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by Brian Robin

The Story Behind the Photo: "A Christmas Carol"

Michael Manuel stepped into the role of Jacob Marley’s Ghost for the first time this year in South Coast Repertory’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. His portrayal of the spirit is both electric and haunting, greasing the skids of scaring Ebenezer Scrooge straight into the light of humanity.

Manuel is a veteran of several SCR productions, including Amos and BorisTartuffeEurydice and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He’s played characters ranging from Iago in Othello to Tilden in Sam Sheppard’s Buried Child in theatres all over the United States. Manuel’s film roles include National Treasure: Book of SecretsVolcano and Dragonfly.

Manuel took a break from A Christmas Carol to talk about his role and the photo above.

What moment does this depict?
“He’s warning him. He’s telling him ‘You don’t want to be like me. If I could do it over again, I would do it differently.’ He’s telling Scrooge, ‘You can’t just joke this away. You can’t run and hide from this.’ It’s a sad moment to me. I think we have regrets about moments when we wish we could do it over again and warn a version of ourselves. I think that’s what he’s doing. He’s warning him.”

Talk about the relationship between Jacob Marley and Scrooge.
“To me, the only two people in the play who can show regret and remorse are Scrooge and Marley. Because they had a relationship before they were close, there’s certainly a back-and-forth they have. They can speak to each other in a way that only people who worked together can. When you know someone intimately, you can cut through the artifice and to the core of the person.”

What motivated you in this scene?
“The language. Just the language. …  Like all great writing, it’s just the language, the words. It kind of guides you, tells you where the jokes are, where the scary parts are.”

Tell me about the impact of this scene.
“Initially, the audience and Scrooge are scared by the entrance. There are different tactics you can take to get your point across. It’s like the old ‘Scared Straight’ show. You can scream at people and scare them. Sometimes, it’s really a matter of appealing to their humanity. That’s the other tactic. When Marley comes through the door and says ‘I’m Jacob Marley,’ and he says ‘Jacob Marley? Humbug,’ I say ‘Believe. Believe.’ The repetition of words throughout the play and especially in that scene is powerful. He’s incredulous that Scrooge doesn’t believe in him. He’s standing there in front of him. How can you not believe in something standing there? … We can do this the hard way if you want, if the hard way to impact you is to abuse you. Or it’s me saying, ‘I know who you are. I did this myself. Unless you want to be like me, you have to do something different.’”

What is the experience like playing Marley’s Ghost?
“What’s wonderful about it is you get to reinvest every single night. What does Marley want? What does he want to do to Scrooge? What does he need from Scrooge? At the same time, there’s also a feeling of responsibility to the words, to the playwright and to the story they’re trying to tell. With this play and at South Coast Repertory, because it’s so meaningful to people and such a part of their lives, you have a responsibility to them not to slag it off, like you’re ‘just doing A Christmas Carol.’ It’s very easy to be jaded at times. I’m on stage for five minutes and I do some stuff, but Richard Doyle is carrying the load. He’s shouldering the whole thing. But in order for him to be able to do it and for the story to have any meaning or impact, we all have to play our part and really give something to him. That part of it really means a lot to me.”

Why is A Christmas Carol such a timeless story?
“I think it’s timeless in the same way all great art is timeless. It has the effect it has, the story it tells, the lessons you learn are universal. They cross boundaries. They’re global. Every human being goes through this on some level. It’s important to tell each other this story and that we learn this story. Just to take a second, take a step back and realize that you’re not defined by all the choices you make. You can always make another choice.”

About the author

South Coast Repertory

South Coast Repertory is a Tony Award-winning theatre is known for producing classics, contemporary hits and world premieres, for having the largest new-play development program in the nation and for advancing the art of theatre in service to the community. 

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