Tony Rivenbark speaks freely, and with a hint of mischief coloring his Southern accent. The veteran actor and longtime Thalian Hall executive director is playing Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” for the 14th time, and enjoys displaying his encyclopedic knowledge of the role. “I saw the latest version on Broadway last week at the Lyceum, with Campbell Scott,” Rivenbark says. “And, of course, his father, George C. Scott, did a movie version … Patrick Stewart did a one-man ‘Christmas Carol’ on Broadway, which I saw and hated.”
If Rivenbark is competitive about playing Scrooge, it makes sense. For many in the Cape Fear region, his name is synonymous with Dickens’ famous curmudgeon. He first inhabited the character in 1968, as a college junior at UNCW (then Wilmington College). Since, he’s played Scrooge 13 times, in six different versions—including multiple musicals and a version Steve Cooper wrote for Rivenbark, which saw the Ghost of Christmas Present as Tarzan. (He also directed the show twice.)
The Theatre Exchange version playing in Wilmington this month will be familiar to many: It ran for seven consecutive years at Thalian Hall, from 2000 to 2006. Rivenbark plays a traveling actor who stumbles into a Depression-era “Hooverville” after his car runs out of gas. In performing “A Christmas Carol” in exchange for food and lodging, he is transformed into Scrooge, and the town’s tattered residents become the players.
“A Christmas Carol” comes at an especially busy time for Rivenbark. In September, the StarNews recognized his 40 years of running Thalian Hall with its Media Lifetime Achievement Award. Later this month, he’ll host 400 attendees for Thalian’s annual New Year’s Eve Gala, featuring a performance of the Opera House Theatre Company musical “La Cage Aux Folles.”
encore spoke with Rivenbark in his office last week about “A Christmas Carol,” which opens Thursday night at 7:30 p.m.
encore (e): How has your performance of Scrooge evolved over time?
Tony Rivenbark (TR): I don’t know if it’s evolved. There are choices you get to make every night, so sometimes I might be more angry or more sarcastic. There is a little bit of humor in Scrooge. That’s important because at the end, when he becomes a nice guy, there’s something to it. He still is not necessarily an easy character to deal with; he almost dominates the room. I’m not sure I would want to be around the happy Scrooge.
e: Are you pretty much completely off-book at this point?
TR: No, no. I very seldom can retain lines, but it’s not as hard to pick it back up again. So I’m pretty much off-book and understand what’s happening and understand certain moves and things. But, still—no performance is ever alike.
e: Is it easier to play a character with a mean streak than someone who’s doing good all the time?
TR: The villain is always fun, and in this case he’s both [villain and hero]. Years ago I did “Camelot” at Kenan Auditorium. I had played, you know, fun people, comic people, whatever, and I wanted to play someone really evil. I wanted to do Mordred, who is such a snake. My costume was . . . green, it was almost snakelike. It was beautiful. But [the director] really wanted me to do Merlyn. I realized, after looking at the script, Merlyn only appears in the first act, and Mordred appears in the second. So I said, “OK, I’ll do Merlyn, if you let me do Mordred, too.”
e: Do you relate to Scrooge?
TR: Yes. I’m a terrible employer, and I can be really, really hard on people. But I’m also the other one, too, so I’m both. Poor staff, they never know which one’s going to come into work.
e: What would you tell someone who says, “I’ve already seen ‘A Christmas Carol.’ I’m going to skip it this year.”
TR: The fact is, Dickens didn’t write a play; he wrote a novella. So God knows—there’s 50, 100, 150—I don’t know how many versions there are, but to most people it may seem really like the same because it is the same story. It’s the closest thing in some way to theatre in the 19th century, when people knew the plays and—for 50 years or so, from the 18th century to the mid-19th century—the same play would come back again and again. People knew these plays and would go back to see them, to see who did it. It was as much about the actor. It wasn’t about the production because production values were not as extravagant as they are today.
e: Is “A Christmas Carol” the best holiday story?
TR: Yes, I think it is. It almost makes me tear up because I just went through this with the show. [In New York,] one of the things they did was have three Tiny Tims, and all three were in a similar situation. The kid actually had a disability—MS or something, I don’t know. He actually couldn’t walk. It absolutely tore the audience apart.
I think the message is: You can’t solve the problems of the past, but you can solve the problems of the future. You can be kinder to the people you know. You can share. You can think about those less fortunate than you. You can help. I think that’s a very powerful message. I think it says it better than any of the other ones.
e: You recently were awarded a StarNews Lifetime Achievement Award. What does that mean to you?
TR: It means a great deal. Awards are nice. As Dorothy Gillespie once said, “Life is not a rehearsal.” It is what it is. Maybe it’s not what you wanted to do, maybe you didn’t even know what you wanted to do. If other people feel like you have done something that meant something to people, then that’s good and appreciated.
e: Do you ever think about slowing down?
TR: If you slow down, you get tired. I can barely walk when I get up off this desk. If I’m moving, I’m great. It’s just, you know—what are you going to do? It’s too late to do something different. I guess it’s a calling. I don’t know. I mean, I really don’t. I think about it a lot.
But slowing down? I do slow down in a way because the staff does a lot of things, so I focus on projects that continue to interest me. We keep reinventing the theater, so it has it has its place in the community.
Interview has been edited and condensed.