Although he appears all over Atlanta stages throughout the year, it’s during the holiday season that actor Chris Kayser dons his best-known role, that of Ebenezer Scrooge in the Alliance Theatre‘s annual “A Christmas Carol.”
In Rosemary Newcott’s lavish version of the Charles Dickens classic, running Friday, November 23, through December 23 at the Alliance, a large ensemble of performers brings the story to life. At the core is Kayser, who has been in 19 Alliance “Carols.” He’s portrayed Scrooge in 15 of them, and before that he appeared twice each as Bob Cratchit and Jacob Marley. Before his Alliance years, at the Academy Theatre, Kayser played Cratchit, Old Joe, Mr. Fezziwig and even the infamous Lorenzo the Legless Musician.
But he has never taken the role or the production for granted, trying to bring as much truth to it as he can. “It’s a classic for a reason,” Kayser says. “It’s a beautiful story, so universal, and the more I do it the more I understand it, how profound it is.” For the actor, Scrooge isn’t just a cranky man who has an epiphany; he has to find out who he is and why he’s there.
Bringing the character back to life every year, no matter how many times he’s done it before, isn’t simply a matter of running through the lines a few times. It’s not right until it’s coordinated with all the other actors, musicians and technical elements. “Rehearsing is like getting a train out of the station,” Kayser says. “It takes work to get it going. It’s always a blend of veterans and those who’ve never done it.” For example, Lovett School second grader Morgan Gao appears this year for the first time, as Tiny Tim.
Although the “Christmas Carol” run is challenging and time-consuming, Kayser has learned what to anticipate. “It’s not like Broadway where you can be with a production months at a time,” he explains. “We know what the run is. It’s one of six or seven shows I do a year.” He laughs, though, realizing that some people think “this is all I do” all year.
But he understands that more comes along with this role than others and is always up for various meet-and-greets and other appearances he’s asked to make. Almost all have been pleasant, but he did have a misadventure a few years ago. A group from Alabama came to see “Carol” and wanted to meet Scrooge, so Kayser met them out of costume later. It was the same day Alabama was playing an important college football game. The meet-and-greet went swimmingly until, as he was leaving, Kayser said, “Roll, Tide!” Suddenly, “25 faces froze.” The group was made up of Auburn fans. “It all went so well until that time,” he laughs.
Kayser has been earning a living as an actor for more than 30 years. Most of his work has been on the stage, although he has a memorable scene in one movie. Look closely and you can see him in the made-in-Atlanta film “Freejack,” with Mick Jagger and Emilio Estevez. He’s billed as “Bonejacker #2.” He has also appeared in the locally shot TV series “In the Heat of the Night.” Kayser has won one Suzi Bass Award, in 2006 as the lead actor in Georgia Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” and has received seven individual nominations.
He has never taken an acting lesson. His first role fell into his lap when a girlfriend’s colleague wasn’t available for a performance and he successfully filled in. That was in “My Three Angels” at the Barn Dinner Theatre in Marietta 34 years ago. At the time he was working odd jobs, including as a tennis pro. After his theatrical debut, he caught the bug and began doing as much theater as possible.
Kayser’s big break was working with the Academy Theatre and its founder, Frank Wittow. Later he joined the rep at Georgia Shakespeare, where he’s been an associate artist for 23 years and was able to perform the dream role of Richard II. The production was not a hit, Kayser recalls, but he credits Georgia Shakespeare Artistic Director Richard Garner for giving him the chance.
Some of his most memorable performances have come at Georgia Shakespeare. Kayser has also often shared the stage with actress Carolyn Cook, most recently in Horizon Theatre’s “Time Stands Still.” Other standout roles have included Roy Cohn in the Alliance’s “Angels in America,” George in Theatre in the Square’s “Of Mice and Men” and the Marquis de Sade in Horizon’s “Quills.” Early next year Kayser will dive into another coveted role, that of psychiatrist Martin Dysart in the Actor’s Express version of Peter Shaffer’s “Equus.”
The actor has been in Atlanta long enough to see its theatrical community transform. “The biggest change has been the breadth and depth of the scene,” he says. He remembers when the vast majority of the “Carol” cast was from New York. “That made Atlanta a minor-league town. Now adult actors can stay and work here.”