‘A Christmas card to Atlanta’
Most families have their holiday traditions. Chances are, going to see A Christmas Carol at the Alliance Theatre is one of yours. Something you may not realize, however, is that the show is a holiday tradition for some of its actors, too.
For example, this is the 26th consecutive year Chris Kayser, who plays Ebenezer Scrooge, has appeared in a theatrical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ famous novel. “I started at the Academy Theatre, which is now the 14th Street Playhouse,” Kayser explains. “When the Academy Theatre closed, the Alliance Theatre started doing A Christmas Carol, so I started doing it [here].”
He hasn’t always played Scrooge, however. In the many different versions he’s done over the years, he’s appeared as Bob Cratchit, Old Joe, Topper and Marley. “One year at the Academy, I did this totally made up character, Lorenzo,” he remembers with a laugh. “I wheeled myself around in a cart and pretended to be legless. I didn’t say anything, but I had a little piano in that wagon, and I used to play it.” He offered to reprise the role of Lorenzo for subsequent shows, “but nobody seemed too keen,” he chuckles.
Some of his favorite years with the show were when his daughter appeared with him onstage at the Alliance. “My daughter was in it with me for four years, when she was between the ages of eight and 12,” he says. “I only expected her to do it once, but as it turns out, she was really good.” He also has fond memories of a moment shared with singer/actress Bernadine Mitchell in the Sandra Deer adaptation of the show. “There’s a moment where Scrooge is left onstage and, to cheer me up, she sang to me. I used to think ‘She’s singing just to me, and people pay a lot of money to see her sing; I love my job!’”
Now in his 15th year as Scrooge, Kayser says he never gets bored. “I believe in the play,” he says. “I believe it’s worth doing. And it’s not like being in a hit on Broadway, where you’re doing the same thing for six or seven years in a row. It’s one of six or seven shows [I do] a year.”
Bart Hansard, who’s in his sixth year with the show, says Kayser inspires the rest of the cast to keep things fresh. “He comes out every night, and it’s like the first time he’s gone on this journey,” Hansard says. “It’s a challenge to stay with him and make it seem spontaneous.”
Hansard plays Mr. Fezzywig and the Ghost of Christmas Present. One of the things he loves most about the show is working with director, Rosemary Newcott, the Sally G. Tomlinson Artistic Director of Theatre for Youth, and getting together with the cast for holiday meals. “I’m [also] a big Christmas-phile,” he says. “It’s fun to do this particular story, and … this is a show that my parents can bring their friends to and my sister can bring her kids to. It’s a nice, inclusive show for everyone in the community.”
When Hansard first joined the cast, he researched the play by watching every version of A Christmas Carol that he could find — from the Scrooge McDuck cartoon to the Bill Murray movie Scrooged. “It made me realize how universal [the story] is,” he says. “People love it because they know Scrooge is going to be redeemed, but it’s sort of delicious knowing what a curmudgeon he is going to be beforehand.”
That theme is a big reason why Neal Ghant, who plays Bob Cratchit, is returning to the Alliance for his 10th season with the show. “It has some strong moral messages about forgiveness and redemption,” he explains.
Over the years, Ghant has played every part except for the women’s roles. “But I know all the women’s roles, too,” he chuckles. Backstage, he says, there’s a real family feel, which is cultivated by the Alliance’s attempt to hire the same local cast members year after year. That familiarity has given way to another holiday tradition for the cast: pranks.
One of Ghant’s favorite backstage pranks is Mr. Cheer. “Mr. Cheer is Bart Hansard,” Ghant explains. “He loves to walk around in this leotard, and he’s created this entire persona [that], before the show, comes out in the green room. At some point [during the run], everyone’s expecting it, but he only does it once or twice a season.”
His favorite show moment, however, is onstage. “At the opening of the second act, the entire cast is downstage and sing ‘I Hear the Bells,’” Ghant says. “It’s a really powerful moment for me. The ideas of redemption are just now being introduced, and you get to look right in the audience’s eyes — children and their parents — and see them smile and enjoy the show.”
Seeing children in the theatre every night also reminds Ghant of why doing A Christmas Carol is important. Because, for a moment, he says, it doesn’t matter how tired or cold he is — he’s temporarily part of the magic of Christmas.
Hansard says director Rosemary Newcott has a great phrase she uses to sum up the show. “She says, ‘This is a Christmas card that we are giving to the city of Atlanta.’” Other shows may try to exclude or ignore the audience, he adds, but A Christmas Carol deliberately lowers the fourth wall to let you, the audience, become part of the experience.