By Caitlin Elftman Arts & Entertainment Contributor Published Nov 21, 2018 at 4:01 PM

Community theater is a place of new discoveries and life-long learning. It can introduce you to a new hobby, a new relationship or even a new life path. It contributes to the arts in a community and teaches many important skills such as teamwork, problem solving and confidence. This is Community Corner, an OnMilwaukee series that focuses on the outstanding work being done in the greater Milwaukee area's many community theaters.

If the test of a great novel is survival, then no one can argue that Charles Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol" is surely one of the greatest works of literature ever written.

It’s been part of the public’s imagination of Christmas since it was first introduced to readers in 1843, and it’s popularity isn’t waning any time soon. The reason for its longevity is simple: Its enduring message of love, forgiveness and charity are lessons that are not bound to a particular time and place. This heartfelt story is truly a way for all of us to keep the beauty of Christmas in our hearts all year long.

For more than 59 years, Lake Country Playhouse has served as a vibrant artistic hub for performers and audience members who seek theater in a rich and intimate style. Located in the heart of downtown Hartland, Lake Country Playhouse is a converted Masonic Lodge that houses an 82-seat black box theater; scenic, paint, and costume shops; and The Playhouse Performing Arts Academy for youth performers. This theater is especially meaningful to me on a personal level; not only have I always seen wonderful productions there, but it’s where I first met my husband and where he proposed to me.

In addition to the variety of exceptional dramas, comedies and musicals that compose its rich theatrical seasons, Lake Country Playhouse is also known for its annual production of the beloved holiday story, "A Christmas Carol." This year’s production, running Nov. 29 through Dec. 9, stars Marty Graffenius as everyone’s favorite holiday grump.

Here is a taste of my conversation with the squeezing, wrenching, grasping, covetous old sinner in Lake Country Playhouse’s upcoming production of "A Christmas Carol: The Musical."

OnMilwaukee: Tell me about your background as an actor in local community theater. What first made this a passion for you?

Marty Graffenius: I’ve always dreamed of doing theater, but life never allowed me the time to do it until seven years ago. I finally had the time and auditioned for "The Music Man" in Germantown. After a little back and forth between the production staff, I was cast as the lead tenor in the barbershop quartet. Since then, I have been blessed to be in some amazing musicals and have even been lucky enough to have played two of my "bucket list" roles: Franklin in "1776" and, of course, Scrooge.

My passion comes from the chance to push myself, to sing amazing music and the friendships I have made over the years.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of taking on the role of Scrooge? What has been the most challenging?

The most rewarding is being able to tell this great story of love and redemption. The most challenging is playing a character that is nothing like me. It has taken me into some dark moods.

How have you come to understand how you want to portray this character onstage? What kind of thought and study is involved in this process?

Every actor wants to play Scrooge as straight up as possible. This character is so familiar to audiences that you can’t stray too far. Two years ago, when I previously portrayed Scrooge, I tried to play him with a little comedy and light-heartedness, but it watered down the transformation and made it less believable. 

This time, I am playing him closer to the vest, truer to the actual person Dickens wrote about. This has lead me to be more reserved with the cast trying to understand a person who shuts himself off from love and human contact. I have tried to be the exact opposite of my natural nature. It’s been hard on my mood, but I think it has added a lot to my performance.

Has any actor’s interpretation of the character been particularly inspiring to you?

Mr. Magoo! No, just kidding. I have always enjoyed Alastair Sim’s portrayal in the movie, but my favorite was George C. Scott. He made Scrooge’s greed and callus nature seem effortless.

How does the fact that this version of "A Christmas Carol" is a musical enhance the classic story?

Everyone knows the story so well that it is hard to make it feel different from other productions. Lake Country Playhouse has the exclusive rights to this production. The songs in this show enhance the love, sadness and joy of the characters.

Is there a moment within the show that is especially meaningful for you to perform?

After Scrooge has been with The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, he sings a song that starts as a thank you to Jacob Marley but turns into a prayer to God. I am a very religious person who believes that I have been so very blessed by God that the song becomes very personal to me. Sometimes the tears are very real.

Tell me about the rehearsal process for this show and the time requirement that is required for cast and crew members.

Our team started rehearsals the week of Oct. 15, which gives us about six weeks before we open. We rehearse Monday through Thursday from 6:30 to 9 p.m. The first few weeks were all about music. After that, we started working on the show itself.

How does Lake Country Playhouse put their own unique stamp on "A Christmas Carol"?

Lake Country Playhouse is a small theater that allows a story to be very close and intimate with the audience. This puts them almost into the action on stage. Second, this company is very special in how it treats its actors and crew. We have parties, honor birthdays and hang out after rehearsal. It isn’t like that everywhere.

Caitlin Elftman Arts & Entertainment Contributor
A proud Wisconsin native, Caitlin Elftman is always up for a night on the town in the Brew City. If you ever need someone to catch a play or a concert with, or a friend to check out the latest Milwaukee restaurant opening, she's your gal!

Caitlin is also a lover of international travel, makes a mean risotto and knows every Neil Diamond and Celine Dion song you could throw at her.