What Does It Take to Be Ebenezer Scrooge?

Jonathan Wainwright would know – he’s done it eight times

Jonathan Wainwright doesn’t look a thing like Ebenezer Scrooge. At 50 years old, Wainwright is lean and muscular. And he wore a colorful tank top (instead of a cloak and top hat) when he sat down with MilMag over the summer.

He doesn’t act much like Scrooge either. Talkative, with a friendly demeanor, Wainwright comes off as very much the opposite of the crotchety miser who has become synonymous with humbuggery. But he’s exceedingly familiar with the character all the same.

From Nov. 26 to Dec. 24, Wainwright will star in his eighth-consecutive production of A Christmas Carol at the Milwaukee Rep. He spent four years as the optimist Bob Cratchit and is about to start his fourth as Scrooge.

We spoke with Wainwright in advance of the show to ask him how he approaches an iconic role like Scrooge, and his career more broadly.

Left to Right: Jonathan Wainwright and Olivia Vitrano. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

On being an actor:

A lot of actors are introverts. That’s why we do what we do. It gives us a way out.

On other shows he’s in this season:

I’m doing West Side Story … I’m playing a non-singing, non-dancing cop. That’s the job for me. It’s not that I can’t sing, but I’m not a musical theater singer. That requires a very specific voice. I’m more of a campfire, guitar folk singer.

On the enduring relevance of A Christmas Carol:

It’s important. It’s more important than a lot of shows that people go to. One, because it’s a tradition. Two, because it’s a special-family-night-out kind of thing. So you have to give your heart to it … there are people like this out there in the world, and what if you could turn them?

On Scrooge’s Essential Scrooge-ness:

Scrooge doesn’t screw people over. He just collects his money. He doesn’t cheat people. Scrooge is a straight-up businessman. He’s just cold … You look at a guy like Scrooge, he didn’t necessarily come from money. He built his way up. … He didn’t have to close his heart like that, but he did. And then when he lost the only other person in the world who was sort of like him – Marley – that showed [him] something, how easy it is get used to being alone.

Photo by Michael Brosilo

On keeping his energy up over the course of a 36-show run:

It’s hard not to be energized when there’s a thousand people walking into the Pabst and you’re dressed like Charles Dickens. That’s another little fun thing about the script – I start off dressed as Dickens and do a little quick change into Scrooge.

On working over the holidays:

It does sort of become your Christmas. But in that sense too, I don’t know what I would do without it at this point. It’s been eight years.

On what it’s like to revisit the same show year after year:

I’m always excited about it. I’m always eager to see everyone – to see how many of these kids have returned … the kid who played my first Tiny Tim is now playing Young Scrooge. That kid works more than I do.

On the rehearsal process:

Because we’ve been doing a remount for the last three years, with a lot of the same people, they cut down the rehearsal time. This year we have two and half weeks before we’re in the theater. So no time at all. It’s honestly a little scary. But it’ll be fun. I want to get on the stage as soon as possible.

I enjoy the performances more than the rehearsals. Some people enjoy the rehearsals more than the performances. You hear that about sports all the time. Some athletes really dig practice. Some athletes don’t feel like doing it. I know it’s necessary, but at some point I just want to do it.

On what he watches to unwind:

I’ve never liked awards shows … I’m an actor who’d rather watch a basketball game … I like Giannis because he’s honest. He’s been so humble, but hungry.

On finding new audiences:

I find that most theaters have trouble getting young people in the seats. Too many theaters’ subscription lists have been dying. That’s been the goal of Mark Clements since he got to the Rep – bringing a new audience into the theater.

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Adam is a journalist who recently returned to his Wisconsin home after graduating from Drake University in December 2017. He interned with MilMag in the summer of 2015 and has been a continual contributor ever since. Follow him on social media @Could_Be_Rogan