Chris Kayser, who has played Scrooge for 16 of his last 20 seasons in the Alliance Theatre’s production of “A Christmas Carol,” plans to make this year’s production his final one in the demanding role.
“After this year, it’s time to pass on the role of Scrooge to someone else,” Kayser said in an Alliance release. “Given the deep, rich talent pool in Atlanta and the sure hand of (director) Rosemary Newcott, I’m confident that the project will go on re-energized and better than ever.”
The 60-something actor, who has rarely missed a performance in a nearly three and a half decade career, is likely to return to “Carol” in a different role.
This year’s run is Nov. 29 through Dec. 29. 404-733-5000, www.alliancetheatre.org/christmas. HOWARD POUSNER
Here’s a 2010 interview with Kayser about the rigors of the role of Scrooge:
‘I can outlast them’
Chris Kayser has amazing record of ‘Carol’ performances.
Even recent injury doesn’t sideline him.
By Howard Pousner / firstname.lastname@example.org
A red alert went out at the Alliance Theatre when, the day after “A Christmas Carol” opened this month, star Chris Kayser seriously injured his back at the end of his daily boot camp-style workout.
What Cal “Iron Man” Ripken Jr. was to baseball, Kayser, 61, is to the Atlanta stage. The always-acting actor has missed a total of two performances during his 31-year stage career, when his son, Jacob, had the audacity to be born on a day when Kayser was appearing in “Carol” at the old Academy Theatre 22 years ago. He’s never missed a show or a rehearsal during his 19-year Alliance Theatre run in “Carol, ” 13 in which he’s played the lead role of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Even though the Alliance has an elaborate emergency plan (Joe Knezevich, Kayser’s Georgia Shakespeare resident company colleague, is the Scrooge understudy), this year’s demanding run of 40 “Carol” performances in 29 days had barely begun when a workout-ending series of 54 burpees (a modernized squat thrust) leveled Kayser. And the star is in every scene — save for two brief moments when he exits the stage, runs behind the set and enters from the other side — and speaks volumes of Charles Dickens’ dialogue.
But director Rosemary Newcott, who considers Kayser “a force of nature, ” said she uttered no un-Christmas-appropriate phrases.
“It has always been a given around here that Chris will never miss a performance, ” she said. “I honestly did not panic because I knew he probably would work through it — he’s in excellent physical shape.”
Sure enough, Kayser made it through the performance the night of his injury, Dec. 3, and then the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Christmas Parade the next day along with two more performances that afternoon and evening. He managed with a little extra costume change help (since he was unable to bend enough to pull up his pants) and by staying vertical during two scenes when Scrooge falls to the floor.
While he’s much kinder and gentler than his character offstage, that steely stubbornness the actor exhibits in the first act isn’t completely, well, an act.
“I tell those guys they’d have to kill me to go on, ” Kayser said of the understudy succession plan with a wry smile after a recent “Carol” performance, relaxing in his spartan, undecorated dressing room, still clad in his long gray wig and top coat. “There are guys who can act better than me but I can outlast them.”
True, that last part. The actor who has run 33 Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Races and two marathons, approaches his work like he’s training for a triathlon. “I think the theater is sort of an endurance sport, where it does wear [actors] out, ” Kayser said. “The people who come to the theater today don’t care what you did yesterday. It’s opening night every single time. So you have to have to have the energy and the willpower to tell the story on Sunday night the same way you do on Tuesday morning.
“And they paid their money that they worked hard for, so I feel an obligation to do my best, as if I have never done it before. Even though, yes, the years are piling up on me.”
Kayser may look a tiny bit more Scrooge-like than when he first played the role as a young Turk at the Academy, where they sometimes staged it three times daily. But he’s made some adjustments to fight back Father Time.
Never much of a napper, he took actress Brenda Bynum’s tip several years ago to convert his dressing room costume rack into a makeshift bed where he catches 60 or 75 minutes of shut eye between matinee and evening performances. He refers to the lair, featuring a rolled-up towel as a pillow and a tattered blanket, as his “possum nest.”
Instead of going out to Fat Matt’s Rib Shack with castmates between shows, he brings his own dinner, usually healthy leftovers of meals he made at home.
As soon as the matinee ends, Kayser changes clothes and dines in the green room. “And the instant I finish with that, it’s right into the possum’s nest, ” he said of his drill. “I lock the door and turn the light off. Wake up in time to get started again.”
The rest also helps him revive his pipes, which can get sore from projecting all those lines in Scrooge’s gravely voice. He sips a lot of tea to soothe his throat, and also doses up on vitamin C and fish oil.
But it’s more than his own performance that he’s trying to doctor. As the long-running lead of the show that puts a big jingle in the Alliance’s box office every holiday season, Kayser acknowledged that he “absolutely” feels a responsibility to set the tone for the cast.
He praises this year’s ensemble for its esprit de corps and discipline but recalled other years where the lack thereof made it hard for him to give the traditional toast after the final performance. The most he could get out one time was a rather loaded, “God bless us everyone.”
“It would drive me crazy, crazy when people would start messing around on stage, doing practical jokes and what not, ” Kayser explained. “Like this job wasn’t good enough for them, like there weren’t 50 actors who wouldn’t kill for this job. That would just hurt.”
Kayser was feeling acute pain in a different part of his anatomy two weeks ago when he arrived at the Alliance after hours at the Christmas parade, with two shows to put on. But a newly arrived card from the Mascali family of Marietta lifted his spirits.
“We just couldn’t let another Christmas season pass without letting you know how much joy your performances have brought us for over a decade, ” they wrote. “We marvel how you make it seem like your first performance each time we are lucky to attend.”
“And I read that, and said, ‘Come on, get this wig on!’ ” Kayser said, gesturing like he was throwing on his costume that day, his aching back suddenly healed.
“Seriously, I wrote those people back and told them what they had done for me. That’s why we keep doing it.”