When the Guthrie Theater opens its 43rd production of "A Christmas Carol" this weekend, one of the newcomers on stage will be 10-year-old Sophie Jones of Chaska.
She's never before appeared on a professional stage. She's making her debut in a high-profile role: Tiny Tim.
And although she's had a demanding rehearsal schedule and is about to begin a grueling series of performances through Dec. 30, Sophie is unequivocal:
"I love it," she said. "It's so fun — because, just like, all the people you get to meet, and the fun experience it is."
The cast and crew of "A Christmas Carol" met for the first time in mid-October in the Guthrie's main rehearsal room. It was a festive occasion, with more than 100 people involved. For Sophie and her parents, it was a chance to get to know the people she'd be spending the next two and a half months with.
Sophie sat just a few chairs from Nat Fuller, a Guthrie veteran playing Ebenezer Scrooge for the fifth time. After hearing from the show's creative team, the cast got right to work reading the script together.
Sophie snacked on goldfish crackers and followed along, waiting patiently for her first real line, which comes toward the end of Act One: "God bless us, every one!"
This is not the first time in the Guthrie's history that a girl has played the iconic character of Tiny Tim. Girls tend to develop language skills faster than boys. Even so, a prominent role on the stage of the Midwest's flagship theater is a rare chance for a 10-year-old girl.
Sophie's parents, Anne and Tony Jones, are working hard to help her make the most of it. Getting Sophie to the theater takes 45 minutes on a good day, and the cast has been rehearsing six days a week.
None of her five siblings have taken to theater the way she has. Pretty much every dinner party at the Jones house ends with Sophie putting on a show with her karaoke setup.
"Oh yeah," she said. "I take that upstairs and then I get up on the coffee table and SING!"
Her parents are more soft-spoken:
"Sophie has a gift that we don't have," said her father, Tony. Her mother, Anne, "would rather die than stand up on a theater [stage] and speak, sing, dance, act — because I really can't do any of those."
Most kids would complain about 14-hour days divided between school and rehearsals. Not Sophie.
She's been singing and dancing since she was a toddler. When she was 8, she was cast as Noah for a church play. Her parents have supported her with voice lessons, and when she landed a part in a community theater production, they both helped out with the show.
Anne took Sophie to auditions for "A Christmas Carol" thinking the audition itself would be good practice. When Sophie landed the role, her parents worried she might not be ready. But they also knew it was a fabulous opportunity.
"I'm blown away by the things she tells me that she's working on and what she's learning," Anne said. "It's just amazing to see what she's getting to experience through this."
Sophie admits there are frustrations.
"Sometimes it's hard when you have this whole dance memorized and then they kind of just change it on you," she said. "And you're just like, 'OK, now I just have to get that out of my mind.'"
One of the people Sophie gets to work with is Lucinda Holshue. She's a vocal coach, helping Sophie with her British accent and projecting. "But she already has so much natural presence and radiance that it's been a very pleasurable task," she said.
Holshue said Sophie might be new to professional theater, but she's bringing a lot of natural talent with her.
"She's not self-conscious at all," she said. "And she's very committed to getting it exactly right. And it would be great to see her ... move up through other roles as she gets older."
For now, though, Sophie's a kid, one of 12 children in the production. The girls have their own dressing room. They bring coloring books and games to play and decorate their changing stations. They bring their own snacks, but they're not allowed to eat any candy during rehearsals. Sophie said that part can be hard.
"My energy sometimes gets like, 'When can we leave? I'm so so tired, oh my gosh this is so tiring,' kind of just like 'OK, when are we going to be done?'" she said. "So I try to keep myself motivated. Sometimes I just walk around, I get a drink of water and go to the bathroom."
Abby Littrell is one of three child supervisors charged with accompanying the kids whenever they aren't on stage. She keeps track of their entrances and exits and makes sure they don't get too out of hand.
"I think kids have to be very motivated to commit to a schedule like this. Adults have to be motivated to commit to a schedule like this," she said. "But we do try very hard to make sure that it's fun in a safe environment."
At the start of rehearsals, Sophie had long, curly hair, but a Guthrie hairdresser cut it so that it now hangs just above her shoulders. Over the weeks she's learned to walk with a crutch and a leg brace. It's hard to overstate just how much "A Christmas Carol" has become Sophie's world. So it's a good thing that she likes Charles Dickens' story.
"I like how it's the story of redemption, and that it's cool how Scrooge turns from this mean nasty person to this nice generous person," she said.
While Sophie might not have that many lines, she recognizes that Tiny Tim is at the heart of the production. Without him, there would be no "Christmas Carol." Before the show begins, Sophie's voice rings out in a recorded announcement for the audience, complete with British accent: "Please turn off your mobile at this time. Thank you and enjoy the show."
And then it's showtime. The cast takes the stage, and soon a spotlight shines down on Sophie as she sings: "Lully lullay, Thou little tiny Child ..."
The next two hours fly by. Soon it is Christmas morning, Scrooge has found redemption and lifts Tiny Tim upon his shoulders. And as the play closes, she delivers her signature line once more: "God bless us, every one."
Sophie has successfully completed her first full professional performance in front of a live audience. That's one down, and 55 to go.
Correction: (Nov. 21, 2017) Bella Lockhart was misidentified in a photo caption in an earlier version of this story.