SANDY — Throughout the lobby at Hale Centre Theatre’s home in Sandy sit mementos of the theater company’s past — photographs, a painting of founders Ruth and Nathan Hale, even a piece of the blanket that covered the original Scrooge bed at the Glendale Centre Theatre, the first theater the Hales opened.
To some, that piece of blanket is just a bit of fabric. But to actor Shawn Stevens, it’s a memory.
“I started crying when I saw it,” he said. “I remembered that fabric and just to think that that piece of material was something that I touched 48, almost 50 years ago — that I can look at (now) and just reflect on how much my life has changed.”
That piece of fabric is a reminder of Stevens’ life coming full circle. The stage and film actor — recognized by local audiences for his work in such films The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ film “Our Heavenly Father’s Plan” (1986) and T.C. Christensen’s “The Cokeville Miracle” — got his first real acting experience playing Christmas Past at the Hale’s Glendale Centre Theatre in Glendale, California. Now, almost 50 years later, Stevens is preparing to play Scrooge in Hale Centre Theatre in Sandy’s production of “A Christmas Carol,” running Dec. 1-24.
“When Mark Dietlein called to tell me I got the part, he said ‘Welcome home. You’re back where you belong,’” Stevens remembered. “Everybody knows how the story ends. (Our job now) is to make our version seem like the very first time they’ve ever seen it.”
All it took was a production of “The Frog Prince” for Stevens to be hooked.
Growing up in New Jersey, Stevens’ grandmother felt it was important to expose him to the arts from an early age, and when he was about 5 or 6 years old, she started taking him toPaper Mill Playhouse’s children’s theater productions.
“Fifty-five years later, I still remember those,” he said.
His family moved to Burbank, California, when Stevens was 10 years old and by that time, he knew he wanted to be an actor. Through the father of one of his new friends in California, he managed to secure an audition with the head of casting of Disney.
"I didn't have any experience whatsoever other than putting on little shows in my neighborhood and for my family, and (the casting director) said, 'Well you need to get some experience. The best thing that you can do is to do some theater,'" Stevens said.
He took the advice and auditioned for a production of “A Christmas Carol” at a local community theater: the Glendale Centre Theatre.
At age 12, he was cast by Ruth and Nathan Hale themselves as the Ghost of Christmas Past.
The Hales, local theater luminaries known for opening both the Hale Centre Theatre in Sandy and Hale Center Theater Orem with their children and grandchildren, opened the Glendale Centre Theatre in 1947, shortly after moving to California to pursue careers in acting. The theater quickly became a family affair as their daughter and son-in-law, Sandra and Allan Dietlein — HCT CEO and President Mark Dietlein’s parents — became Ruth and Nathan Hale’s partners in the Glendale Theatre, and that family atmosphere played an integral part in Stevens' budding acting career.
"I just fell in love with the venue, with the people, with the Dietleins and the Hales, and I felt that I had found my home (at the Glendale Theatre),” he said.
From the time Stevens was 12 years old until he was 18, he performed in just about every play he could at the Glendale Theatre — including the annual production of “A Christmas Carol.”
With the experience at the Glendale Theatre under his belt, Stevens went on after high school to land roles in feature films, TV mini-series and more in the late ’70s and early ’80s, including “The MacKenzies of Paradise Cove,” “Eight is Enough,” “Buck Rogers,” “Savage Harvest,” “The Facts of Life,” “Days of Our Lives” and “Fame.”
In 1986, Stevens got married and performed in the film “Our Heavenly Father’s Plan,” and shortly thereafter decided it was time to step away from acting.
“I decided to hang up my acting shoes and raise my family not in front of the camera but behind the camera,” Stevens said.
He went on to run a catering business for many years, but that didn’t stop him from instilling a love of acting in his children.
“Once I introduced (my kids) to the Glendale Theatre, they started doing 'Christmas Carol' and other shows and that drew me back to the theater,” he said.
Following their lead, he returned to the stage that started it all, in total performing in “A Christmas Carol” at the Glendale Theatre about 20 times.
Return to acting
While Stevens enjoyed performing with his children in those Glendale Theatre productions, he didn't pursue acting in earnest until more recently.
Six years ago, Stevens was involved in a workplace accident that forced him into retirement from catering, prompting he and his wife to move from California to Utah to be closer to their children. That move opened the door for Stevens to audition for and be cast in several locally produced film productions, including “The Cokeville Miracle,” “Love Everlasting” and “Sacred Vow.”
But in the back of his mind was a dream to return to “A Christmas Carol” and play the miser Scrooge.
“Ebenezer Scrooge is one of the classic characters in all of literature,” he said. “Even Mickey Mouse has played Scrooge.”
He heard about auditions for this year’s production of “A Christmas Carol” at Hale Centre Theatre and auditioned for the role.
"I felt kind of intimidated, felt like kind of a fish out of water, out my element,” Stevens said of auditioning. “I really had not done theater, in a leading role capacity at least, for over 20 years.”
When he found out he got the part, he was elated.
“The whole full circle thing was just amazing,” Stevens said. “I had gone from playing Christmas Past 48 years earlier … to playing Scrooge. It took me those 48 years to grow old."
Stevens accepted the role of Scrooge at HCT — the role is double-cast with Stephen Kerr as the other Scrooge — and started feeling a lot of pressure to get it right.
"There's a lot of weight on the (shoulders of the) individual who plays Scrooge because he literally has to carry the show,” he said. “If Scrooge isn't good then everything falls flat no matter how good everybody else is."
He draws on his previous acting experience as well as the examples of other Scrooges — including the three men who played Scrooge as he grew up on the Glendale Centre Theatre stage and well-known film actors such as Alastair Sim — to bring the curmudgeon to life.
“I think that Scrooge has one of the greatest arcs in all of literature or theater because from the get-go, (he) is bitter and mean-spirited and angry," he said, "and within an hour and a half that character goes … to being somebody that is just the opposite — (one) that is happy, and filled with joy.”
As he works to bring the humanity of the character to the stage, he doesn’t take lightly the role he’s playing in what many Utahns revere as a beloved holiday activity.
"Being involved in 'Christmas Carol' is a real honor and it's a responsibility because you are helping others with their Christmas experience and their Christmas tradition. We have no idea what the takeaway is going to be,” he said.
Although the theater where Stevens got his start is almost 700 miles away, he said he can’t help but feel the same sense of belonging in Sandy that he did in Glendale all those years before, now surrounded by the grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren of the ones who gave him his first break.
“The other night I was at rehearsal and I had found out that one of the young women in our production is the wife of Mark Dietlein and Sally Dietlein's son,” Stevens said. When he told her about knowing the Hales, he commented about the baby she was holding is the great-grandchild of Ruth and Nathan Hale.
“I was corrected. That is the great-great-grandchild of Ruth and Nathan Hale,” Stevens said. “Of course, that made me feel really old all of a sudden but it just made me realize how many generations of Hales have impacted my life.”
If you go …
What: Hale Centre Theatre's production of "A Christmas Carol"
When: Dec. 1-24, dates and times vary
Where: Jewel Box Theatre, 9900 S. Monroe St., Sandy
How much: $40-$49 for adults, $20-$22 for youths ages 5-17
Note: Many of the productions of "A Christmas Carol" are sold out. Call for availability.