The Rebirth of Scrooge
Actor David de Vries on Navigating the Past, Present & Future of A Christmas Carol

By Lee Valentine Smith

Now in his fourth year as Ebenezer Scrooge in Alliance Theater's production of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, actor David de Vries has comfortably settled into the role. But as it moves to the Cobb Energy Center this year, the cast, crew and director Rosemary Newcott prepare to expand the popular show to meet the added demands of the big stage.

Busy all year with major and indie film and television roles while constantly in-demand for audio book narration, the crafty de Vries also finds time for photography and even co-starred in a recent BritCom (Sky-TV's "Living The Dream").

Late last month, INsite spoke with the erudite actor during the production's hectic first week of rehearsals.

After four years as Scrooge, do you really need to rehearse at this point?

It's a good chance for me to get back into the story and yes some of it is just an act of remembrance. But we always have a few newcomers - sometimes more than others - and they need to be integrated into the show, with all the movements and the harmonies of the music. The whole vibe of the show is familiar to everyone but we really need to become an ensemble. It's a blessing for me to even have a role like this, especially at this time of year; typically things start to slow down a bit during the holidays. And yes, it does extract a toll on our time with our families but we definitely create a new family within the cast. So it's nice to have a job and entertain people at the same time.

With each shift in the cast, does the dynamic of the production change as well?

Oh, always. I know it sounds cliché, but everyone is vital and there are some really important moments that involve the supporting cast - so we really have to be on the same page. I always like to see the new people make their own discoveries in their roles.

In your role, you're the ultimate observer as well as the central figure.

That's very true. As Scrooge, I have the task of watching everybody on stage so I get a really good chance to just watch everyone work. It's great to see everyone grow into the show.

Obviously it's a very familiar story - and you have the unenviable challenge of breathing new life into it. Not only for the audience but to keep it fresh for yourself as an actor.

You have to look at it from a very personal point of view. I don't think you can approach a role with any kind of thought about other people's expectations or what you think they might want to see. It really has to be you, connecting to the given circumstances of the character and playing the truth of those words. When I look at the script again after nearly a year away from it, sometimes it feels a little different to me. Then you have to follow that instinct. I'm one of those actors who pride themselves on wanting to try to "rebirth" the experience of the play. There are a lot of versions of the truth in the circumstances within it. They can almost be played like a hand of bridge and experienced in an improvisional way - at least emotionally. Everything is very structured in terms of the movement and the lines but emotionally it should be improvised. So the situation hits you a little bit differently, hopefully every time that you do it. In this show, Ebenezer Scrooge is looking at his own epitaph; it's his own headstone and nobody else's. That's what makes it real for me.

As you relive the character each season, do you ever refer to your own backstory of Scrooge?

At first I think I did the normal extrapolating of who I thought this guy was. I actually have a lot of sympathy for him. He's an emotional anorexic. He doesn't feel that he deserves to eat or to basically be nourished emotionally. He may use simple, kind of Freudian projection to cast his self-loathing or his emotional starvation onto other people, and inside he still feels hungry. But he's gotta be close enough to the table to eat in order to have the transformation that occurs during the story. If he was so far away from the table he couldn't possibly eat at all, then the truth of the play couldn't happen.

That's a very fine line.

It is and one of my own instincts as a person would be to see all these terrible mistakes he's made, as shown during the Christmas Past sequence in the beginning, and I'd immediately go, 'Oh man, I suck. I've gotta change my ways!' But Scrooge can't do that. He has to go through the Present and Future. He has to have this reservoir of resistance to what he's seeing as it unfolds. For me, that's the hardest part of the story to navigate as an actor.

It's a long road to redemption.

(Laughs) and that sounds like a country song! But it's true. Suspense is a wonderful story trope but it's not always necessary. When we see Hamlet or Oedipus for example, we know what's gonna happen eventually so it's the particulars that occur along the way that make us feel connected to it. That's what you really want the audience to feel. You want them to at least have that one moment where they go, 'Ugh, is that me?' If we can make even that one moment of connection then I think they'll take the journey along with the character.

It has to be something so familiar it evokes a very personal emotion.

Exactly and the Alliance's mission is expanding hearts and minds, so it works. I think we're all really looking for some sort of bridge, whether it's in the headspace or heartspace. It's like when you look up at the stars and you suddenly feel very small but you feel very safe within it. You're a part of something much bigger. That's pretty much the same as when magic happens in theater or in music or with anybody interacting with a real piece of art. It's that moment where you just go, 'Ah yes, I'm part of this.' It's what all true artists aspire to create, I think. It's what we get up and try to do every day. Sometimes that's hard to think about when you have a 10:30 matinee and you've been stuck in traffic and you have a little bit of a head cold. But that's what we definitely shoot for. I'd like to say it happens each and every time - but sometimes it doesn't.

That's the beauty of live performance. Even in controlled environments, you never know what will eventually happen in the moment.

You don't. And you know what? Sometimes you strike out! You walk back out of that batter's box but you don't curse the pitcher. No, you just go, 'Ok, I've got another at-bat coming up in a while and I'll try to do my best. I'll just swing away even harder next time.' If you connect with that newness, particularly when the unexpected happens, not only will it be more real for everyone else, you'll enjoy it even more as an actor. For me, the message of theater has always been: 'Be here now,' because this is it. If you can be a part of that, you're gonna get something that's so much more satisfying than, say, spending an hour looking at your phone. This is not a movie; this is what we're doing right now. It's live and it's real.

The Alliance Theater's production of A Christmas Carol runs December 8 – 24 at Cobb Energy Center. For more information, please visit alliancetheatre.org.

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