The Dallas Theater Center’s A Christmas Carol from 2007 – with Chamblee Ferguson as Bob Cratchit (center)
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For musicians, actors and dancers, the holidays are filled with work, with extra shows. That’s true for many people. But for performing artists, the real work comes in making their holidays not seem like work at all — and in making the very familiar seem new all over again.
CHAMBLEE FERGUSON: “The first time I did it, I was in 8th grade, and I played Ghost of Christmas Future. Then at the Theater Center, I played Fred, Scrooge’s nephew, for two years, and then I’ve played Mr. Fezziwig … [fade out]”
Actor Chamblee Ferguson has appeared in 13 different stage productions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. He most often has portrayed Bob Cratchit, as he’s doing now at the Dallas Theater Center. But over the years, the popular area actor has played just about every role in the holiday standard — including Mrs. Fezziwig. Ferguson has even portrayed Bob Cratchit with his own two children appearing as Tiny Tim and Belinda Cratchit.
FERGUSON: [fade back in] “The only things I haven’t played I guess are Ghost of Christmas Present – and the turkey, and maybe Belle. I don’t think I’ve played Belle yet.”
There’s another holiday perennial at the Music Hall at Fair Park this week. The Texas Ballet Theater is presenting The Nutcracker.
In it, Peter Zweifel dances the role of the Rat King. He plays one of the fathers, a flower, an Arabian dancer and he plays the heroic Prince. Zweifel is only 24 years old, but he’s already danced in seven Nutcrackers.
A typical day for him starts at 6:30 in the morning and can end well after 10 p.m. He takes classes with the ballet academy, dances in two shows for visiting schools and then there’s the evening show for the public. That’s five different roles, three shows a day — plus classes.
ZWEIFEL: “It’s very exhausting …. Your body starts to tighten up and break down because you’re constantly trying to keep it active and try to re-warm it up. Just the strain of performing all the time, it definitely wears down on you.”
Performing 10 Christmas Carols a week can wear on Ferguson, too.
FERGUSON: “It seems tougher to me this year, one, because my Tiny Tim is a bigger boy this year – I’ll put it politely. But I’ve got a bad knee. Had an accident, I smashed into a cart. Got a bad knee and then the back problems and the neck and shoulder problems from carrying the boy on top of my shoulders. And I’ve lost an eye and I’ve got no teeth [laughs].”
These are the holidays for many performing artists. It’s like running a marathon. And Zweifel says that presents more than a physical challenge. It’s a mental and emotional one as well.
The challenge is not to show the strain. The challenge is to make this old chestnut bloom with life once more. The challenge is to be fresh on stage for each performance – so theatergoers can enjoy their holidays.
Yes, they’re artists, they’re paid to do this. But as Ferguson says, onstage, he’s buried more than 250 Tiny Tims. A paycheck may not provide the kind of inspiration an actor needs to go back, bury another – and make people feel his loss.
He has to think the effort is worth it – for others. Zweifel says he draws the necessary energy from a shared sense of commitment with his fellow dancers.
ZWEIFEL: You see other people going onstage and doing their best even though you know how tired they are. And so you yourself don’t want to give less than somebody else would.”
And as clichéd as it sounds, there’s always the thought that for some audience members at this performance, this old show is a revelation.
FERGUSON: “One of my favorite times to perform the show is for the school audiences. A lot of those kids have never seen a play before. A lot of them don’t know the story. And they really listen and are totally focused — because it is brand-new to them.”
Images of Chamblee Ferguson by Linda Blase. Image of Peter Zweifel by Ellen Appel.