By SILVIA PIKAL
Written 175 years ago, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is as relevant today as it was in 1843.
After his father was sent to a debtor’s prison, Dickens was forced to work in a rotting, rat-infested warehouse at only 12 years old, which sparked his lifelong interest in drawing attention to the working poor — A Christmas Carol was part of those efforts.
“I think it’s never lost its relevancy and that’s the shame of it,” says Stephen Hair, who’s playing Ebenezer Scrooge for the 25th time this year in Theatre Calgary’s stage adaptation of the book. “Poverty is still around us, there’s discrimination and hatred and division everywhere.”
He muses that the holiday season is a time of reflection for many, an ideal time for A Christmas Carol’s themes of charity and selflessness to resonate with audiences — could we be kinder to those around us? Could we open up and let others in? Could we treat others as we want to be treated?
“I had one man come to me after the show. They brought him backstage and he was in tears. He didn’t know the story and he realized this was his story. At the end when Scrooge sees the light and realizes there’s a way out, he says he found himself laughing along with everyone else. He said, ‘I wanted you to know it changed my life, and I’m going to change as Scrooge changed.’” Hair says a key part to making that message resonate with audiences is portraying Scrooge not as a buffoon, but as a real person, who is flawed just like the rest of us.
“It’s a story about a man going from darkness to light. He’s not an evil or bad man. He makes decisions, as we all do along the way, and they took him to a very dark place, and he has the opportunity to turn that around and become a new person again.”
He says to bring about that kind of transformative power through art, and make the journey believable — to make the audience really feel — he has to feel too. “Our job is to touch people’s hearts, their minds, and to entertain them,” Hair says. “You learn that what touches an audience is letting your own emotions come through.”
He recalls being captivated as a small child by a 1951 film version of A Christmas Carol, starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge. Hair thinks it’s the best screen adaptation of the book. In 2001, he received a digitally re-mastered 50th anniversary edition of the film as a gift from his mother.
• More than 600,000 people have seen the show since 1989.
• For more than 20 years the cast and crew have been collecting donations backstage and in the lobbies after the show for the Calgary Food Bank, raising more than $1.8 million.
• 1989 was the first production of A Christmas Carol in the Max Bell Theatre, making this Theatre Calgary’s 32nd overall production of the play.
“I hadn’t watched it (after getting the role as Scrooge) purposely because I didn’t want to copy him, but it did the opposite and made me realize what he had done was so real and so genuine and so touching. I didn’t realize as a little kid how much of an impression it made on me — to find that truth and that realism on stage, that’s what I’ve always been striving to do.” When Hair was a small boy in England, he showed an early aptitude for acting. “My mom said even when I was little I used to walk behind the local people, walking the same way they did,” Hair says.
After his family moved to Montreal in the 1950s, Hair scored the lead in a play at his junior high school. Soon he was producing school plays and writing assemblies for special occasions. He studied drama at Queen’s University in Kingston, and made his way west in 1973 to join a newly formed theatre company in Calgary, Alberta Theatre Projects (ATP). He performed in a vaudeville show at Heritage Park. Five times a day he would perform in a 40-minute show, six days a week, culminating in 331 performances over one summer.
After surviving that grueling schedule, he was asked to join ATP for their first professional season, the start of a long and varied career as an actor. He’s been involved in hundreds of productions as an actor or director in major theatres across Canada, including dozens of productions for Theatre Calgary. He’s played a myriad of roles, from tragic and complex characters like Shakespeare’s King Lear to a singing, dancing and cane-twirling Snoopy in a musical version of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
He was also artistic director at Vertigo Theatre for five years, and currently serves on the board of directors for Theatre Calgary. In 2007, Theatre Calgary established the Stephen Hair Emerging Actor Award for theatre artists in Calgary. “To help build this theatre community over 45 years has meant as much to me as any of the roles I’ve done,” Hair says.
His range as an actor is impressive, and he’s been acting professionally since his early 20s. But when he first joined the production of A Christmas Carol in the 1980s, he played other roles for the first few years, including the Ghost of Christmas Future, and had to convince the artistic director to cast him as Scrooge at 44 years old. “He said I was too young and didn’t have the life experience and I said, ‘Oh really? You know nothing about my life experience. And Alastair Sim was in his early 40s when he played the best Scrooge there ever was.’”
Hair was ready to walk away from the play when he got a call a couple of weeks later to discuss it. It took a three-hour lunch, but he managed to change the artistic director’s mind. “After the first year he said to me, ‘You could play this forever.’ Prophetic words.”
Hair says it’s been a privilege to play the role year after year. His most memorable moments for him are meeting viewers after the show. “That’s what I would remember most if I drop dead tomorrow, that somewhere along the line maybe I’ve made a difference in some stranger’s life — what more could you ask for in what you do?”