Scrooge speaks: Donahue talks about the Dickens classic
Christopher Donahue isn't what you'd expect from an actor playing Ebenezer Scrooge, one of the famous grumps of stage, screen and literature. He's gracious, soft-spoken and a bit self-depreciating. The only Scroogish thing about him is his fully-grown beard, a mutton chops/mustache combination technically called "a hulihee" (he looked it up).
Donahue was in plays long before he actually remembers seeing any plays. Growing up in New England, he performed throughout grade school, often forgetting to breathe on stage (a problem, he says, persists to this day). He then went to "a fancy prep school" where he learned about Shakespeare, Pinter and other theatre greats.
He eventually made his way to Northwestern, but his real theatre education came from his association with Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman ("Metamorphoses"). He did over 25 productions with the acclaimed director and playwright in Chicago and later in New York. The big city, big showbiz lifestyle and mentality wasn't for Donahue, though, which brought him back to the Midwest, and last year, to the star role of one of Milwaukee's most beloved Christmas traditions: The Rep's rendition of "A Christmas Carol."
OnMilwaukee caught up with Donahue to talk about taking on the world's most notorious Grinch (other than the Grinch), taking over the role from a Milwaukee stage legend and his impressive hulihee.
OnMilwaukee.com: Scrooge is one of the most famous characters on the stage and in literary history. How do you take on a character like that and bring something fresh and new to that?
Christopher Donahue: You know, I started just by imitating other people's performances.
OMC: Really? Who in particular?
CD: It was kind of an amalgam. It's not like I had seen a great many Scrooges in my life. Of course I saw the old black-and-white film with Alastair Sim as a kid, and I've seen a couple people play him on stage, but I kind of just started by imitating. And I paid very close attention to the book. Coming from this Mary Zimmerman education of adapting literature to the stage, you always pay very close attention to the original text, and I did go back to the book.
But I did start by just doing your basic Scrooge. And I think, as an actor, it just gets filtered through your own life experience. In terms of what I'm bringing specifically to the role that makes it different, I don't rightly know. That's more of a question for anyone who sees the performance.
People have told me he's sadder. He's more pissed off. He's kind of this big, lummoxy self-loather, which people found different. It surprised me to hear, but it also made me happy to hear because I think it gave him a very human dimension that adults could identify with. In a way, it's still in process. He's just sadder and more than sort of a stock mean guy. You can see, from what people have told me, that he's aware that he's trapped and that he's given up.
OMC: So it sounds like Dickens is where you took most of your inspiration.
CD: Yeah, that's where you have to go. He's the encyclopedia on Scrooge. He's also younger. He's not a little old man because I am a tall, big person, and I've only ever seen little, tiny, old, crusty Scrooges. I was a little worried about that at first because it's not the illustrations that you see accompanying Dickens' Scrooge where he's this wiry little guy. I was worried about that at first, but then there's something about the fact that he's younger means that he has time ahead of him to actually lead a different life. He's not trying to make up for lost time as much as embracing the time ahead of him.
OMC: How was your first year as Scrooge?
CD: It was great!
OMC: Did you feel a lot of pressure taking over?
CD: I was a bit at sea at first, absolutely. It's a giant big part, and it's less fun to play a huge part for me personally. My favorite place in the world is backstage during a play while it's being performed. In this particular show, I never have that pleasure of being backstage. Being on stage and playing this giant character has its own rewards, of course, but I do so love seeing the machinery of the whole enterprise chugging away from backstage.
So I was a little terrified to take on something big and iconic like Scrooge. But it worked out very well. I had a great time last year. I was exhausted, but it was the good kind of exhaustion where you collapse at the end of the day, and you feel like you've been a part of something that was good, and your effort was well spent. I'm very happy to be back this year. I was kind of delightfully surprised that they asked me back this year.
OMC: Did you talk to any of the former Scrooges?
CD: Yeah, the place was crawling with them! (laughs) Jim Pickering had played him for 450 performances before me. He's in the show this year.
OMC: Is that a little intimidating?
CD: It was at first, absolutely. But he's an amazingly kind and interesting man, and he's sublime to watch. I wish I had seen his Scrooge; I really do.
I was in a reading last year with Lee Ernst and Jon Daly, who had both played him before, and we had a little pow wow about the exhaustions of Scrooge. So it's like being a part of a club. It's kind of cool in that way.
OMC: Is that the hardest part of playing Scrooge, the exhaustion of being on stage almost the entire show?
OMC: How do you cope or prepare for that?
CD: I'm still learning about conserving energy. That's a part of what I've been working on for this year. It's going sort of well. I don't know … Red Bull and ginseng. (laughs)
OMC: How are you consciously or subconsciously growing Scrooge after year one? Are you doing anything different this year?
CD: I wouldn't say I'm consciously doing anything different. I'm slightly fatter. It's hard to say because we haven't been in front of an audience yet, and the audience is why we do it. I'm sure there are things subtly different because it has changed, of course. There are different people involved, and Aaron the director has new ideas and has changed things, slightly and not-so-slightly. It's bound to be different, but in terms of actually working on something different, no. It's not much of a conscious effort, but I know things will change and deepen in certain ways that, at the end of the run, will surprise me when I look back on them.
OMC: What is different about The Rep's "Christmas Carol" as opposed to other versions of the show?
CD: It's funnier. It's more musical, beautifully musical. We were rehearsing music last night, and I was just kind of in the room, really enjoying it. I think it has a simplicity to it and a humanness to it that's a little different.
People regard it as a children's story a lot of the time, and I don't really think it is. I think it's more for the adults. I think it's definitely something that children need to absorb and enjoy, but it's the adults who really need to hear it, particularly nowadays where we should all be thinking of other people, open to the world at large and making the choice to be better people.
OMC: You said earlier you started growing that beard back in September, and you just shaved off the patch just recently. How's it been committing to that?
CD: Oh, it's fine. It's the third time I've done it, with my glorious hulihee. (laughs) I can smack out a beard in 10 days so this has been growing for a while. It's the good alternative to having stuff glued to my face, which in my experience has not worked out well. I'm quite a sweaty Scrooge as well.
OMC: Why do you think "A Christmas Carol" is so beloved?
CD: First of all, because it's by Dickens, and there's hardly anyone who can touch him in terms of character and story. And also, it's set at Christmas time, and it has this supernatural element to it with all of the spirits, and it's incredibly fantastical. But as I said before, it has this deeply, deeply human spiritual message to it that resonates with people.
The fact that it still resonates with people is great, but it also sort of means that we have the same problems that people did back in Dickens' time and probably before that. We have our problems as humans, and we have hope in overcoming these problems and hope in recognizing the joy of the world around us, not just at Christmas time but all of the time. So this message of opening yourself and recognizing the light that's within yourself as Scrooge does, just on a human level, makes sense and is meaningful.
And it's a kick-ass story.
"A Christmas Carol" runs from Nov. 27 through Dec. 24 at The Pabst Theater. For ticket information, visit the website.
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