Conversation with: Michael Preston

by Tim Leininger

After 19 years, with Bill Raymond stepping down from the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in Hartford Stage’s production of “A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas,” running through Dec. 30, the company has looked inward, to the show’s own Mr. Marvel, Michael Preston, 59, of Hartford, as its new Christmas curmudgeon.

I had the opportunity to sit down with the Ohio native who also is an acting teacher at Trinity College, and discuss his life, training, career, and taking over the role of Scrooge.

Q: Where are you originally from?

A: I was born in Granville, Ohio, which is a small New England-style town where Denison University is, where my father taught civil liberties and American history.

My parents divorced when I was 8. I moved to Georgia for a couple of years and then to Woodbury, Connecticut, where my mother’s father had a farm he had bought in the early 1920s.

Q: When did you move to Connecticut?

A: In ’68. I went to school in Roxbury for a couple of years and Waterbury for a couple of years and I ended up moving to New Haven because my mother got a job as the registrar at the Yale Drama School, thus the dramatic side of my life begins.

Q: Your mom working at Yale Rep. Was that when you were bit by the acting bug?

A: My mother was a dynamic, somewhat crazy, very wonderful, energetic, interesting woman. So, drama had been part of my upbringing, and humor had been a part of my upbringing on both sides.

At Yale they needed a kid (for child roles). The first thing I did was written by Bill Hauptman — who wrote “Big River” later on — and had Sigourney Weaver in it and I think even Meryl Streep in it.

Q: Do you remember what it was called?

A: Called the “Hamburger Mayor of Night City.” It was a student-run production. It was a fantastic thing. I was the kid. I was the lead and I saw these kind of young adults doing great things, having a great time, and I think I just got the bug because of how much fun it was and it was a community of people. It was a very warm welcome for all.

My first job was in New Britain doing “The Little Prince” and Meryl Streep was The Snake.

Q: You got to work with Meryl Streep two shows in a row?

A: I think so. It’s been downhill ever since (laughing). Everybody was so talented. They were just doing incredible, exciting things. For a 13-14 year old this was much more interesting than Ohio.

Q: You’ve picked up other talents along the way beyond just acting. I know you’re an exceptional juggler.

A: I have to say the teacher I had in (University of California) Santa Cruz named John Achorn was a fabulous physical actor who had trained at this place called Blue Lake, which is still there. It is kind of a commedia school (founded by) Carlo Mazzone-Clementi, who came from the commedia tradition, he introduced a physical style of acting that I just loved.

(Later) I lived in Hoboken where … there was this faded sign on the door as you’re walking down as you get to the PATH station and it had “Hoboken Circus Arts” with a woman on a trapeze and it shared a building with a boxing gym. For three or four months I walked past and said “I wonder what that is.” I went up one day and these two wonderful, crazy Russians had started this school. I said, “Oh, I prefer that to taking acting classes. I could use this.” I started learning how to juggle, wire walk, how to do acrobatics, and clowning.

I started working with (Hovey Burgess, a circus skills professor at New York University) and I started doing circuses. I kind of go off and do the circus and make more money than I’d make in New York doing acting. Then I’d come back and work at La MaMa and places like that doing my experimental theater stuff.

Q: What kind of symbiosis happened between your acting and your circus performance?

A: I think this is where the Karamazovs come in because I was going back and forth and I was becoming a more physical and daring actor in some ways, building my skills.

They were working on a piece with Robert Woodruff who’s a very theatrical director and they needed an actor. He cast me, and then for the next 10 years I was touring the world with the Karamazovs.

If we’re doing a show that is 2½ hours, people get bored watching just juggling. It was always theater.

We wrote shows that had a dramatic through line and characters and juggling, and then shows that were just part of the new vaudeville movement. We did things that I think still nobody else has really done.

That was tremendous fun. We were doing 250-plus shows a year.

Q: Did this bring around a point to where eventually where you ended up getting married and getting yourself to settle down eventually, or did she travel with you?

A: Barbara (his wife), we met in New York, she had been on tour with the Swiss mask and mime troupe Mummenschanz, just as I went off with Karamazov. We fell in love and she lived in Berlin and I was over here and we’d see each other every couple of months. And when we got married in ’95, she moved over here … and I still continued to tour for another four years. I got tired after that and I wanted to live with my wife.

