'Big slippers to fill': Veteran Christmas Carol actor lands dream role of Scrooge

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Just as his character must do, Theatre Calgary’s new Scrooge revisits the past while giving us a glimpse of the future.

When the curtain rises on the theatre’s 36th production of A Christmas Carol on Nov. 30, local actor Doug McKeag will be starring as Ebenezer Scrooge, the iconic role Stephen Hair played for 27 years.

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“I’ll be dedicating my performance to Stephen. He established the franchise. He was Scrooge. I’m taking the torch and running with it, knowing these are big slippers to fill,” says McKeag, who is no rookie when it comes to the play. This will be his 10th time appearing in A Christmas Carol, and his 33rd show with Theatre Calgary.

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“My first Carol was probably in 1993. I played Topper, one of the guests at Scrooge’s nephew Fred’s Christmas party. I then graduated to playing Fred, and eventually to playing Old Fezziwig, which is where I settled in. I wasn’t lean enough to play Bob Cratchit.”

McKeag says being cast in A Christmas Carol was life-changing.

“I was young and, as an actor, moving around a lot. Christmas just wasn’t that important to me. Being in A Christmas Carol awakened me to the potential glory of the season. It really changed my mind and heart about Christmas. There was an amazing spirit in the room during rehearsals and on the stage. I wasn’t exactly Scrooge, but I needed an awakening, too.”

McKeag says he sees A Christmas Carol “as one man evaluating his life. Scrooge is looking at his past, trying to see why he ended up being cruel and alone. The ghosts are not his judges. They are his guides. He’s not being punished, just being given the opportunity to change. It’s a wonderful thought really. I love that Scrooge says he’s too old to change. No one is too old really, and that is Dickens’ message.”

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There is another connection McKeag feels he has with Scrooge.

“When the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to his boarding school days, I know exactly how he feels. I went to a private school in Winnipeg. I was too delicate for that experience. I didn’t appreciate the cruelty. It turned me into a very empathetic man. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen for Scrooge, and that’s what he has to confront in the scene with the Christmas Past.

“I don’t have to manufacture any of the emotions for Scrooge. They come naturally to me. Maybe that’s what (director) Stafford Arima and (playwright) Geoffrey Simon Brown saw in me during my audition.”

A Christmas Carol
Doug McKeag as Scrooge and Laura Desmaris as Tiny Tim in Theatre Calgary’s production of the seasonal classic A Christmas Carol. Jim Wells/Postmedia Jim Wells/Postmedia

Theatre Calgary cast a wide net when it announced auditions for the role of Scrooge. Arima and Brown would eventually see more than a dozen actors before they chose McKeag, who says it’s only natural so many actors submitted their names.

“I know that I’ve had my eye on the role for a while. It’s one of those dream roles for an older man, but there are very few opportunities to do it.”

Edward Atienza, a British actor and regular at Canada’s Stratford Festival, was Theatre Calgary’s first Scrooge in 1983, followed by another Stratford alumnus, Roland Hewgill, in 1984. Eric Schneider played Scrooge three times, and then Les Carlson twice before Stephen Hair took over for 27 years. In 2021, during the pandemic, Brown condensed his version of A Christmas Carol for two companies of three actors each, with Haysam Kadri and Mike Tan playing Scrooge. That makes McKeag the eighth actor to inhabit the role for Calgary audiences.

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It was a Christmas play in Manitoba some 50 years ago that planted the theatrical seed in McKeag.

“I was in Grade 3 and we were doing The Christmas Tree. I got the title role which meant I had a cone on my head and never moved, but I loved the experience. I definitely had the theatre bug throughout school, but I went to university to get a degree in political science and economics.

“I was going to go into law but took a year off. I did community theatre and was in a musical called Lady Audley’s Secret. The director encouraged me to pursue acting so I took the one-year course at LAMDA in London. It was really rigorous, but it was an unforgettable year of training and going to theatre whenever I could.”

McKeag returned to Canada, tried finding work in Winnipeg, but eventually moved to Toronto where he “did a lot of non-equity dinner theatre. He came to Alberta to take a course in arts administration at MacEwan College in Edmonton, then worked for the Calgary Philharmonic during the Olympics and moonlighted in theatre.

“My first show in Calgary was the Moss Hart comedy Light Up the Sky at the Pleiades.”

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With a background in music, McKeag soon found himself in musicals like Playing Our Song, Grease and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Stage West, and Little Shop of Horrors, Evita, Cabaret and Into the Woods at Theatre Calgary. His last appearance at Theatre Calgary was in April playing the one-eyed beach bum in the Jimmy Buffett musical Escape to Margaritaville.

A Christmas Carol
Laura Desmaris plays Tiny Tim poses in Theatre Calgary’s production of A Christmas Carol. Jim Wells/Postmedia Jim Wells/Postmedia

Joining McKeag in A Christmas Carol, which runs in the Arts Commons Max Bell Theatre until Dec. 31, are Mike Tan as Bob Cratchit, Anna Cummer as Alice Cratchit, Mark Bellamy as Mr. Fezziwig, Karen Johnson-Diamond as Gertie Fezziwig, Daniel Fong as Cousin Fred, and Joe Perry as the young Scrooge. The Cratchit children are played by Scarlett Bowler, Simon Goutsis, Alexandria Lee, Raina Muradali, and Parker Painchaud, with Laura Desmaris as Tiny Tim Cratchit. Jamie Tognazzini plays The Ghost of Christmas Past with Marshall Vielle as Christmas Present.

It takes 17 additional people backstage to help run the show each evening, plus Greg Pember and Jessica Eckstadt as understudies, to step in should an actor take ill. Declan O’Reilly is the alternate in case anything happens to McKeag.

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Deitra Kalyn has designed more than 1,000 costume pieces for the 20-member cast, including 66 pairs of shoes and 30 wigs. There are 300 pieces of fruit on the costume worn by Christmas Present.

The set designed by Scott Reid features four houses each weighing 1,360 kilograms. They are suspended so that they can be moved quickly on and off stage. It takes over 80 hours, and over 2,000 labour hours, to install Reid’s set which, during the rest of the year, is stored in four trailers.

There are 120 speakers being used in the Max Bell for A Christmas Carol. Allison Lynch, who appears on stage as the fiddler, designed and composed all the music for the show. Kevin Lamotte designed the lighting, and Jesse Robb provided the choreography.

In 2019, Theatre Calgary installed a massive LED wall that serves as the backdrop for all the different scenes in the play. This wall measures 12 metres wide and 7.6 metres tall, contains 416 panels, and weighs more than 3,175 kg. A Christmas Carol is among the most lavish productions Theatre Calgary has created.

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Originally posted 2023-11-23 14:01:59.