BACK STAGE WEST
December 16, 1999
SCROOGES' DIALOGUE: Hal Landon Jr. & William Dennis Hunt
A pair of nicer Scrooges you're never likely to meet: Hal Landon Jr. (left in photo), currently in his 20th year as the holiday humbugger of South Coast Repertory's popular perennial A Christmas Carol, and William Dennis Hunt, who is creating the role of Ebenezer in a new adaptation at A Noise Within. The two met recently to discuss the challenges and rewards of this iconic character, and found they had more than a bit in common: Both helped found Southern California theatre companies in the 1960s, and while both have done their share of film and TV work, the bulk of their careers has been on Southland and regional stages.
Landon helped co-found Costa Mesa's storefront-troupe-turned-resident-theatre-powerhouse, South Coast Rep, in 1965, and has been a resident artist there ever since. Accordingly, his list of regional theatre and on-screen credits is dwarfed by a raft of SCR credits, highlights of which have included Tartuffe, American Buffalo, Faith Healer, BAFO, Waiting for Godot, Woman in Mind, Talley's Folly, and, of course, A Christmas Carol. (His most recognizable screen credit was as Keanu Reeves' dad in the Bill & Ted films.)
Hunt, who helped found the Company Theatre in 1967, has been part of the L.A. theatre movement from its pre-Equity Waiver days to its midsized-aimed present; his credits are loaded with meaty roles at Pacific Resident Theatre and singular productions at the Odyssey, the Matrix, the Colony, and Padua Hills Playwright's Fest. Earlier this year, he appeared in What the Butler Saw at A Noise Within's former Glendale space, and moved with the troupe to its posh new Luckman Theatre digs on the campus of Cal State L.A. for Under Milk Wood and now A Christmas Carol, which marks Hunt's fifth stab at Scrooge.
William Dennis Hunt: Scrooge is pretty much a lost soul who's gone way into himself--that's the way we're looking at it, so the arc is greater, so it's not, Oh, here's somebody who's obviously ready for change, who's going to hop right into it.
Hal Landon Jr.: When we first did Christmas Carol, I did the kind of crotchety curmudgeon. I was 39. The hard, cold, steely businessman--that was a pretty big leap; it was much easier to do the funny one. We got tremendous response from that, but there were people who pointed out to us that there might be some more things to investigate in the piece, so we did. It was hard to pull away from the lighter approach, but as I got older and, I think, improved as an actor, it became easier to reach the deeper levels of the character.
I think the key is: The reason he's mean is, that's how he's protecting himself--how he's hiding his own pain from himself. If he's not hard and cold with other people, then he allows that spark, that desire for happiness, to emerge, and whenever that used to happen to him, he got kicked in the teeth.
Bill: One of the things we've been trying to do with this Scrooge is to delay his redemption as long as possible. Because in some productions, you know, when he hits the past, he's already a changed man.
Hal: Yeah, that's something I've tinkered with over the years: How much do those scenes in the past affect him, and how close to the transformation do they get him? And I think it does work to hold it in as long as you can.
Bill: At the same time you enjoy things, like Fezziwig's ball.
Hal: Yeah, he gets caught up in them--but if he's just whooping and hollering and laughing and crying, then it's like, What's the problem?
Bill: For me, there are continuous reminders of where he's headed. He keeps seeing people who have transcended their situations, and who have all this family and love around them, and he is alone.
Hal: It's interesting you say that, because that has struck me more this time. Usually the past stuff was what got me, but now, seeing Cratchit in that family situation, and then Fred. . . For some reason this year, Fred has more impact on me than ever before.
Bill: Yes, yes--me, too.
Hal: It's like: How could this guy, after I've treated him so abysmally, come back at this party and say he pities me, and that he'll come every year, no matter what I say?
Bill: And then when Cratchit has that scene after Tiny Tim's death, where he gathers the family and says, "We won't forget him"--that he turns it into something positive is just like, for Scrooge. . . What have I missed?
This is one of those parts that has everything in it. That arc--the travels he takes on his emotional journey--is any actor's dream.
Hal: It's a great part, and I look forward to doing it. I can't say that was always the case. There was a kind of middle period in the 20-year cycle where it was a real chore for me; I think I reached a point where I was able to envision the character as it really should be done, and I wasn't able to do it.
That's what's been great about doing it for 20 years: It's contributed enormously to my development as an actor, because every year I've got this challenge. It keeps me sharp. I actually work on it during the course of the year, so next year I can come close to nailing it.
Bill: For me, I'm coming back to the part after nine years, and the people I'm working with send new things my way; they force me to look at what I'm doing. I know you've had people come and go from your show, too.
Hal: A lot of people are the same, but we do have some new people each year--the kids are always new--and that forces us to refocus in a good way.
Bill: How light is your Tiny Tim?
Hal: Actually, I don't have to carry him in mine.
Bill: Neither do I.
Bill: A Noise Within's new space is wonderful, but we're still learning how to use it--it's a huge house, and a huge stage.
Hal: I remember when we made that switch from a storefront in Costa Mesa on Newport Blvd. to the place by South Coast Plaza. That was--I can't think of the word. Dan Sullivan was the L.A. Times critic, and somebody told me he actually said to one of the artistic directors, "You're the big boys now." It was. . . traumatic, that's the word I was looking for. All of a sudden we had to produce at a different level. When the Taper moved from UCLA to the Center Theatre, their production of The Devils got knocked around pretty good, and our production of Time of Your Life did, too. That jump is a big one.
Bill: It is. I know South Coast--and Noise Within in its former space--shared a vision of making something bigger out of something small, and was able to do it within that small space. Then you move to a larger venue and suddenly the bright lights go on and it becomes a little more intimidating.
L.A. vs. O.C.
Bill: There are certain drawbacks in the Equity Waiver movement; the most obvious one is that the actors suffer in their wallets. So it's a very good sign that three or four theatres in the last 10 years are making an effort to move to an Equity situation in which the actors are paid. It makes a difference--just as the $5 a night made a difference when that first started in Equity Waiver.
Hal: The Equity Waiver does not apply in Orange County, though that's kind of what we were when we started. But no one was content with our original 70-seat theatre, or with the 200-seat theatre; our thrust was always to become a full-scale Equity professional resident theatre. The work we did was good--I mean, it could stand on its own--but the goal was always to move us in that direction.
Bill: But the question is, Were we in it for the same reason in the late '60s and early '70s? Yes. Whether the goal of becoming full Equity was the same or not, the determination to stay with it and to keep producing good theatre was the same.
Hal: There's a certain personality, a certain mindset that's required to be a part of company like South Coast, or A Noise Within. A lot of people have come and gone, obviously, but the ones who have stayed have that devotion to theatre. People who have strong feelings about family or group effort are required to make something like that successful.
Bill: Also, in as insecure a business as this is, to have a home where you feel you can continue to do good work is very important. When actors find that, they'll hang on to it. It provides a grounding that the rest of this business simply doesn't give you, ever.