Every year, the holiday season rings in with the Toledo Repertoire Theatre’s production of “A Christmas Carol.” This staple of the community shows the cold-hearted Ebenezer Scrooge as he is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future to learn how to open his heart to the world before it is too late.
However, the Rep’s production is not the only Toledo staple of Dickens’ classic tale; the show’s leading man of Scrooge is played by Paul Causman, who is entering his 21st year putting on this production. Causman’s passion for the stage and Dickens’ words are abundant, but what really sets him apart and keeps him coming back to the role is the relationships he forms with the people he meets both on and off the stage.
We sat down with Causman ahead of Christmas Carol rehearsals to talk about his start in theater, his process in the role and his devotion to the community.
How did you get into theater?
I was kind of the stereotypical child who was organizing groups of kids to put on plays when I was very young, and I would write and direct shows that we would put on among the neighborhood kids. And then when I got more formally into it was when I was in high school, I started doing high school shows and then community theater shows as well. Then in college, I became really heavily involved in it. I went to BGSU, and I was really lucky because I got a full talent scholarship there. And so coming as a student into a university, I really didn’t have the income to go to school, so I would work on the side and fortunately, early on in my career the university’s talent scholarship allowed me to focus on acting in a theater 24/7 which was really nice.
What originally drew you to the role?
I directed the show for the Toledo Rep when I was artistic director there in the 1980s. What happened was a wonderful actor, John Halauer, was playing Scrooge and he took ill during the run. We were running for three weekends during that time, I think, and he took ill and called me from the hospital on a Tuesday during the run and we had performances Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday and said that he had pneumonia and wasn’t going to be able to make it. So I learned the role –– I was young then and I had a good memory –– and went on for the Wednesday evening performance. And the bug bit me. It really did. I mean, I just love the character.
So I did that run then and then I never did it again for many years until Jim Rudes who had played it for about a dozen years or more was ready to retire. Gloria Moulopoulos, she was the artistic director then, asked me if I would start doing Scrooge. I talked to my good friend Jim Rudes and asked for his blessing, which he gave me wholeheartedly, and I started doing Scrooge. It’s such an iconic role that it’s an easy role to do over and over because while it’s demanding, it’s so wonderful to get to speak those words that Dickens wrote. Every year, I go back into it, and it almost feels like it’s brand new because the dialogue is so rich. I never get bored with it.
Talk about your process. Do you have to review your lines prior to rehearsals or does it all just come back to you? What other preparation do you do to get into the character?
I do have to review the lines because I’m away from them for a year. I don’t do anything special in terms of getting into the role of Scrooge than I would do getting into the role of any particular character that I’m playing on stage. And that’s just a personal process of what I go through as an actor to develop a role. But Scrooge is so different in that regard. The lines are a whole lot easier. They come to me a lot faster, because I’ve done it so many times before.
How has your performance of Scrooge changed over the years? How has your understanding of his character changed?
Every time I go back to it, it changes. Because I’m not the same person that I was 15 years ago, or 10 or even last year. We’re all different. At the core, we’re the same person, but we can’t have lived without changing because everything around us changes. As a result, yeah, so does the character. I can’t help but change it. That’s one of the things that’s so wonderful about it.
It’s so rare that an actor gets to repeat a role. And I’ve repeated a number of them two, three and even four times, but I’ve never had a character that I’ve repeated year after year after year and that is rare. It’s really rare. And I’m so honored to do it because it’s such an incredible experience. You learn so much about the character. You learn so much about the story and you learn so much about yourself as an actor and a person.
People always ask me, “Why do you want to do it year after year after year?” Well, that’s why. But I also love seeing people. With Christmas Carol it’s like a family.
You’ve worked with many of the same and many different people over the years. How does the experience of being the one Christmas Carol constant sit with you? Is it hard to say goodbye to people or just part of the job?
It’s almost always hard to say goodbye to people. That’s the wonderful thing about theater, though, is that you are a group of people and incredibly diverse. You can have people from all different kinds of backgrounds, all different kinds of experiences, and you’re all coming together. People that you wouldn’t know under other circumstances, but you all come together with one goal in mind and that is getting that production going and making it good. It’s a little bit of an unrealistic experience because when you’re in that it’s a pressured kind of environment. Everyone’s focused so hard on that and everyone’s working together, and that sort of thing doesn’t normally exist in our everyday work world. To this day, every time I finish a show or even “A Christmas Carol” every run, I have that feeling of that letdown afterwards because I’m not seeing the people that I’ve been seeing, working with and enjoying their company. All of a sudden I don’t get to see them again until next year, if at all. So yeah, it is hard. It’s a part of the job, that’s true. But that doesn’t make it any less profoundly meaningful because I truly do miss people.
It’s so lovely to hear you talk about your experience in the show, but particularly your relationships that you have formed in the show.
