David Daniel has played Shakespearean death scenes and divine comedies onstage at American Players Theatre for 16 years.
Yet one of the roles he’s most lusted after is among the most common in American theater: Ebenezer Scrooge, the antihero of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
“Having seen so many Scrooges on film and stage, you get swept away by every one of them and they’re all so different,” Daniel said. “Especially the transformation, when he becomes a different person. It’s all so different.”
This year, Daniel finally has the chance to play Children’s Theater of Madison’s Scrooge. He takes over from John Pribyl and James Ridge, who now directs the play in the Capitol Theater, Saturday through Dec. 23.
Part ghost story, part allegory, “A Christmas Carol” was first published by Charles Dickens in 1843 and adapted by Colleen Madden for CTM in 2011. Over the years, the name “Ebenezer Scrooge” has become synonymous with both the light and dark sides of the holidays.
For most of the play, Scrooge reflects the contemporary temptation to become a blustering misanthrope when confronted with bell-ringers, cranky children and Elton John’s “Step into Christmas.” It’s easy to say #bahumbug.
But there’s an Act II for Scrooge, a promise of redemption and forgiveness no matter how long it’s been or how hard one has pushed people away.
“It’s the difference between remorse and guilt,” Daniel said. “Guilt is something I can be absolved of. Remorse the way that (Jim Ridge) talks about it is something I did that I’ll never be able to come clean with, I’ll have to carry with me forever.
“Those are crucial things.”
Daniel, who is also the education director at APT, spoke with the Cap Times in between teaching and rehearsing the week before “Carol” opens at Overture Hall.
The Capital Times: Scrooge is such an iconic character. Did you have a sense that this would be a difficult role?
I talked to other actors — Jonathan Smoots, Bobby Spencer, Jim Ridge, who's directing the production. I was preparing myself for a King Lear or a Hamlet. I was really locking myself in for a really tough journey.
It was much tougher than I thought. It became really difficult to find an authentic journey. Other people in this role had made look effortless, but it just means they were really good actors.
How do you authentically make someone who has been shut off for so many years into someone who steps into light, love, possibility?
How do you approach Scrooge's transformation?
One of the conversations I had with Jim (Ridge) early on — I was very concerned that it doesn’t come out of fear. It’s not the prayer of a drowning man. A soldier in a foxhole knowing that certain death is coming, that's a different kind of prayer.
At the end, with the Ghost of (Christmas) Future, he's faced with “Here's the life you've created.” I was really interested in finding a Scrooge who wasn't ... trying to scramble away, “No, no please.” I was trying to find a Scrooge that said, “Yes, I did this. This is the punishment I deserve. But! I'm a new man, give me another opportunity.”
I knew that’s what I wanted to bring to the role.
Colleen Madden's adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” has changed in some small but quietly significant ways over the years.
Each version is different. Colleen Madden has given us an adaptation in which (Scrooge's) redemption comes from fighting for Tiny Tim: “Never mind me, but you're not going to do that to a kid.” It's his first selfless act. He learns a lesson.
This gives him a chance to own his own choices in life and fight for someone.
(Colleen) has found this great story as a young man dealing with the death of a loved one, asking "How do I find my way through it?" Tim is finding his journey as an outside narrator, "How do I make sense of this? What's too personal?"
Casey (Hoesktra, who plays Tiny Tim) is finding these moments ... it's Tim’s journey as the loss of Scrooge.
I've always thought that part of the appeal of this story was the idea that people can truly change, which in real life seems far-fetched.
Jim Ridge was adamant. He really wanted to see him struggle with “How do I be someone new?” This is really the beginning of a brand new story, and he's making all these mistakes.
He's trying but he doesn’t know how to say thank you. “Do I hug you now? How do I do this? I don’t know!”
This is a man who has no experience with joy and so joy catches him off guard. To say “Thank you” or “Forgive me,” those are all new things.
Dickens had one thing in mind, a complete transformation of a human being. But it's hard work. Whether it’s addiction or abuse, those are patterns built into a life. It’s difficult to change that. You have to break these habits, these negative habits.
You do a lot of theater work with young kids. How does that affect your work in a production like this?
With the school kids, it just grounds you. At APT we do Shaw, we do Beckett, so serious, and we're professionals. We use our mastery of craft and carve out moments and sink our teeth into language.
Then you're in a show with a bunch of kids and you're like, “Oh that's right, we play dress up. It's called a play. We have fun.”
I have fun with my professional peers, but this gets down to what storytelling is all about. Can you engage a group of people in a ghost story?
If I can make those two 10-year-olds stop, look at me and get the heebie jeebies because I'm so scary, then I did a pretty good job today.
Plays like “A Christmas Carol” sell more tickets than lesser-known shows, but as someone who really loves new work, I sometimes wonder about the value of doing the same thing over and over.
There’s the stuff that we as actors do, any artist, a dancer or musician, when you're playing that piece of music for the 100th time. You’re the piano man. They're are tricks to doing that, to listening and being sharp and engaging eyes.
But ultimately, especially with Christmas Carol, you’re remounting and remounting (but) it’s someone’s first play. And it's going to be someone’s only play. That's the only reason they go to the theater, because mom and dad were like, “I want you to see a play and it's going to be 'Christmas Carol.'”
Maybe they'll only see it once, maybe they'll see it every year. But that, for some people, is a family event. As a professional you can't go in there and go, “Here it is, number 12.”
What separates great artists from others is that they understand that responsibility. When they walk out on that stage that's going to be someone's Ghost of (Christmas) Past, Ghost of (Christmas) Future, someone's first Scrooge. That’s going to be the one they remember always.