I was still going off doing the circus sometimes. Barbara ended up directing like the biggest musical in the world in Germany about Mad King Ludwig. She and I directed “Peter and the Wolf,” which was very successful in Amsterdam, so we thought we’d do more directing and we were going back to Europe.

Something fell through in Europe when we got the call (to teach at Trinity) and we thought, “Yeah, sure” and she’d been teaching all along. I had taught some.

Q: Do you do any performing anything aside from “A Christmas Carol” now?

A: We directed this piece called “Fraulein Maria” which was a dance theater retelling of the “Sound of Music” with the choreographer Doug Elkins. That was the reason I got to know people here because it was (former Hartford Stage Artistic Director and adapter of its production of “A Christmas Carol”) Michael Wilson who brought it in the last time he had something in the summer. They brought it here and that was when they asked me to do Mr. Marvel.

Q:What year did you start as Mr. Marvel?

A: It was six years ago, so 2011.

Q: Then Bill Raymond decides to step down from his tenure as Ebenezer. Was there much competitiveness in regards to some of the other cast members?

A: I don’t totally know about that. Before I knew Bill was retiring, there had been times when both Scrooges (including the understudy) had gotten sick, so I thought why don’t I learn it. I need a challenge. I did it last year in the “put-in” rehearsals where I got to do it on stage with some of the understudies in the cast. I had a really good time and I felt I had a dark affinity for it. I think being around it so much and loving parts of Bill’s rendition. That clown in him, there is something that he always saw in it. There’s something I really saw with Bill was his rapport with the audience and that they really wanted Scrooge to change. I’ve seen some Scrooges where you don’t really care.

Q: Bill’s Scrooge has always had this quirky charm about him that creates some connection. Have you found any difficulty in balancing the light and the dark in this character?

A: Everybody said, “Make your own Scrooge.” What is my Scrooge? Rachel (Alderman, the current director of “A Christmas Carol”) and I have been working in the fall before everyone got here to kind of opening it back up again. It was really fantastic to do that. I think there is a darker element to what I’m do ing, but I hope no less fun.

Q: What do you feel that you’re bringing to Scrooge that is new and compelling?

A: I don’t know if I’m the judge if it is new or compelling, but early in my life I had a lot of loss, which is just the way life goes. I understand this idea of getting away from humanity in order to deal with loss.

Q: With all the family turmoil you had early in your life, do you feel you were a recluse?

A: Not only I, but I saw everybody in the family do it. Scrooge has his beloved sister Fan die early on. I think it’s in everybody. I think this is why this is such a brilliant story. In the need to protect ourselves we often do the most unprotective things to ourselves in order to accomplish it. The touch of a human might actually help us, but we’re afraid of what the ramifications of that are. For me with going into Scrooge, I don’t think this is ever finished with. I love going the length of this journey with Scrooge from totally shut off to totally open. It’s a really spectacular to play.

Q: What does this show mean to you that it keeps bringing you back?

A: All of Hartford Stage and the community of people who come back to see it every year, and the (Hartt School) students, and the parents and the little kids who come here, it is an astounding community experience.

Q: How long do you think you can keep coming back and doing this? Bill did it for 19 years.

A: I don’t know. It seems a very relevant story for the world we’re living in right now. Working with Michael Wilson, his passion for it. He started this 27 years ago in Houston. It’s very important thing to him. The things we try to get to the people. When the top is bad of the society it makes everybody suffer and how do we solve that?

Q: There’s something that keeps bringing people back to it. What do you think it is?

A: I think Dickens wrote an apocryphal story. It’s almost Shakespearean. I think it’s just kind of a fantastic story and Michael Wilson did a fantastic interpretation. There’s not a lot of people who don’t know the story. It comes to the power of seeing something live. My belief which I have no proof of, but with all the electronic and wired in stuff we’re doing, the necessity of live theater becomes more important; seeing a story together. David Mamet says storytelling is genetic. Neuroscientists say there is a gene for it. It’s something deeply rooted in us. It goes into our deepest core as humans. I think it’s still there and I think it is the duty of the theater artist to make it as live as possible.

Bookmark the permalink.