When “A Christmas Carol” actors David de Vries and Chris Kayser unexpectedly stroll into the Alliance Theatre’s administrative offices in the middle of the afternoon, the staff is startled but delighted to see the pair in their office space. Adding up the two Atlanta actors’ careers, they’ve been trodding the boards on the city’s stages for close to 70 years.
Over the years, the decades-old friends have acted opposite each other in the Alliance Theatre productions of “Glengarry Glen Ross” and most recently, this fall in “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” (although Kayser’s character had a frontal lobotomy prior to the first act). Off stage, the two play tennis together.
This year, for the first time, Kayser and de Vries are swapping roles in one of Atlanta’s most cherished yuletide traditions. After 15 years of playing Ebenezer Scrooge, Kayser retired from the role in 2013. In 2011, de Vries played Jacob Marley to Kayser’s Scrooge. And in 2014, de Vries inherited the sugar plum role and reprises it this year. After a year off, Kayser returns to the production in the pivotal Marley role.
In an exclusive chat with Eldredge ATL, the two old friends discuss their illustrious careers, their role reversal in the Charles Dickens classic and the life lessons they’ve both learned from literature’s signature skinflint.
Eldredge ATL: How did you two end up meeting?
De Vries: We didn’t really work together until 1996. But I first crossed paths with Chris in “Brigadoon” here at the Alliance in the fall of 1981. He and [Kayser’s wife] Terri were both in that. It opened the fall season.
Kayser: I want to say it was at Christmastime because the Alliance always did a musical around the holidays…
De Vries: You’re absolutely right! The first show that season was [playwright Brian Clark’s 1978 play] “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” with Linda Stephens.
Kayser: Wow, that was my one shot at beating David de Vries in a memory question!
De Vries: (laughs) Score! That was 34 years ago. Our paths didn’t cross all that much. But everyone knew about the illustrious Chris Kayser.
Kayser: That and three bucks will get you a latte, by the way.
De Vries: In 1996, I was directing [playwright Susan Cooper’s] “Foxfire” at Theatre in the Square and we made Chris an offer to join the cast. Then, I co-directed “Of Mice and Men” and Chris, who has a face for Steinbeck like no other, was, of course, cast as George in that. It was a great production but a lot of craziness ensued…
Kayser: (whistles) There sure was.
De Vries: We got the best review in the theatre’s history. The AJC said: “You could look all over America and not find a more perfect cast.” The run sold out and on Tuesday after opening, there was a semi-quasi fight in the men’s dressing room and a guy broke his leg. There was a lot of testosterone in that particular cast. We had to cancel the show and got fined by Equity because we didn’t have an understudy. Two days later, another guy had to go on, book in hand and the first guy was gone from the play. I was in California when the bones were being broken so I couldn’t really minister to the whole thing. And when I came back to see the show it was…
Kayser: The night the gun didn’t go off [at the climax of “Of Mice And Men” when George is forced to shoot Lennie in the back of the head]! You just heard “click, click, click.” I was up there mentally communicating to the light board operator, “Just black us out!” And he didn’t. Through sheer ESP, the actor playing Lennie and I just went into this slow motion thing and he fell over.
De Vries: I was furious. I was yelling at the stage manager, “How can you leave them out to dry like that?!” It was an actor’s nightmare. But the first time we acted together was in French in 1998!
Kayser: “La Cantatrice Chauve,” [Eugene Ionesco’s 1950 play “The Bald Soprano”] for Theatre du Reve. David didn’t really speak French and he had to learn it all phonetically. It was heroic.
De Vries: It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done on stage. To act in a foreign language is just wild.
Kayser: And then we did Scrooge and Marley together here at the Alliance in 2011.
Eldredge ATL: You two play tennis together. How did your off-stage friendship form?
De Vries: I’ve been playing since I was 11. I’m not as good as Chris but if I play enough I can give him a good game. Tennis is a great friendship conduit.
Kayser: Especially for people who spend their lives in windowless rooms!
Eldredge ATL: And Chris is a former Atlanta Athletic Club tennis pro so there’s that.
De Vries: (laughing) That’s what I always tell myself as I’m losing to him 6-2.
Eldredge ATL: Chris, you officially retired from the role of Scrooge in 2013. How did the Alliance lure you back to play Marley? Did they picket outside your house?
Kayser: The backstory is I wanted to give David a clear shot at the role. It would have been just weird being in the room. And I had a job lined up with Georgia Shakespeare but it ended up folding when the company did. I was out of work for five months. So then, I was sitting at home in November. I hadn’t done that in 25 years. I’m happy to be back.
De Vries: Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.
Eldredge ATL: David, three heavyweight Atlanta actors have played this role: Tom Key, Chris Kayser and now David de Vries. Did that affect you mentally stepping into the role?
Kayser: He didn’t think I would ever die!
De Vries: I never thought he would give it up! It’s such a great role. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last 15 years working out of town. To come back to Atlanta and be a part of the theatre community here is wonderful. To do a role like this, you feel like you’re a part of that family enterprise. Playing Scrooge now for a second year, as an actor you’ve already got the seeds in the ground. Maybe the topsoil is a little different but it informs what you’re going to bring to the performance this time. The feelings in the different scenes all come back to you, don’t they?
