Eric Watters has made it to every rehearsal for Venice Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol” this year. It may be the 65-year-old’s 11th year playing Ebenezer Scrooge in the production, but this year is different from any other.
Although he took part in last year’s production, Watters was recovering from a round of chemotherapy treatments for cancer with which he was diagnosed in August 2011. He didn’t make it to any rehearsals that year. There was a stand-in for him, so all he had to do was step in at the last moment to perform.
As of now, Watters’ cancer is in remission. But the healing process has taken him a lot longer than he thought it would.
“(Near) the first of July, I was just skin on bones, wondering if I would ever perform again,” he says.
But, since then, Watters has turned a corner. He’s gained weight and is spending more time at Venice Theatre, where he works as the director of planned giving.
“I spent all year just trying to get better,” he says, “So, this year, it is for me, personally, a line of demarcation. When I’m through with (‘A Christmas Carol’), I will say to myself, ‘You are better.’”
Although he is feeling better, Watters says he just wants to be back to normal.
“The relief (this year) is that I haven’t felt completely wiped out when the rehearsals are over,” he says. “That’s my real joy.”
The only other production he has performed in at Venice Theatre is “Miracle Worker.” He played the part of the father, which he describes as “Scrooge, with a Southern accent.”
He has also been performing one-man shows at Venice Theatre for decades.
He calls them “extravaganza kinds of shows” with singing and dancing and a chorus line of dancing girls. Saturday, Dec. 8, was the first time he has performed since regaining his health — he sang 30 songs with an accompanist.
Although Watters has been connected to Venice Theatre in various ways over the years, he is particularly known for his role as Scrooge.
“In many ways, it’s the centerpiece of my holiday,” he says. “It’s the most important thing to me.”
“A Christmas Carol” premiered in 1999, at Venice Theatre, but Watters didn’t join the cast until two years later. He didn’t have to audition; he was asked to participate by Executive/Artistic Director Murray Chase.
“(He) only promised me one thing,” Watters says. “He said he will always bill it as ‘Eric Watters in “A Christmas Carol,”’ and they don’t do that for anything else.”
Recently, the theater stopped billing the play that way — because they don’t need to. It’s become general knowledge to subscribers and regulars that Watters will be on stage in the lead role.
“I think when I first started the role, it was just a role,” he says. But it has evolved since that first year, especially taking into account his battle with cancer for the last year-and-a-half. “It becomes a chance, in a way, to be like Scrooge — reborn. And this year will be very much like that for me internally.”
As far as the rest of his persona, Watters is the opposite of being typecast for the cantankerous character.
“I’m generally known as a kind and generous fellow,” he says. “I know better, of course, but I’m not going to let on.”
When Watters is on stage, it’s not difficult for him to become Scrooge; especially when the character goes from the lonely, formal and rigid Scrooge to the Scrooge who makes the realization about his future. Watters talks about this transformation and shudders, explaining that he can’t help but cry on stage: “I feel it with every performance,” he says.
In true theater fashion, the show experienced some Scrooge-like moments. One time, the show went on when there was a blackout during the second act of a 2009 performance. For a brief moment, while the crew set up generator-powered lights, the cast led Christmas carols. But because Scrooge hadn’t had a change of heart at that point in the production, Watters had to concentrate to stay in character.
They continued the production using large flashlights to illuminate the cast, which made it difficult to ascend and descend the narrow, spiral staircase Watters has to climb. But nothing could stop Watters from portraying Scrooge.
“As long as I can continue to do all the physical things that are a part of the way I (perform) the role,” he says referring to the big bell kicks, dancing around merrily and dashing up those steps, “I would love to continue. When the time comes that I really can’t do it, then I’ll let someone else.”
Watters is thankful he can make it to and through the two weeks of rehearsals this year.
“Now, I’m convinced that I will be able to do all these shows in that short amount of time and not be dead when it’s all over,” he says.
Then he grins. “Although, I have said to many of my friends, ‘What better place to die than on stage in the spotlight?’”
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