Story By Jeff Falk • Photos By Haley Harned
Charles Dickens’ character Ebenezer Scrooge causes us to pause and look inside ourselves, and challenges us about what we see. Scrooge also causes Nicholas Hughes to look inside himself, but in a much different way.
None of us are like Ebenezer Scrooge, and we’re all like Ebenezer Scrooge. But no one knows Scrooge better than Hughes.
It is the type of conflict that makes for good drama and great theatre. For his part, Hughes is merely an actor. And actors must act.
“There must have been a reason I was selected for the role in the first place,” said Hughes. “Scrooge has many facets to his character. But I’m not going to tell you I’m a mean, stingy, old man. That’s certainly not the way I feel. But it is meant to be a morality tale.
“I try to portray him as a man who sees only what he wants to see,” continued Hughes. “He avoids the world around him. He has a selfish view of life in this world. But there is a better side in him that has to be coaxed out. There are layers of him underneath. If they can be discovered, his life can be changed.”
It may be that 20 years of portraying Scrooge has left Hughes with a different perspective on his character.
This holiday season, Hughes will again play Scrooge in Open Stage’s production of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” The stage show, which is directed by Chris Gibson and produced by Stuart Landon, is being performed at the 25 North Court Street theatre at 7:30 p.m. on November 24 and 30, and December 4, 5, 6, 6, 16, 18, 19, 20, 21, 26, 27 and 28, at 2 p.m. on November 23 and December 1, 8, 22, 29 and at 4 p.m. on December 15.
“We’re in our 20th year, and when you say it like that, it seems like a long time,” said Hughes. “To me, it seems like yesterday when we did the first show. It goes way back to the last century. I’m the only one who’s been in it every year in the same role. How better could I spend my time? I find it a great honor and privilege to do it every year.
“Over those 20 years, I’m sure he (Scrooge) has evolved and changed,” Hughes continued. “I’m just not sure if I can tell you how. I think I’m trying to do the same things in 2019 that I did in 1999. But every night you see a play, it should be a different presentation.”
The depth of Scrooge’s character is only Hughes’ initial challenge. The portrayal requires a range of emotions, from grumpy to enlightened, from uncaring to reflective, from narcissistic to altruistic.
The experience of encountering ghosts at Christmas time possesses the power to conjure up those kinds of feelings.
“It’s about Ebenezer Scrooge’s life,” said Hughes. “He is an invention of Mr. Dickens, who was a huge celebrity in his time. It tells the story of a man who was a rich and miserly businessman in London, someone who undoubtedly made his money by loaning to poor people at high interest rates. There will be a terrible reckoning in the afterlife. Scrooge could change his fortune if he changes his way. By the end of the play, he decides it’s a good thing to do.
“I just find it very rewarding,” added Hughes. “There’s a depth of character and an interest in the plot that make it a pleasure to act. Without a doubt, working with fellow cast members for an intense period of six-to-eight weeks makes it worth doing. You greet old friends, you make new ones, and you come together to produce a play. You all have the same goal in mind. It’s a nice experience to be part of a team like that.”
Originally from Devon, England, the 74-year-old Hughes adopted Harrisburg as his new home in 1978. He relocated here after marrying his wife Ellen, who passed away three years ago.
Currently, Hughes resides in Cumberland County.
“I’d done a little bit of acting at school or college, but nothing real serious,” said Hughes. “I was a scientist, a mathematician, an economist. I hadn’t done acting for 35 or 40 years. But I had gone to the theatre as part of the audience. It’s like anything, the more you do it, the more accomplished you become.
“I haven’t had any formal training,” Hughes added. “Young people now, they major in theatre and learn all sorts of things about acting. I don’t have many technical skills. Acting is being truthful in imaginary circumstances. You try and think, ‘This is who you are for the moment. How would you be thinking? How would you be behaving?’ You imagine yourself being that person in that situation.”
Before Scrooge, Hughes’ first role at an Open Stage production was as the prosecuting attorney in ‘The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.’ Since, he has also performed at Harrisburg’s Gamut Theater, Hershey Theater, Oyster Mill Playhouse in Camp Hill and York Little Theater.
It may be that Hughes feels he’s part of something bigger than himself.
“I love the idea that this is a tradition, putting on this play each year at Christmas time,” said Hughes. “The theater is offering something to the community by doing it for such a long time. Audiences come back year after year. It’s a premier production with costumes that has been developed over the years. It’s a wonderful occasion to celebrate at Christmas time.
“We’d love people to come out and see the play,” continued Hughes. “We’re offering something that will make them feel like part of a continuing production. That’s a pretty good thing to be a part of.”
Nineteen shows and four-to-five rehearsals of two or three hours can take a toll on a person, physically, mentally and emotionally. But in the spirit of Ebenezer Scrooge, Hughes remains unwavering, still going strong.
“I used to be a young man when I started this,” said Hughes. “I don’t know how much longer I can continue to do it. Probably the physical limitations are most taxing. I have to be breathing and moving a bit. I might have to retire by popular demand. We have to take it one year at a time. I haven’t said it was my last, but I haven’t said it wasn’t.”
So it might be that Hughes’ favorite ghost is the Spirit of Christmas Present.