On the record ... with Don Austin
DeKALB – Don Austin has been an entertainer for as long as he can remember.
“When I was little I always wanted to be Elvis, Bing Crosby or Eddie Arnold,” the Hinckley man said. “I was 10 years old and I was crooning.”
Austin, 61, caught the acting bug in his 20s and ever since then he has been in numerous plays and musicals at the Stage Coach Players Theater in DeKalb and with Indian Valley Theatre in Sandwich.
His current role is portraying the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge in a stage adaptation of the 1843 novella “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, which has been an annual Stage Coach production since 2005. Austin walks with a cane as a result of recent hip surgeries, which he jokes adds to the crabbiness of his miserable character on stage.
Austin met with MidWeek reporter Curtis Clegg before rehearsal to discuss his career in community theater and his upcoming portrayal of the best-known bad guy of the holiday season.
MidWeek: Have you played the role of Scrooge before?
Don Austin: Yes, about 12 or 13 years ago in Sandwich at the opera house with the Indian Valley Theatre.
MW: Did you refine or change the character from the way you portrayed Scrooge then?
DA: I’m working on it, yes. The lines didn’t come back that quickly, but you do always try to make it more interesting
MW: Is the dialogue true to the Dickens novel?
DA: It is, but it has been adapted by Scott Morris. The original theater play had more stuff in it – for one, I think there was more of the narrator throughout. Now we just have a narrator at the beginning and at the end.
MW: What is your acting background?
DA: I was in my 20s and there was a fundraiser for the Sandwich hospital. This guy came in with costumes and everything and it was kind of like a musical revue so I went down and tried out for that. I got a part and it just took off from there. It’s a lot of fun.
MW: It sounds like a lot of work too.
DA: For me it’s a hobby, because I don’t golf and my kids are adults so I’m not chasing them around now. But when I had kids, we did stuff together. I was in “Sound of Music” and (my sons) were my two boys. I had broken my hip and they gave me the part anyway. My boys tried out for the two parts in the Von Trapp family and they got those, so that was fun.
MW: What other roles have you played?
DA: I was in “Best Christmas Pageant Ever” and “Fiddler (on the Roof)” with my boys, I was the cat in “Seussical,” and I was in “The King and I.” I didn't try out for that but they called me up and said, 'You’d better try out because nobody is trying out.' So I tried out and I got the part. I didn't have to shave my head, but I did have to dance, because I was a little worried about that. …I got the lead in “Inherit the Wind” and I was in “High School Musical.”… I also did “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” where I played the part that John Lithgow played on Broadway.
MW: So you are a so-called “triple threat” – you sing, dance and act?
DA: I dance when I have to. I always sang. I grew up in the church choir and I sing with my church now at the Methodist church in Hinckley.
MW: Did having hip surgery discourage you from acting?
DA: I wasn't going to try out, but all I have done is sit around. When the weather was decent I’d sit in the garage and read the paper and wave at people when they went by. I just had to do something to get out of the rut.
MW: What about the role of Scrooge appealed to you?
DA: I certainly don’t have any trouble being an old grouch, so I’m probably going to be really good at that part. It’s got so many great lines – “If they'd rather die, then they had better do it and decrease the surplus population” and “Every idiot who goes about with Merry Christmas on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” …It shows how miserable that man is.
MW: Is it fun to play the bad guy?
DA: Oh yeah. I haven’t played many, though. In fact I have played mostly in musicals up until about four years ago. Then I got the lead in “Inherit the Wind,” and then there was “All my Sons” – I was a bad guy there.
MW: Did watching other Scrooges on film or stage influence your interpretation of the character?
DA: I might have seen the play once. I might have drawn from all of them (movie versions). George C. Scott did a good one, and Disney did one that looks real, and Jim Carrey was the voice.
MW: What is the source of Scrooge’s crabbiness?
DA: He is just focused on money. If you listen to (Jacob) Marley, and he explains his plight, that pretty much describes Scrooge’s plight. He kept his head down and never looked up to see who he could help. …He got burned early on in a relationship because he was so tight. He worships money so he loses out on everything. …You can tell his father wasn’t very nice to him. He was an apprentice and he had great memories of that, but then in his relationship with Belle, it was his miserliness that made her walk away. I think probably after that is when he became a bad apple. He was very good in business though. The opening scene is where Cratchit is trying to sneak some coal into the stove and Scrooge tells him that lump of coal will be deducted from his wages.
MW: The story does have a happy ending though. How do you portray that without sounding too preachy or fake?
DA: The message comes out loud and clear on its own, and then I convey the enthusiasm of it, and I say, “I will live in the past, the present and the future. The spirits of all three shall strive within me. Oh, Jacob Marley! Heaven, and the Christmas time be praised for this!”
MW: Do you have plans to be in other productions after this?
DA: No, not yet. In February there are auditions for “Jesus Christ Superstar” and then for the summer shows there are two musicals, and I think “Annie” is one of them.
'A Christmas Carol'
7:30 p.m. Dec. 6-8, 2 p.m. Dec. 8 and 9
Stage Coach Players Theater, 126 S. Fifth St.
Adults $10, children $5
Saturday matinee is a Toys for Tots performance. In lieu of tickets, donations of cash or new toys are appreciated.