Veteran stage actor and Charles Dickens scholar Peter Battis talks about donning the nightcap of Ebenezer Scrooge for the fourth time at Temple Theatre
By Billy Liggett
For nearly 180 years, readers and fans of the Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol” have debated over the exact point of Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation from the greedy, selfish miser we meet at the beginning to the caring man full of Christmas spirit by book’s end.
But few have had the opportunity to truly jump into the character like Peter Battis, a veteran of the stage and scholar of Dickens’ work who’ll be making his fourth appearance as Scrooge in the musical adaptation of the Christmas classic this month for Temple Theatre.
For Battis, that transformation is a slow burn that begins early on with the visit from the first of the three spirits forewarned by Jacob Marley, the Ghost of Christmas Past. During that visit, Scrooge sees the moment he chooses wealth over the love of his life, his fiancé Belle.
“He’s first softened by seeing himself as a young child and seeing what he was going through, but the big moment for me is when his fiancé says, ‘You’ve grown into a different person. I don’t recognize you,’” Battis says. “And she says, ‘I release you from our obligation,’ and he lets her go out the door. For me, that’s the moment when Scrooge begins to crack. And the rest is just a continuum of that.”
Battis returns to Sanford this month for the traditional arrival of “A Christmas Carol,” which last appeared at Temple Theatre in 2017, but was a December staple locally for seven out of nine years from 2008-2017. This year’s production of the musical adaptation — written by Michael Hoagland and Temple artistic director Peggy Taphorn — will begin Dec. 2 and run each Thursday-Sunday through Dec. 19.
Battis first took on the iconic role in 2015 after originally auditioning for “My Fair Lady,” which kicked off that season a few months earlier. While he didn’t get that part, he was approached by Taphorn for something bigger.
“She said, ‘Have you ever done Scrooge?’ and I said no, but I played [Jacob] Marley when I was in school,” Battis recalls. “And so I was happily surprised when she called me and said, “OK, do you want to do this?’ And it’s been a great partnership ever since. It’s a great place to work.”
Battis grew up in a theatrical family and got his first professional acting role at the age of 13. He worked in regional theaters in New Jersey, Ohio and Massachusetts and trained at Brandeis University near Boston while earning his undergraduate degree and master’s degree.
He worked for several years in Boston-area theater and television, playing such roles as Richard in “The Lion in Winter,” Proctor in “The Crucible” and Captain Von Trapp in “The Sound of Music.” Battis is a psychologist with a private practice in Chapel Hill, and since moving to North Carolina, he has appeared in Deep Dish Theater’s “Life is a Dream” and Street Signs’ production of “A Simple Gift,” in addition to his work with Temple Theatre (he appeared in Temple’s “Oliver!” in 2019, another adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel).
It’s fair to suggest Ebenezer Scrooge was the role Battis was always meant to play. He was a big fan of Charles Dickens in high school and college, and he would later perform as Dickens himself in a one-man show, “Mr. Charles Dickens Presents.”
“I think there were probably not many people in high school who thought ‘Great Expectations’ was just a fantastic book,” Battis says with a laugh, “but I did. Then in reading other Dickens novels, I found just a tremendous amount of humor in them. This alternation between drama and pure joy.”
As Battis began reading more about Dickens the man, he learned he had this whole other career in the mid-1800s doing presentations. Because copyright laws in America were such that they could print and sell his books without having to pay royalties, Dickens wasn’t making a ton of money off of his work, but his readings of his famous works — like “A Christmas Carol” — became hugely popular events that people were happy to pay for.
“And so he developed that into a show,” Battis says. “He did a number of different stories on stage and called them ‘public readings.’ And when he went to America on tour, people were lined up around the block and staying in line overnight in the middle of December waiting to get a ticket. He’d have audiences of more than 2,000 paying to hear him read. And he knew all the words by heart, and he had the gestures down. And in learning this, I discovered that he was a fascinating guy — not only a great author, but a great performer.”
