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Role reversal

Profile image for By Lucinda Breeding
By Lucinda Breeding

Professor at center of gender-swapped ‘Christmas Carol’

Professor Sally Nystuen Vahle had played roles in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for years. She’s played Belle, the sweetheart Ebenezer Scrooge neglects, and then Mrs. Cratchit, the good-hearted wife of Scrooge’s faithful clerk.

Vahle, an associate professor of theater at University of North Texas, has stepped into the heavy, iconic shoes of Scrooge himself in Dallas Theater Center’s A Christmas Carol, which runs through Dec. 28 at the Wyly Theatre in Dallas.

“[Director] Steven [Michael Walters] called me one day and said, ‘I’d love to talk A Christmas Carol,’” said Vahle, who’s been a member of the resident company since 2008. “So we met for breakfast and he said he was thinking he wanted to make Scrooge a woman, and that he wanted me to play the role.”

Dallas Theater Center adopted a diversity action plan in 2013 that governs the company’s operations. The theater stages at least one play a year by a Latino playwright for its main stage season, employs color-blind casting, and hires people of color for the acting company, for its teaching programs and to direct and choreograph on in main stage productions. In last year’s staging of the classic, actor Hassan El-Amin played Scrooge.

“It’s not surprising that Steven wanted to try A Christmas Carol with Scrooge as a woman,” Vahle said. “You always have to ask why. When a director makes a bold decision, you always have to ask what’s motivating it. Christmas Carol is done by every regional theater company across the country, probably. Just about every community probably does an adaptation of this show. I said, ‘It seems risky. It’s a bold choice. Are you sure?’”

Vahle talked with company artistic director Kevin Moriarty, who adapted the play Dallas Theater Center has staged for the past four holiday seasons.

“Kevin said, ‘I feel that the story is universal. I think we should give it a shot.’ So I said, ‘Why not?’” Vahle said.

Vahle lives in Dallas and commutes to Denton, where she teaches entry-level acting at UNT, as well as teaching higher-level courses such as realism, Shakespearean and classical acting techniques. And at 51, Vahle said that while she knew Christmas Carol from start to finish, she’d never considered the play from the center of all of the action, as the miserly accountant (revamped for the Dallas staging as a factory owner) who’s all about the bottom line, human costs be damned.

“You start to think, ‘When I’m too old to be this character, I’ll probably do this role.’ You think about what role you might grow into. It never crossed my mind to play Scrooge. I’d never thought Scrooge through in the way that an actor often does. Trying to figure out who this person is, how they got to be who they are — I’d never considered it.”

Walters cast resident company member Lydia McKay to play Scrooge’s business partner, Marley — another twist on the classic.

Dallas Morning News theater critic Nancy Churnin describes Vahle’s portrayal as chilly and calculating — less craven, perhaps, than the typical posture of one of the most iconic task masters of the English canon. “If she doesn’t bellow as loudly as Scrooges Past,” Churnin writes of Vahle’s Scrooge, “she is as terrifying, if not more so, by the coldness with which she judges those physically and economically beneath her.”

Vahle said she read the Dickens novella to start with, then approached Scrooge with fresh eyes — applying her typical process to bring Ebenezer Scrooge to life.

“I start to weave this tapestry of getting to know the character slowly,” she said. “I explore the journey through the eyes of the character. One of the challenges for me after having been in this show is getting the lines of Scrooge out of my hands, out of my head. I needed to reach the emotions that carry the character through the story.”

Vahle said playing Scrooge led her to discover things about the story she hadn’t before.

“I think what immediately struck me was how distinctly and uniquely human this play is,” she said.

Scrooge becomes a reluctant passenger to three haunts — the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Vahle said the character spends a lot of time watching and listening in the play.

“Being able to be transported through the most extraordinary moments, there was something so moving about that for me. I have found the journey of creating Scrooge [a] very amazing and very humanizing sort of experience,” she said. “Staying in the moments of the play, when you get to hear something over and over again, you can learn so much.”

Vahle said she and company member McKay, who plays Marley, decided their characters were “soulmates of a certain sort.” The actresses play their roles and friends bonded by passion for their work, but when Marley returns to Scrooge as a spirit, she urges Scrooge “to wake up and smell the coffee.”

“I feel like in our production, the landscape of Fezziwig’s past, Marley and Scrooge are his apprentices who share a passion for the business,” Vahle said. “And later, when Beau decides to break off their engagement because he sees that she’s so passionate about her work, Scrooge finds a true partner in Marley. They really were like-minded souls in their passion and their ambitions — a shared passion. It makes Marley’s return to warn Scrooge more beautiful.”

Reversing the gender of principle characters in a work can inflame fans of the original. When director Paul Feig took on the remake of the 1984 comedy Ghostbusters with an all-female lead cast, the outcry from some fans was blistering and sustained. But Christmas Carol might strike audiences as too stale or stilted to care that Walters cast Scrooge and Marley as women, and Scrooge’s long-suffering fiance, Belle, as a sweet man named Beau. Vahle said she wasn’t sure if she’d have to defend the play from purists.

“I really believed in the idea of the story, and that the story was not just a story made relevant in the role of Scrooge,” Vahle said. “It’s a story about human beings. I did feel and think there would be people who would object, and that did concern me. It didn’t get in the way for me, though. I didn’t meet anybody — maybe they wouldn’t say it to my face — who was really angry about me playing the role. I did meet people who said, ‘Huh. You know? I don’t know what I think.’ All I can tell them is, ‘Come see it.’”