After playing Bob Cratchit in Kansas City Repertory Theatre's A Christmas Carol for the past six years, it seems actor Walter Coppage was up for a change.
In this year's production, Coppage was asked to take on two new roles — as the ghost of the miserly Jacob Marley and as the generous businessman Mr. Fezziwig. And, like others he's taken on throughout his career, these characters offer some unorthodox challenges.
In the final interview of our series Actors Off-Script, Coppage talks about some of the trends in contemporary theater and this year's casting switch at the Rep.
After six seasons playing Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol, you're returning this year in two different roles. Did you enjoy playing that and did you find different pieces of the character over those six years?
"Yes. I very much enjoyed playing Bob Cratchit. You know, as someone said, they called him the heart of A Christmas Carol. Even during this time of oppression by Scrooge — you know, the upper class pounding down hard on the middle class, squeezing every last cent out of them — that they were able to find hope and joy in their Christmas together. And I liked that a lot.
"And it's certainly a character I can relate to. I'm a father. I'm also the father of a child who became sick and so I understand that fear. My son is fine (laugh) but I certainly understand the fear Bob has for Tiny Tim. And it's a beautifully crafted role.
"It's a little bittersweet to move on but these characters don't belong to us. We just inhabit them for a short while and then move on. And I'm very excited about playing Marley and Fezziwig."
Speaking of them, they're characters who are polar opposites. Can you describe who they are?
"I think people are very familiar with Jacob Marley, or Marley's ghost, as he's referred to. He is the former partner of Ebenezer Scrooge and in some ways Marley laid that template for Scrooge: the heartless, unfeeling, uncaring, money trumps all - those things that come from accumulating massive wealth and the way you're able to do that is by not feeling anything, and that relationship they had before is why Marley has come back.
And Marley has only one scene, allowing you to play another role, Mr. Fezziwig. Tell me about him.
"As you said, he's kind of the polar opposite. It's very exciting to be offered this opportunity to play this hellhound and then this joy.
"He is, as Scrooge puts it, the best master a young lad could ever have. He's the finest boss, and we've all had that in our lives, someone who's been a great mentor. What Fezziwig decides to do is lift everyone up. And he was probably not as successful a businessman as Scrooge was, but that's not where he counted his accolades and success. So to be able to play someone like that is a wonderful journey."
For a couple of decades now, there's been a lot of discussion about casting the best actor for any given part regardless of his or her ethnicity. It's been called "color-blind" or "color-neutral" casting. What is your take on it now having heard these discussion all these many years?
"The first time I ever encountered a situation like that was, the role wasn't necessarily written for a white actor, but it had traditionally been done by a white actor. No black actor had ever played Uncle Peck (in the Paula Vogel play "How I Learned to Drive").
"Cynthia Levin (producing artistic director at the Unicorn Theatre), God bless her, did this amazing thing. She said to me later, 'I just wanted who I thought was the best actor for this particular role and you seem to fit this role.
"So I think if it's done as a stunt, like, we just want to do this to shock people, I think you're doing a disservice to the play. You don't want concept that are so heavy that you break the back of the production.
You played Martin Luther King in The Mountaintop at the Unicorn. Just this week, I heard about a production at Kent State with a white actor playing Martin Luther King. The play's author, Katori Hall, was not happy. Having played that role, what did you think when you heard that?
"I think any time you're doing a semi-historically accurate play, I think you have some obligations to those historical characters. And I might say that the director was African-American. What Katori said was, and I hope I'm not butchering her words here, was this is a director's self-serving directorial experiment in front of a paying audience.
"I think any time you're doing a semi-historically accurate play, I think you have some obligations to those historical characters. If it's important to the playwright to write about a specific racial group at a specific time, then so be it."
Did you ever have the unfortunate experience of hearing feedback from Christmas Carol audiences about Bob Cratchit being African-American?
"I did. I heard a little bit and saw a couple of emails that were sent, just by happenstance, you know, read it over someone's shoulder. There was some negativity toward it because of the idea of an African-American playing Bob Cratchit.
"But the overwhelming response has been positive. To this day, I have people stop me on the street or in a store and ask, 'Excuse me, are you Bob Cratchit?' And what a wonderful thing.
"So the handful of negativity that was out there does not compare to the overall experience and the majority of audiences just accepted me based on my performance. We as theatergoers are very accepting of what is presented to us. If it's done in a sincere, thoughtful way, then people will accept it."
Kansas City Repertory Theatre presents 'A Christmas Carol' through December 24 at the Spencer Theatre, 4949 Cherry Street, Kansas City, Missouri. 816-235-2700.
The Actors Off-Script series is supported by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.
Steve Walker is a freelance arts reporter and film critic at KCUR 89.3. He can be reached at email@example.com.