by Brian Robin
Playing The Spirit of Christmas Present
The last time Richard Soto appeared in SCR’s A Christmas Carol was 2004. And it took a medical emergency to get him in the cast.
Former director John-David Keller called Soto at his Burbank home at 10:30 one morning, telling him one of the cast members had an emergency and asking him to fill in. He needed someone to play the role of Ebenezer Scrooge as a Young Man.
“I dropped everything and got to Costa Mesa in 45 minutes. I did the whole run,” Soto said. “I was running lines on my cellphone driving down. I played that role from 1990-2000, so I believe that’s why John-David called on me, thinking I was very familiar with the role.”
This year, Soto returns to the cast without a medical emergency. He plays the Spirit of Christmas Present in SCR’s A Christmas Carol. The Orange County holiday tradition runs through Dec. 26 on the Segerstrom Stage.
“I love being back with the tradition of this production,” Soto said. “It’s great to be back in a different role. I love the role of (Spirit of) Christmas Present. It’s about bringing joy. He is what we feel during that holiday at its best. He’s there to make people feel good. To share the love and laughter and the uplifting feeling during the season is awesome.”
In addition to that uplifting feeling, the gregarious Soto also relishes playing the mental taskmaster to Richard Doyle’s Scrooge. The emotional balance his character brings, the yin and yang lessons he imparts, brings out Soto’s creativity like few other roles he’s played during a 31-year acting career.
“I really appreciate the joy and the sternness. I use his own words against him,” Soto explained. “I’m there to show him what you do affects the rest of the world and he has to understand that in making other people feel good, you will feel good. It’s wonderful to be able to find that balance. The challenge and the joy (of this role) is to find the balance between bringing the joy of Christmas and being stern in showing that without that joy, everyone suffers.
“The challenge of playing this role is seeing it from the audience’s perspective. … If I am the Spirit of Christmas and I share that experience of having a great time, I’m literally giving of myself. I’m sacrificing myself so he (Scrooge) may be saved. I’m trying to focus on that because that’s where you get the gravitas; that’s where you get the moments of realizing he’s not going to exist anymore. He’s going to pass on. … ‘I’ve given everything I can for you. Do something with it.’ My whole goal is (asking him) ‘Who the heck are you and how do I get you to change your ways?’”
This challenge epitomizes what Soto does in his role as a teacher in SCR’s Conservatory. He teaches Act I: Basic Skills. This allows Soto to bring his acting passion to life while helping students understand what the acting craft entails from the ground up. His role as the Spirit of Christmas Present is literally a heaven-sent example of the process.
“The biggest challenge for me as an actor in trying to teach students is acting isn’t just simply reciting lines,” he said. “You have to figure out how to make the audience feel what you felt when you first experienced the script: the joy, the sadness, the emotions in what you’re going through. How do I make the audience feel what I felt? I have to bring that to life.
“How do we best tell the story where the audience just doesn’t hear the story, they feel it?”