Brian Jacobson

James Pickering takes on Scrooge again and again

By - Nov 26th, 2009 08:05 am

James Pickering as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Photo by Jay Westhauser.

It’s almost unfair to actor James Pickering to try and condense a thorough life in the theater into one feature article. So, we won’t. Someone will just have to write a worthy biography on the blue-eyed, deep-voiced man, who has been professionally acting for more than 36 years.

It’s also difficult to digest his performances in The Milwaukee Repertory Theatre’s production of Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, which he has been in a dozen times now. His version of Ebenezer Scrooge is  finely tuned, yet he states that he is always wrestling with the character.

James Pickering is Crachit in this 1981 production, flanked on his right by wife Rose Pickering. Photo courtesy the UWM Libary's Mark Avery Collection.

James Pickering is Bob Crachit in this 1981 production, flanked on his right by wife Rose Pickering. Photo, courtesy the UWM Library’s Mark Avery Collection.

“When I started doing the role, I had a big prosthetic nose and a bald pate and a wig and a lot of makeup,” he laughs. “Of course, nowadays I have to put on less and less to accomplish what I have to accomplish!”

Pickering says the play has also changed focus with different adaptations. Amlin Gray’s 1984 version was more sociological, he argues, as it was written during the Reagan administration. When the Milwaukee Rep asked Romulus Linney for a new version in the late 1990s, it was more about the plight of Tiny Tim as analogous to Scrooge. The newer version as focused by Artistic Director Joseph Hanreddy and Adapting Playwright Edward Morgan finds Scrooge re-connecting with family and doing something good in his life.

“That’s been the primary focus as we’ve been rehearsing it and thinking about it,” says Pickering. “There’s so much to be mined from that.”

Pickering, who has portrayed Scrooge in more than 370 performances of Carol, thinks now about the story’s gravity and cosmic theme of a man coming to grips with dying and his place in the world. A lot of it is scary, which is something communicated in the YouTube video, “The Dickens Project.”

pickeringThe actor was thinking about ways to connect with the audience in the modern age. He joined Facebook and utilized the web, but he felt there was something promotional that could be done beyond the work the marketing department was doing. He says there is a lot of fun to be culled from the original text.

“[Dickens] saves all the good jokes for himself as the narrator. I mean, there’s a lot of good stuff in there but that particular voice is the best. But we’re not trying to put a book on stage, it’s a play.”

So for fun, Pickering and Marketing Manager Kristy Studinski took a video camera down into the basement of the Jay and Patty Baker Theater Complex (in the prop room) and shot a spooky-looking narration of the opening chapter. In a bit of technological trick, the lens holds tight on his face as he recites the words. When Pickering ends with “There was no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story,” a montage of stills from The Rep’s production fills the screen with a preview of what an audience would see.

“This will serve a number of purposes,” Pickering muses. “It’s different than a media ad, which is just fine and they are doing their job the way they are suppose to. But I thought – let’s get into people’s PCs, you know?”

For a more in-depth take on Pickering’s thoughts on Scrooge, life in the theater and what theater must do now to get audiences into seats, listen to our 10-minute podcast interview featured below. Quicktime is required to play. For tickets to see A Christmas Carol at the Pabst, visit the Milwaukee Rep’s website or call 414-224-9490.


The 2009-10 Milwaukee Rep production of A Christmas Carol. Photo by Jay Westhauser.

Categories: Podcasts, Rock, Theater, VITAL

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