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For four years, James Ridge played Ebenezer Scrooge. He is now prepping to direct Children’s Theatre of Madison’s (CTM) annual production of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” for the third year in a row. So when Ridge offers advice on how best to approach the show, his cast members have good reason to listen.
That includes David Daniel, Ridge’s fellow American Players Theatre core company member, and the man who succeeded Ridge as Dickens’ legendary miser last year. Daniel brought a sense of childlike wonder to the role when he debuted in it last year, He’ll reprise the role beginning this Saturday, December 9.
“Jim warned me,” says Daniel. “He said, ‘We always want to avoid, ‘Oh, yeah, A Christmas Carol. It goes a little something like this.’ We try to stay away from that at all costs.”
Falling into a routine is a real pitfall for returning actors like Daniel and Casey Hoekstra (another APT vet), who’ll be reprising his role as the narrator—the guy who gets the awesome task of telling the timeless tale in flashbacks, featuring excerpts and dialogue taken directly from Dickens’ original novel.
In Daniel’s case, experience is still the best teacher, but the lesson’s ongoing.
“You learn so much from playing Scrooge, and it’s painful learning. You’re like, ‘Why did I do it like that?’” Daniel says. “The second time through, we’re finding more complicated choices. I feel more secure as Scrooge now that I’ve got a year under my belt.”
One of the things Daniel is looking to focus on in this year’s production is finding a way to differentiate the encounters Scrooge has with the four visitors to Scrooge and Marley’s Countinghouse (Bob, Fred, and the gentlemen soliciting his charity) before his fateful night with the spirits. Each one touches on a different aspect of Scrooge’s character.
“It can’t just be the old man in the corner,” Daniel explains. “Jim and I have spent a lot of time thinking about Scrooge’s redemption. Last year, it kind of came down to ‘Well, there are no atheists in a foxhole.’ We didn’t want that. We’ve done everything we could to find something more than shotgun redemption.”
For his part, Hoekstra is taking his own lessons from last year’s performance. He played to the crowd early and often. And while that was fun and entertaining, this year, he’s looking to create something deeper and more immersive.
“Looking back, it feel like last year was a conductor role,” he says. “This year, I’m experiencing it with Scrooge. It’s been a lot more fun to play. It’s so much more fun to be in every aspect, to be there and come out of it with Scrooge.”
For the last several years, CTM has been performing a deft stage adaptation of Dickens’ classic penned by Colleen Madden, Ridge’s spouse. Unlike last year, when she wowed as an unorthodox Marley’s Ghost and as the Ghost of Christmas Present, Madden won’t be part of this year’s cast.
“Even if you’re feeling dusty from last year, nothing shakes it off like new people,” he says. Hoekstra’s looking forward to re-experiencing all the fantastical things about the play—the things Ridge calls “actually actual”; the ghosts and the time travel.
Daniel is looking forward to playing Scrooge, a role he likens in stature to Shakespeare’s King Lear, for many years to come.
“I really like this adaptation, in spite of the fact that Colleen adapted it,” Daniel jokes, taking a playful shot at his longtime friend and APT co-star. “It’s a beautifully written story—it’s fitted into the psyche of America.”
CTM’s production opens Saturday, December 9, with additional performances on December 10, 16-17 and 22-23. For ticket information, go to ctmtheater.org/see-a-show/christmas-carol.
Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.