David Coffee first appeared as Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” at North Shore Music Theatre 20 years ago. But as familiar as Coffee has become in the role, there is plenty about this actor that local audiences may not know.
For example, he hails from Arlington, Texas, and first played Scrooge in 1973, long before his first appearance in Beverly. And for the last five years Coffee has supplemented Dickens with Shakespeare, appearing at the Trinity Shakespeare Festival at Texas Christian University.
Coffee spoke with The Salem News recently about his theatrical past, present and future.
Where is Arlington, exactly?
Arlington is smack dab between between Dallas and Fort Worth. The original Six Flags amusement park is there, and the ballpark where the Texas Rangers play, and the Dallas Cowboys are there.
I heard recently that Texas accents are disappearing. Do you think that’s true?
It depends where you are. When I was growing up, you could tell somebody from Dallas and somebody from Fort Worth, though they’re only 30 miles apart. Dallas, as Will Rogers famously wrote, is where the East peters out, and Fort Worth is where the West begins. Dallas sounded like the old South; they dropped their r’s.
Your accent disappears when you play Scrooge.
I definitely do my British dialect.
How did you first start playing Scrooge at North Shore Music Theatre?
I had come up here with two shows from Texas. Back then we were co-producing shows with our old theater in Texas, Casa Manana, which was also a theater in the round — now it’s a thrust theater. I came up with two productions, we did “Phantom” and “Singin’ in the Rain.”
While we were doing “Singin’ in the Rain,” they put a notice on the board that they were having auditions for “A Christmas Carol.” I thought I’d go back home and audition for another play, but Jon Kimbell, the producer and director at the theater, saw I had toured back in the ’80s, I had played Scrooge before, so he asked me to come in and read.
Who had you played Scrooge for at that point?
For a company out of Dallas; it was called Bill Deacon Attractions. They had three companies touring around doing adaptations. I did two seasons of “A Christmas Carol,” but in three years I did several shows with him. We called them “bus and truck shows.” They were mostly all one-nighters; we’d do a show in a theater or high school auditorium, then drive 400 miles and do the next one.
You have had so much success playing Scrooge — what is your affinity for this character?
I don’t know. It is interesting though, I do remember as a child being more attracted to Scrooge than I was to Tiny Tim. I always migrated to him. I don’t know why, but I always did.
How do you keep the role fresh, after playing him so many years?
Usually it’s kept fresh because of the people you’re working with, and because they always try to do something a little different each year. This isn’t a museum piece. They use the same script and music, but they always re-examine it.
For instance this year we changed where exactly the intermission fell, and did a little readjustment at the beginning of the show, trying to get it a little better, get a hook into it. About half of the actors haven’t done it before, half are new, and that brings a fresh attitude and fresh looks on things.
Are there any other roles that you have played for as long?
Nothing for such a long time. That definitely is unique.
What types of plays have you done mostly? Comedies, musicals?
For years and years, I made my money from musicals. There’s a little theater in Texas where I would do musicals or farces. Then about five years ago they started a company at Texas Christian, my old university, a Shakespeare festival. The chair of the department — we went to school there together — said, “David, I’d like you to be a part of this.” But I hadn’t done any Shakespeare. He said, “It’s the same as anything else.” That has stretched me out.
What roles have you played?
Feste, the clown in “Twelfth Night,” Capulet in “Romeo and Juliet,” Polonius in “Hamlet.”
Polonius is the one who’s always giving people advice?
I kind of look at him as the Dick Cheney — he didn’t really know what he was doing, but he tried to run everything. They try to even out, with a light show and a darker show each year. It’s really been fun.
Has the festival been well-received?
It’s been a revelation to people down there. The reviews have been amazing, mainly because nobody’s used to seeing Shakespeare done inside, enclosed, with air-conditioning, hearing people talking to each other. Usually you’re outside in a park, people are yelling at each other across the field. They’ve always been beat over the head with it, instead of being able to take it in as conversations.
What do you enjoy about doing Shakespeare?
What’s great about working in Shakespeare: you do have to sit down and do preparation, you can’t just pick it up and start talking. But as you do your research, then you get into your rehearsal and find what other people have learned, because they’ve done their own research. It’s a whole learning experience.
It’s fascinating when you’re reading a speech — what’s that word? — and you start looking it up and you start reading about it. It’s freeing in a way, because we can make up our own mind what this means, since nobody else can make up their mind about it, either.
What is the focus of your productions?
These directors have tried very hard not to come in with a high conceptual idea. The main thing is to tell the stories as clearly as possible, to give the audience a technical piece, with a nice looking set and costumes and all, but not try to remake the wheel.
Do you enjoy coming up to the North Shore?
I’ve been coming up for 20 years, and I’ve done most of 50 productions at North Shore Music Theatre. I’m worse than a townie, as bad or worse than the locals because I drive down Cabot Street and say, ‘Whatever happened to that store, and why has that moved in?’
IF YOU GO ... What: "A Christmas Carol" Where: North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly When: Friday, Dec. 21, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 22, 2 and 7:30 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 23, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Cost: $45 to $60 Tickets & information: Call 978-232-7200, or online at www.nsmt.org