The first rule of Ebenezer Club is: Take lots of naps.
Morphing from friendless creep to Mr. Christmas Cheer during the course of two nonstop hours on stage requires a lot of stamina, say the men who have played miserly Ebenezer Scrooge in the Guthrie Theater’s annual “A Christmas Carol.”
Richard Ooms gave up smoking. J.C. Cutler hit the gym. And Nathaniel Fuller, who plays the skinflint in the production that opens this week, forgoes his evening cocktail.
In all, 19 actors have played the role since the Guthrie debuted its annual cash cow in 1975. Raye Birk, who played Scrooge there from 2005 to 2008, has talked about starting a club.
Their proposed secret handshake: Extend the hand but, just before gripping, pull it back and say, “Bah, humbug!”
While the play has changed a bit over the years — Fuller jokes that he doesn’t have to learn his lines; he has to unlearn the ones from previous productions — at heart it’s a huge emotional journey that Birk compares to one of Shakespeare’s most legendary parts: “It’s as big as Lear, in terms of the demands the role places on an actor.”
One actor who would know is Fuller, a five-time-Scrooge who played Lear at the Guthrie last winter.
“There aren’t quite as many lines as Lear, but Scrooge goes through the whole gamut of emotions,” says Fuller. “He goes through a great deal of pain, when the past is brought up and he has to confront his own death. Then, when he’s converted at the end, he’s insanely happy.”
That insane happiness takes a lot of energy at the end of the night.
“You’re running up and down a staircase a couple of times, so keeping your breath control is always a major concern,” says Peter Michael Goetz, a four-time Scrooge during the 2000s. “I’d be panting and needing to find a spot to get that out somewhere. It’s grueling, like Hamlet or Willy Loman.”
Cutler, who played the part from 2011 through last winter, began prepping long before even the most premature holiday catalog dared to show up in mailboxes.
“That first year, I wasn’t really prepared for it, but I learned that by mid-July you need to be in the gym with your running shoes on, running, weightlifting,” says Cutler, who just finished playing another icon, J. Edgar Hoover, in “All the Way” at History Theatre. “The legs, particularly, take a beating because there are lots of stairs, the floor is a little uneven, you’re running around. And the clothing! When Scrooge enters, he’s wearing a heavy overcoat — a heavy overcoat — and five other layers of heavy stuff, so you need to have good legs and good wind.”
“A Christmas Carol” also comes at the heart of cold and flu season, and it has an unusually heavy schedule, with school shows in addition to public performances. Sometimes there’s a whole lotta sneezing going on, but Cutler didn’t miss a single “Christmas Carol” in six years.
“I was always really proud of everyone in the show because it’s almost an Olympic thing that requires you to keep your health,” he said.
Would-be members of the Ebenezer Club offer each other tips. Cutler said he “became friends with Peter right before I got the role — we had shared a dressing room in ‘Arms and the Man.’ So, early on that first year, I called him for advice.” Besides sticking to a monastic regime, “the other great advice he gave me was that the show is one of the most brilliant things at the Guthrie. He said to just let it swirl around you and try not to get hurt.”
Membership does have its privileges. That heavier-than-usual performance schedule comes with union-mandated overtime. Not unlike a retailer who makes 30 percent of annual sales at holiday time, “Christmas Carol”-ers can make a decent haul each December.
“You could end up with eight, nine, 10 shows a week,” notes Birk, who is currently onstage in “Roller Derby Queen” at Gremlin Theatre. “The actors love that. You get some really fat checks.”
Setting the tone
With such a large company — 41 actors in all — Scrooge takes the lead in more ways than one.
“You have to set an example,” says Cutler. “You can’t be the person who comes in and says, ‘I’m tired.’ You need to set a good pace. You need to caretake the thing. I’d work closely with the stage manager, Michele Hossle, talking every day, because I’m out there, seeing everything, and she would ask, ‘How is the pace? What else did you see?’ ”
Sometimes, Scrooge sees that things are not going according to plan. Near the end of one performance, Ooms looked up, so Scrooge could delight in the magical (plastic) snowflakes that were falling on Victorian England — and they landed in his mouth, nearly choking him.
Ooms survived to play the role in eight Guthrie productions between 1983 and 1995. In the second performance he ever did, he awaited the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Future, who was strapped into 3-foot-high stilts.
“He was entering up the vom [the aisles into the audience], which is very difficult because you’re coming up at an angle. Scrooge is trembling and there’s all this thunder and lightning. ‘What is this apparition before me?’ And the actor trips and falls flat on his face. Everything came to a screeching halt. The stagehands came out because he couldn’t pick himself up, so they just sort of propped him up. As an actor, you’re sort of thinking, ‘Ah, where do I go from here?’ ”
Cutler has had a few of those moments. “One opening night, right before the Fezziwig scene, I see a woman in the audience waving her arms and shouting. I figure she’s really hating the performance or something, but she keeps shouting and I see a man next to her, looking pale, like he’s dead. So I stopped the show and gave Michele the cutoff sign.” The man was having a seizure.
The trauma was on stage the very first time Cutler acted at the Guthrie, playing Young Ebenezer. “The stage was slick from the fake fog,” he remembers. “I fell, on my very first entrance, and broke a teacup in my hand. So I did a 20-minute scene with blood pouring down my hand.”
Best part of the holiday
Even when all goes well, it takes discipline to keep “A Christmas Carol” fresh for 43 years. Goetz had a little trick: Before each show, he peeked into the audience and selected one audience member. From then on, he’d pretend he was telling the story to that person.
But the Scrooges concur that it’s such a great part, few tricks are necessary.
For Birk, “it’s a play about a man who is facing his own death, except it has a happy ending. If you don’t have the dark elements in the play, it’s just sentimental. I think, at some point along the way, the audience has to believe Scrooge is going to die,” he says, his eyes welling up as he enacts a scene in which Scrooge confronts his mortality. “It stays in you. I might not get all the lines quite right but I could give a performance right here, right now.”
All five of the Scrooges we interviewed say they’d step into Dickens’ creation again, given the opportunity — even though it means not getting to spend as much time with family as a non-Scrooge might ordinarily enjoy.
“I would occasionally be able to look out into the audience and see grown men with tears on their cheeks and be reminded of the things we can forget in our lives: that we get a second chance, that we support each other, that it’s all about taking care of one another,” says Cutler, who notes that his first Scrooge came along at an ideal moment, when he was experiencing a spiritual rebirth of his own. “It’s a great, great way to celebrate Christmas. To see those families, who come into the theater, from grandkids to grandparents, and who have it as a part of their tradition? It really magnified for me all of the things that are the best parts of the holiday.”
In fact, Cutler sounds anything but Scrooge-like when he speaks about the guy whose cane he brandished for six straight Christmases:
“It’s just one of the most fun things I have ever done in my life. Complete, total fun, from beginning to end.”