By Kevin Redding
Janet Emily Demarest of Huntington has dedicated most of her adulthood to inspiring people through the combination of history and storytelling. A popular lecturer, Demarest has appeared on stage, at universities, museums and libraries across Long Island to teach about storytelling and perform historical theatrical works she’s written.
Most people on the North Shore, however, know her best as Mrs. Dilber, the energetic host of “Scrooge: The Inside Story,” the wildly popular audience participation show that has become a staple at the Port Jefferson Charles Dickens Festival, which returns to the village this weekend.
I recently had the opportunity to speak to Demarest about the show, the importance of performing for people, and what made her want to don a mop cap and become Mrs. Dilber.
What is ‘Scrooge: The Inside Story’ about?
Mrs. Dilber, the character that I’m playing, is actually mentioned in Charles Dickens’ book, “A Christmas Carol.” She is Scrooge’s housekeeper. The way that I’ve kind of reimagined the story is that Mrs. Dilber knows all of the little crazier things that actually went on. What [the show] really does is it allows me as a performer to be able to have an audience participation telling of “A Christmas Carol” utilizing adults as the major characters … by not so much giving them lines, but by giving them situations to react to, and then have the audience react to them. It’s kind of “commedia dell’arte” (improvised performance based on scenarios) but certainly not as fancy as all that.
I’m basically the facilitator. I tell the story but I select nine people from the audience to play Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, the ghosts, Tiny Tim and so on. These are all people that are just randomly selected from the audience. Just after years and years of doing theater, I have a pretty good sense of who’s going to be able to sit still on stage and who looks the part. So many people that I do choose wind up really warming up to it and it winds up being a great show.
I’ll get a Scrooge out of nowhere and he’ll go and sit with a little top hat, and anytime that I’ll say “let’s hear it for Scrooge!” everybody gives him the raspberries. It’s a sillier kind of version but we do stay very close to the story. It’s a little bit improvisation, it’s a little bit of theatrical and visual comedy, and above all, it’s a means of everyone having fun together.
How did the show come about?
For many years I have worked as the historic storyteller at Old Bethpage Village Restoration and I’ve performed at the Long Island Fair. One of my colleagues over there, Pat Darienzo who is a magician, had expressed to me “Oh you need to be at the Dickens Festival!” because he had been performing there for a number of years himself [as The Great Wizard of the North]. So he gave me the contact information, put me in touch with the woman at the time who was doing the coordination, and we spoke and she booked me for the one event and the rest, darling, as they say, is history. I have been playing Mrs. Dilber … I think this is going to be my fifth year.
So you wrote the show and serve as the only professional actor?
Absolutely. Well, I wrote it based on Dickens of course. (Speaking in an upscale London accent) “As Mrs. Dilber, you know, that gentleman down the block, you know, I told him that story and he wrote it all down and then sold it for millions, the little Dickens!”
What made you want to have your own spin on this story?
Oh I love “A Christmas Carol.” I love every iteration … I love every single movie; I love the Broadway show; I love the book! It’s just such a beautiful story about getting outside yourself and being able to see how our littlest actions really affect other people, so it’s a story that really speaks to me. And I love the fact that it doesn’t matter if you celebrate Christmas or not. It doesn’t matter because being the kind of person that thinks about other people is universal. That’s what’s really appealing to me.
What is the most rewarding part about playing Mrs. Dilber and performing for people?
Something happened a year or two ago, and I will never forget it and it will always mean a lot to me. I selected somebody for the show, and after the show the gentleman came to me and said, “I had the best time and I didn’t even wanna come!” And I looked at him and I was like, “Oh, who wouldn’t wanna come to this?!” And he said, “No you don’t understand … I just lost my wife to cancer a few months ago. I didn’t want to come; I didn’t want to celebrate Christmas. My friends insisted that I come, and I don’t know what made you hone in on me in the audience, but I think it must’ve been my wife trying to tell you that I needed this.”
So to be able to give somebody back a sense of the joy of the simplest things of Christmas … that’s what it’s all about. It’s so important to take that time to be with your family, and take that time to be silly.
What do you do when you’re not Mrs. Dilber?
I’ve taught marketing and managing courses, mostly at Nassau Community College and also at New York Institute of Technology, and occasionally in other places as well … like Hofstra.
This past year I’ve been doing a lot of college lecturing for lifelong learners. I have worked for Molloy College, LIU Post — they’ve got an award-winning lecture series up there called The Hutton House Lectures and I’ve been fortunate to lecture for them. I’ve been focused on Long Island history and the historical background of certain things that we know and love as a college lecturer.
Two years ago, I published my first book. It’s called “Tales from the General Store: The Legends of Long Island.” It deals with all of those little legends on Long Island that you’ve heard of, like the Smithtown Bull or Mile-a-Minute Murphy or Goody Garlick and the very first witch trial on Long Island, which took place 30 years before Salem.
On Nov. 1 of this year, I came out with my second book called “A Merry, Very Victorian Christmas!: Trivia, Tales and Traditions from 19th Century America.” From gathering more and more information over the past couple years, I’ve realized that it’s so much fun trying to put history and Christmas together and make it interesting for people.
Have you always been interested in performing?
Whether it was a classroom or I was playing Tevye’s wife in “Fiddler on the Roof,” there was always an audience there. I graduated with an MBA in Organizational Behavior, which is an offshoot of management that I never really utilized as a career because I immediately had my kids and I really wanted to spend time with them.
My oldest son’s second-grade teacher was a spectacular woman; she knew more about human nature — adults and children alike — more than anyone I ever met. And so she encouraged me: “You’ve got this theatrical background, let’s try to make a safety video for the children.”
So I started writing for children and writing shows, putting on shows, and in the meantime I had started doing some local theater for Plaza Theatrical, that used to do all these tours all over Long Island and the tri-state area. I would be touring with them and teaching and raising the kids and all that. As I got a little bit older and I started writing some historically based shows, I started my relationship with Old Bethpage Village. I went over there to borrow a costume and next thing I know they said, “We could really use a storyteller.”
Where do you get your costume?
I make my costume out of rags and riches, of course! It’s just a mop cap and whatever funky looking blouse I can find that looks period. And then I add some flowers and some aprons. I’ve got big, bulky, hobnail boot-looking things … like a housekeeper from the early 1800s. I’m channeling Carol Burnett!
What makes the Dickens Festival so special? Why should people go?
People should go to the Dickens Festival because it gives families an opportunity to have a fun experience together. When you go there and see things a little bit more historically based, it gives families the opportunity to open up a dialogue about traditions, like “what I did as a child …”
Grandpa’s not necessarily walking through the five miles of snow, but he may say, “Well this is how I did it …” And then the grandkids say, “Ooh, let’s do it the way Grandpa did it!” It seems to expand the Christmas culture as it is for families, so the younger people understand why things were done the way they were in the past … so it opens up a dialogue about what’s considered an established culture for Christmas.
Performances of “Scrooge: The Inside Story” by Mrs. Dilber will be held during Port Jefferson’s Charles Dickens Festival on Saturday, Dec. 3, at noon and 1:30 p.m. and on Sunday, Dec. 4., at noon in the Sail Loft Room, third floor, of the Port Jefferson Village Center, at 101A E. Broadway. This show is free to the public. For more information, please call 631-802-2160.