It takes a confident man to cry in public. It takes an even more secure man to follow said sobbing with giddy giggling. But that’s just an average day for actor J.C. Cutler, who’s back for year two of playing Scrooge in the Guthrie Theater’s 38th annual production of A Christmas Carol.
Last year, Cutler shocked audiences with his sarcastic, quick-witted portrayal of Scrooge. Of course, the bulk of the character’s change came from playwright Crispin Whittell and his adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic. But the heart of this “new” Scrooge—the personality and spark driving the character’s transformation—is all Cutler.
Director Joe Chvala and J.C. Cutler.
(Photo By Brandi Freitas)
It came as no surprise to me after chatting with him recently that the sought-after actor approaches all areas of life with this same passion and focus. From volunteering at the Humane Society to mentoring up-and-coming talent to pursuing his many hobbies, Cutler is a man of many talents, of which he is more than willing to share.
So I have to know: was I right in my review when I said you appear to be improvising in a couple scenes in A Christmas Carol? Or am I way off?
I do play a little bit. But I don’t want this play to become something that needs to have a comic result with the audience. It’s the [bleeping] Christmas Carol, for crying out loud! We don’t have to get a single laugh for this play to be a success.
I don’t think I did laugh at it until last year. Is that because of Crispin Whittell’s adaptation?
Yes. But the reason the audience laughs isn’t because of anything funny I say, it’s because they’re totally relating to how different Scrooge is and how he’s thoroughly enjoying life at the end. I think the best laughs you achieve in the theater are the laughs you achieve honestly and in the moment, not shticky things that are hit or miss. Good comedy is built on something serious.
I still feel like Whittell’s added scenes and lines wouldn’t have the same impact without your tinge of sarcasm, though.
What I had to figure out was how to be this Scrooge without lessening the audience’s feeling about him; to make those moments of insight or sarcasm a welcome relief for the audience rather than have them think we’re doing a cheap bits. I’m always thinking: how does a man get to that point in his life? And how does he end up changing? I try to show glimmers of the potential of change in Scrooge. Sure, the hope is buried and strangled, but it’s there.
What do you think of the addition of Young Marley this year?
The danger of adding the character is that we don’t want people to ever think that Scrooge became who he is because he was bullied into it by Marley. What needs to be clear is that there’s a balance between Marley and Dick Wilkins. Ultimately, we have to believe Scrooge came to his decision to choose money over love by himself.
This is Joe Chvala’s first time directing A Christmas Carol. What did he do differently than Joe Dowling?
One thing Chvala did was find a snapshot in every scene during “Christmas past” where Scrooge gets what happened to him. Like the scene where the teacher hits young Scrooge and I stand right in front of him and glare at him. You can see Scrooge thinking, “You did that to me. Now I see why I am the way I am: I was abandoned. I was beaten.” You see Scrooge be moved by all the things he’s forgotten.
He also made the play more tactile. He said that he wanted the show to be like ice at the beginning—people walking quickly, the cold of the counting house—and warm by the end: embracing and touching and hugs. I think it’s great. I’m half Italian, so I’m always touching everything anyways.
What was it like when you first played Scrooge last year?
It was cool. Really cool. It kind of coincided with stuff in my own life, actually. I was going through some pretty intense personal transformations during the time, so this idea of getting a second chance, a spiritual and emotional reformation—that really hit home. The one challenge Joe Dowling put down for me was to show him the largest transformation I could possibly do. He wanted to see me go from being the darkest I could be at the beginning to this reborn soul at the end. And that’s the key to this show: you can have all the jokes and fireworks you want, but if you don’t do that kind of transformation, then it’s not the story. The story has to make people realize that someone can really change and have a new life.
Is it a different experience your second time around?
I approached it differently with my voice and body, so I wouldn’t get so tired this year. But on an emotional level, I feel the exact same intensity, need, desire, and want to expose the emotional truth of those scenes.
What’s it like tapping into such emotional extremes for every show—to go from being as dark as possible to being completely in love with life?
It’s an incredible release. It’s a profound, emotional cleansing every single show. When I see Tiny Tim at the end and fall to the floor weeping because he’s alive: I can’t play that scene any other way. I try to bring the real stuff into the room whenever I can during a show. I challenge myself to always do it like it’s the first time and emotionally commit completely.
Was that something you learned to do on your own or is that something that was taught to you?
When I was at Julliard my teachers did teach me that. They taught us to explode emotionally and use our technique training to back it up. I had great teachers, like Michael Langham, who used to be the artistic director at the Guthrie. He had no patience for actors who didn’t have a vast emotional store that they were willing to tap all the time. He wanted courageous actors who never flinched from facing scary, challenging, emotional things—and also could speak really well and handle the language. People respond to emotional truth. And when they believe they’re connecting on an emotional level with you, then you’ve done something. Then you’ve taken them somewhere.
Does it matter to you who you’re working with?
I don’t ever stop. Every day I’m working with actors, we talk. With Red, I was working with a very talented 21-year-old kid, and every night I’d give him feedback and suggestions, and we’d work together to make the show better each time. With Christmas Carol, we have 58 performances and every single one is an opportunity to to deepen it and move it forward.
Have you ever wanted to do anything besides act?
I have, and I do! I’m a volunteer at the Humane Society and I work with Adoption Preparation team with neglected dogs. It’s a passion of mine.
Do you have dogs of your own?
I have three. My dog is a Border Collie, and we also have two long-haired Dachshunds.
What other hobbies do you have?
I grow and collect orchids, we have huge gardens, I play guitar—I have lots of little hobbies. But dogs are my passion.
Have you ever though about directing?
I’d love to. I’ve never strongly pursued it though. I do a little teaching—I’ll be teaching here in the February audition class. I’m hoping to convince the U to bring me on, too. But I’d love to direct.
A Christmas Carol
Through December 29
Guthrie Theater, 818 S. Second St., Mpls.