Actor Chris Kayser knew it in 2012. He had the sense that his time playing Ebenezer Scrooge in the Alliance Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol” — something he’s been doing for almost half of his acting life — was coming to a close. “It occurred to me last year, for the first time: how much longer can I do this?” he says. As it turns out, it was for only one more season.
Running from November 29 through December 29 at the Alliance, this run of “A Christmas Carol” marks Kayser’s farewell to a part that he’s made his own. He’s acted all over town to sizable acclaim, but this is the role that he’s been most associated with. When his 2012 stint was over, he let director Rosemary Newcott know his plans to give her time to find the new lead and have a smooth segue.
“I’ve had a great run,” he says. “I wanted to go out on top. I did not want a bad year.” He’s performed the Dickens classic 27 times in all — seven at the Academy Theatre, then 20 seasons at the Alliance and then. Of those 20 at the Alliance, 16 have been as Scrooge. Even when he hasn’t been cast as that character, he’s gone on in a pinch. He’s also taken on Cratchit, Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Future.
This is the 24th year the Alliance has produced the “A Christmas Carol.” In 1999, the company began staging the current David H. Bell version. With its special effects, music and multi-racial casting, it’s the major theater offering of the Atlanta holiday season. Kayser feels a number of factors make it accessible. “It has a lot of good things going for it,” he says. “It’s a very clever script — you can hear the Dickens. It’s gorgeous, lavish. Bell has embedded lots of music. I am moved by it every year, how beautiful the singing is.”
Playing the role of Scrooge for so long has given him insight into the character. “I’ve aged into the role,” he says. “I have a better understanding of coming to terms with the time you have left in your life.” He also cracks that he doesn’t need the old-age makeup anymore.
The actor has gleaned a lot from the book and from doing the play. “The unrepentant Scrooge is a product of his life experiences,” including abandonment, he says. “He is not a mean person. He feels himself to be righteous. He wants to do everything to remove himself from pain. He feels the poor are getting what they deserve; it’s their fault.”
Although he appears in half a dozen or so other shows a year, “Carol” is by far his most mainstream. Even friends who don’t go to theater regularly know that he plays Scrooge every holiday season. Kayser realizes that taking on the role has meant more than just acting — the mixing and mingling with fans, extra press — but he has been comfortable with it. “I didn’t set out for this — that is what happened,” he says. “I respect the acting, the work, the theater. It hasn’t been difficult.”
In a 35-year career, the actor has never missed a show — or even a rehearsal. In fact, there’s only one time when he called in as unavailable — the day his son was born. Other than that, he’s been there ready to go.
He attributes that run to a general good state of health. “I keep myself fit,” he says. “I am a gym rat and I play tennis and run.” There’s also the phenomenon of what he calls Dr. Theater. “Being sick or down, when the lights come down, I just forget it, I am so concentrated on doing the play,” Kayser says.
Next up for Kayser is a one-man show in France and then he’ll be in Georgia Ensemble Theatre’s “Camelot,” re-teaming him with his “Equus” co-star Kyle Brumley in the spring.
When the next holiday season approaches, he’ll gauge his options. Although he has given up his “Humbugs!,” he is open to being in the 2014 production, perhaps even playing Marley, but that is something that will need to be ironed out with Newcott. He also doesn’t want it to be awkward for the performer playing Scrooge. He wants that person to be able to create his own version. “Clearly what you want is the next guy doing his own thing, not copying what I’ve done.”
He says he’s never taking the show for granted and feels lucky to have been involved with ‘A Christmas Carol.” “I was always determined to honor it,” he says. “I set out to do it the best I could every year. Every year that goes by I am a year older, and hopefully I am a better actor.”
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