I see what people do and the generosity that they have, coming together to do this. This is a gift to Toledo; it’s become a Toledo institution in that regard. It’s not easy to put this show on. There’s a lot of rehearsals and a lot of work and people come in and devote their time and resources and talents to making this happen for the rest of the community. I think it’s beautiful, and I love to watch people come back and do what they’ve done before and I love watching new people discover new things and develop their new characters. That’s the real meaning of it for me: People who are involved in it.
Is there a line that particularly resonates with you?
“Bah, humbug!” [laughs] No, there are so many lines that are wonderful to me. Fred’s whole speech, which to me is the centerpiece of the play, but (Scrooge) has lines during his epiphany at the end that are very important to me. At the end where he’s at the tombstone and he realizes that it’s his, in the future. Those lines are extremely meaningful. I mean, what happens when you reach the end? What have you done? How have you helped other people? He says, “Spirits hear me, I’m not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this.” And what’s so extraordinary about that line to me is that he speaks in three times at the same time: past, present and future.
Dickens wraps up Scrooge’s life based on his past and present and what is yet to come, and he sums it all up in the show. And then at the gravestone, in one sentence, he covers past, present and future. “ I will not be:” future, “the man I must have been:” past, “but for this:” present. That’s extraordinary writing; that’s all in one sentence. That whole epiphany speech is the most extraordinary part about doing Scrooge. It’s very powerful.
Is there a particular scene from the show that stands out as your favorite? One that maybe you wish you could skip?
I love performing the Marley scene, and I love performing the graveyard scene in the future. But no, there’s nothing that I would want to skip.
Do your friends and family come each year?
I have friends and family who come every year and that’s wonderful, having that kind of support. I love to hear their feedback from year to year about the show. But it’s interesting because occasionally we’ve had letters from families who have for one reason or another felt compelled to write the theater about how they’ve come to see this show for 30 years and that they brought their kids and their kids have grown up and their kids have kids and they’re bringing them. It’s amazing because there are a lot of people who do come to see it every year or very regularly, at least. It’s very gratifying to know that there are people who really appreciate it from year to year.
Do you ever think you’ll retire from Scrooge?
I certainly do see it. I’m 66 now and I’m finally getting to the age where I’m about age appropriate for Scrooge, so I guess I could play him. But there may be some other things that I would like to do. I don’t give it a whole lot of thought. We’ll see as time goes on.
What do you do outside of Christmas Carol? Job, hobbies, free time pleasures?
I’m a graphic designer. I work for a social services charity, the Jewish Federation of Greater Toledo and we raise money for food banks, refugee services, all kinds of programming. I started here in 2000 as a graphic designer. My job has expanded to include marketing director and also editor of Toledo Jewish News. I have my partner Richard Fourtner of 39 years, we celebrated 39 in July, and that’s my family along with my three cats. I love the summer, the spring, fall. I love when I can be outside. I don’t have a horse anymore, but I always rode horses for years. Between my job and the theater, certainly it takes up plenty of my time.
Are you involved in other local productions in the Christmas Carol off season?
I’ve been involved in lots of shows over the years. I mean, if there’s a performance organization in town, whatever the performance organization in town, I’ve worked with them. I’ve worked with the Toledo Rep. I’ve worked with Toledo Opera, Toledo Jazz Society, Toledo Symphony, Toledo Museum of Art, the University of Toledo the Department of Theater & Film, The Village Players, Ms. Rose’s Dinner Theater, Actors Collaborative, Glass City Theatre Collective, Valentine Theatre and Toledo Ballet.
You have such a passion for community theater. Talk a little bit about your love for it.
When people talk to me we usually end up talking about “A Christmas Carol” because I’ve done it for so long. I want to talk about theater in general and specifically community theater. We’re really lucky in Toledo. We have a great community theater in the Toledo Rep, but we also have a lot of other community theaters who do really play a huge role in providing an artistic outlet and opportunities for artistic expression, be it acting or directing or designing costumes or whatever the case may be. Sometimes I think we take it for granted, and when I’m away from Toledo I’ll tell people about this and they’ll oftentimes look at me like I’m from another planet: “Are you kidding? There’s that much?” And it’s true, there is. They help build community. There are opportunities to develop talent and a lot of the talent goes on to work in other places. Some go on to Broadway, some go on to the screen, some go on to work regionally and some move to another place and continue to work in a community theater.
One of the great things about it is they can walk into a theater and all of a sudden they instantly have a network of people no matter where they go. It’s inclusive; it’s diverse. It gives people a sense of pride. I can’t say enough about it. “A Christmas Carol” is one thing, Scrooge is a great thing, but what’s really amazing in Toledo is just the breadth and depth of community theater in this town and we tend to take it for granted. But it’s huge, and it’s an amazing asset for the community.
See Causman in the Toledo Rep’s A Christmas Carol December 1-3. toledorep.org