Kayser: Yeah, people always asked, “How can you play this every year?” It’s an all-star cast, you get to work with amazing singers and just headlining a show at the Alliance Theatre is a great thing. Every year you hope you’re a year better at being an actor. A year more experience.
Eldredge ATL: David, were there any particular scenes that were harder for you to get accustomed to playing as Scrooge?
De Vries: The hardest part for me is not capitulating too early. When I encounter my horrific past with the first ghost, David de Vries wants to go, “Oh God! OK, I’ll change now!” Trying to maintain some level of denial, that’s the part that feels unnatural to me.
Kayser: Right! And the lines in the script don’t help that either. You have to fight through those.
Eldredge ATL: For example?
Kayser: “I heard that song outside my door last night. I wish I had given him something.” Or “I have a clerk, Bob Cratchit…”
De Vries: Right. It’s all germinating with this guy. But he’s got a very defined patina of defense he uses constantly. That fire gets fed and slowly those walls of denial begin to crack.
Kayser: It’s the Marine Corps theory of boot camp. They’re supposed to break you down and rebuild you into a Marine. That’s sort of the ghosts’ job to break this guy down. So he gets one incredible emotional wallop after another. It’s incredibly painful. It’s as if someone were following you around your entire life and said, “Rich, you probably never saw me but I recorded your entire life. Now I’m going to show you every stupid, selfish, mean thing you ever did. Let’s watch, shall we?”
Eldredge ATL: Chris, you’ve said that getting older actually helped you in playing Scrooge. The role forces you to look back on things, perhaps with regret but it also compels you to look forward about how you want to spend your remaining time. David, does being the age you are now help get you into the mindset of this guy?
De Vries: Absolutely. And Chris also played Scrooge as a young man and I did not.
Kayser: I did.
De Vries: Was that really hard? Looking back on playing it 20 years later, you can probably say, “I didn’t even get that at the time.” Being the age we are now, we really get all lost opportunities, the loss of people and the parade to the graveyard resonates so clearly. But as a younger man, it must have been quite an extrapolation as opposed to a real lived experience that informs how to play the character. What was that like for you?
Kayser: In my first year playing Scrooge, I asked iconic Atlanta actor Frank Wittow [who formed Atlanta’s Academy Theatre in 1956] for advice. He was all about physical transformation. He said the greatest compliment he received at the Academy Theatre was when someone would say to him, “I had no idea that was you up there.” Breathing patterns, body, facial mask, voice, everything. We spent an hour in a room together just working on a body, a facial mask and a voice. We did this exercise, something silly like filling up a bookcase but doing it as Scrooge would fill it. What his hands meant, why he’s kind of protecting his genitals and yet his jaw is stuck out, expecting blows and physically maneuvering your body in order to make yourself a small target. That all helped me to become transformed and kept me from acting in any kind of a young way. Later on, I got to stop wearing the [old age] make up! (laughs). I finally aged into the role!
Eldredge ATL: David, for you, what was the key to playing Marley?
De Vries: Pain and regret. He’s an interesting guy because he’s such a sociopath and so malevolent in so many ways. But it’s fun to be scary and mean. Unfortunately, being mean comes easily. It’s fun to do.
Kayser: It’s a really vital role and it’s a bit odd in its presentation. You see the punishment before you see the crime. Marley is really an exercise in how to protect yourself from the world. Protecting yourself through accumulation and by keeping sentimentality and unnecessary matters of the heart at bay.
Eldredge ATL: After 15 years of playing Ebenezer Scrooge, I’m assuming that you’re more than OK to leave David with heavy lifting?
Eldredge ATL: And David, you’re on stage the entire time…
Kayser: Taking punch after punch.
De Vries: I’m on stage for the whole show but I don’t have to change clothes which I find particularly loathsome as an actor.
Eldredge ATL: Chris, when you played Scrooge you once told me you created a possum nest for yourself in your dressing room for matinee days. Have you bequeathed nest that to David?
De Vries: I’ve constructed my own. When I was doing “Beauty and the Beast” in New York, I went to the Army-Navy Surplus Store and bought myself a cot. That was even more physically demanding because I was running around in a candle costume. I still have my cot and my own teakettle. I hunker down between shows. Chris, were you able to sleep?
Kayser: I trained myself so I would sleep almost every single matinee day, even when I thought I wouldn’t be able to.
Eldredge ATL: Chris, in 2011 in an interview you were asked if you ever passed the Scrooge torch which Atlanta actor you would like to see inherit the role. David was one of the actors you named. Do you remember that?
Kayser: I don’t but that’s great!
De Vries: Wow. I did not know that. I’m flattered and grateful.
Eldredge ATL: Is it going to be fun to play opposite each other in this again this year with the roles reversed?
De Vries: Really good scenes with a really good actor? Absolutely, yes.
Kayser: We play tennis off stage and then we get paid to play together on stage. It’s a privilege.