Dickens, who lived from 1812 to 1870, was far and away the most popular writer of his time, and he’s considered to this day a literary genius. Countless movies, television shows and stage adaptations have been made of his most notable works — “Oliver Twist,” “A Tale of Two Cities,” “David Copperfield” and “Great Expectations,” to name just a few.
But it’s “A Christmas Carol” that has not only had the most influence on literature and popular culture, but on our own traditions to this day. In his day, Christmas traditions — which combined the celebration of Christ with Roman pagan celebrations and Germanic winter yuletide traditions — were under scrutiny by Puritans, and the Industrial Revolution allowed workers little time to celebrate the holiday.
“A Christmas Carol” is said to have “rekindled the joy of Christmas” in Britain and America. Communal feasts and parties became smaller, more intimate celebrations focused on family and children. Christmas became the image of family and sharing of good fortune.
“It’s always been one of my favorite stories,” Battis says. “At the risk of it being corny, because everybody knows it, but it really is about how a man’s heart opens, right? A man who has tried all his life to protect himself and shut himself down. The character goes through this transformation, which is something you always want to see from the main character, whether it’s in a book or on stage. And you can’t get much more profound than this transformation.”
Much of “A Christmas Carol” was based on Dickens’ own life. Born in Portsmouth, in southern England, Dickens left school at 12 to work in a factory after his father was incarcerated in a debtors’ prison.
“You have this child [in the book] who was abandoned — the backstory is that his mother died, probably when he was born — so the pain of his loss and loneliness actually mirrors Dickens’ own experience,” Battis says. “Dickens said that part of his life just broke his heart. He would wander the streets after work in the factory and just feel terribly lonely before heading back to this little room that he had. That’s right there in the story — this sense of a child feeling abandoned and feeling as though he had to protect himself against the hard-feeling world.”
Temple Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol” is a musical adaptation you won’t find anywhere else. The music and lyrics were written by Taphorn and former Temple musical director (and current executive director of the Bedford Playhouse in New York) Michael Hoagland and first appeared on the Temple stage in 2009. The show ran in Sanford from 2009 to 2012 before a two-year hiatus (replaced by “Plaid Tidings” in 2013 and “The Sanders Family Christmas” in 2014). It returned for another three-year run in 2015-2017, before giving way to “It’s a Wonderful Life” in 2018, “Away in the Basement” in 2019 and “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” in 2020, which was the first live show (in front of a limited audience) to return to Temple during the pandemic.
Battis says Sanford is “incredibly lucky” to have Temple Theatre, which has become just as much a part of the area’s holiday traditions as the parades, tree lighting ceremonies and “Nutcracker” weekends. In addition to Battis and a handful of other professional actors from Sanford and around the state, “A Christmas Carol” features two separate casts of young children and teens, most from Sanford.
“Peggy is a dynamo — a very professional director who’s just tremendous at bringing people together,” Battis says. “I’ve worked with a lot of directors, and not everybody is good at that. And not everybody is good at encouraging and teaching the kids. She and [musical director] Gavan Pamer have really created something special. I’ve watched some of these kids grow up, and I hardly recognize some of them because they’ve grown so much.
“But they’ve learned, and they keep coming back. It’s a place where they feel cared about and they feel encouraged, but at the same time, they learn discipline here. So it’s just a tremendous group to work with. I mean, I was a child actor once, and I wasn’t always as well behaved as this bunch. So I’m impressed.”
WANT TO GO?
What: “A Christmas Carol,” directed by Peggy Taphorn and musical director Gavan Pamer.
When: Dec. 2-19, with shows on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays (a matinee and evening show) and Sundays.
WHERE: Temple Theatre in downtown Sanford
TICKETS: $17-$29, templeshows.com
MORE INFO: Back by popular demand! The holidays would not be the same without Temple Theatre’s own original musical adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.” Join Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim and a host of colorful characters for a remarkable holiday production of the Charles Dickens classic. The spirit of the season is wrapped in your favorite yuletide melodies and tied with all the holiday magic and wonder of your childhood.