victorian fashions, including a display of period costumes.
•    Selection of songs from “Oliver” performed by cast members of Brunswick Little Theatre.
•    The Madrigal Singers: Mixed Doubles Barbershop Quartet, Blackjack Quartet, Oakwood Waits Carolers and other choral groups, instrumental ensembles and soloists will give short performances.
•    Display of Victorian collectibles.
•    Display of artwork from public school students’ art contest.
•    Performances by public school drama and music students.
•    Professional storytellers share literary excerpts evoking images of Victorian Christmas’ past.
•    And many, many more offerings await you and your family…

Significance of the Charles Dickens Christmas Festival
Southport is a charming seacoast village with a fascinating place in the history of America. It’s unique for its rich cultural offerings in its schools, theatre groups, art galleries, museums, historic buildings and artisan workshops. Brunswick County Arts Council was keenly aware of this in considering Southport for its first-ever Charles Dickens Christmas Festival. The council is delighted that Southport’s Mayor Howard, board of alderman, city officials and merchants agreed to partner with the council on this endeavor. The many volunteers participating in the festival also appreciate the significance of holding the event in Southport.
Southport, Brunswick County and the state of North Carolina have a proud history as champions of arts enrichment and its resultant inspiration and revenue for the entire state. The Brunswick Arts Council’s mission continues to raise awareness of the arts in Brunswick County, to educate county leaders concerning the value of the arts in community and to promote arts education for children and adults. The council works to encourage the growth of the arts as a creative industry that will provide current and prospective Brunswick County residents with financial and cultural enrichment.
Arts education for children is a most significant priority. The future of our statewide cultural and economic health rests on the integration of arts in the schools. In April of this year, a statewide Arts Education Commission issued a report “…that reflects the positive impact of the arts on students’ learning and critical thinking, creativity and innovation, both key drivers for economic growth and thriving communities.”
In the Americans for the Arts report, “Young people who devote significant time to the arts are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement. They are three times more likely to win an award for school attendance. Steady exposure to the arts has also shown to have measurable impact on at-risk youth, deterring behavior problems and raising academic performance.”
Arts education is no longer an overall priority in North Carolina. There are a number of obstacles, according to the Arts Education Commission, among them, “(a lack of)…funding, facilities, such as studios and performance areas, and perceptions that arts education should not be a priority.”
It is the hope of the Brunswick Arts Council that proceeds from the Charles Dickens Christmas Festival will help support arts education and arts organizations in Brunswick County.