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Despite living in Qatar, Richard Wilkins committed to role as Scrooge

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 5 2015 2:48 a.m. MDT

Richard Wilkins poses on the stage of the Hale Centre Theatre. He has performed the role of Richard Wilkins poses on the stage of the Hale Centre Theatre. He has performed the role of "Scrooge" for the past 27 years. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

Styled as a proper 19th century English gentleman on a recent December evening, Richard Wilkins expectantly stands in the brightly lit atrium of West Valley City's Hale Centre Theatre in full costume: knee-length topcoat covers silk vest covers white shirt garnished with a black ribbon tie.

Per the theater's custom, the cast of "A Christmas Carol" is greeting and thanking audience members as they exit the building. A bone-chilling winter storm swirls on the other side of double-paned windows, but inside it's downright toasty. Small beads of sweat on Wilkins' forehead reflect light cascading from a chandelier.

Minutes ago, Wilkins capped off two hours of the dancing, jumping and running away from ghosts that collectively constitute the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. As patrons descend down a lushly carpeted staircase and start shaking his hand, Wilkins still hasn't quite caught his breath from hoisting Tiny Tim up onto his right shoulder for the final curtain call.

Charles Dickens, portrayed in his study, wrote the timeless classic Charles Dickens, portrayed in his study, wrote the timeless classic "A Christmas Carol" that thrills audiences every year. (Library of Congress)

Wilkins, a 59-year-old legal scholar and former law professor, is a loquacious sort never at a loss for words or a smile. Watching him chitchat with people from the audience, it's difficult to tell where a repentant Scrooge ends and the Tao of Wilkins begins. As interesting as it is to observe, though, the ease with which he effortlessly steps into and out of his stage persona is nevertheless no big surprise in light of the fact that 2011 marks his 27th year playing Ebenezer Scrooge for this theater group.

Indeed, since first portraying Scrooge in 1985, Wilkins has increasingly internalized the values Charles Dickens sought to convey in penning "A Christmas Carol." And in a compelling case of life imitating art, Wilkins now finds himself the director of an important international advocacy group that promotes family policy at places like the United Nations — a job perfectly tailored to put into practice the values of Dickens' timeless tale. Never mind that that job is in Qatar or that he is now a battle-tested policy guru whose time is worth much money; the lessons of "A Christmas Carol" are so deeply rooted in Wilkins' soul that every November he makes a point of sojourning back to Utah for another reprisal of his beloved Scrooge role.

Charles Dickens in his study. Dickens wrote the timeless classic, Charles Dickens in his study. Dickens wrote the timeless classic, "A Christmas Carol." (Hale Centre Theater)

Becoming Scrooge

Hale Centre Theatre was co-founded in 1985 by Sally Dietlein and her husband's grandparents, Ruth and Nathan Hale. Ruth heard Wilkins speak in church one Sunday and was enamored with his oratory skills, so she arranged for him to appear in the theater's first production.

The young attorney quickly proved his mettle on the stage, and soon Wilkins chose to audition for the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in the theater's forthcoming production of "A Christmas Carol." The fact that a 32-year-old Wilkins somehow persuaded producers to cast him as the bordering-on-retirement Scrooge is itself something of a minor miracle.

"He was really good (in the audition), and he learned how to use makeup really well," recalls Dietlein, who starred alongside Wilkins in that 1985 production. "Somehow or another he pulled it off, and it was quite remarkable that he did it."

Thus began the still-going-strong, 27-year streak of Wilkins playing Scrooge. Having already accepted a professorial position in 1984 at his alma mater BYU Law School (he graduated first in his class in 1979), Wilkins came to the production equipped with the requisite vocational stability and scheduling flexibility to be single-cast every year as Scrooge — meaning he played Scrooge in all shows even while most roles were double-cast and featured alternating actors.

As he aged, Wilkins started looking more like the traditional Scrooge archetype. (Dietlein noted: "What's been really fascinating has been watching Richard age into the role and not need makeup anymore.")

The passage of time also afforded him opportunity to devour details of Dickens' life with an insatiable intellectual appetite. Not only can he recite at will any line from Hale Centre Theatre's Dickens-based script, but Wilkins can also quote Dickens' own words describing the motivation behind the "Christmas Carol" novella.

"In early 1843, Dickens had been asked to write a tract on child labor," Wilkins explained. "He had started to write something called, 'An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man's Child.' Then he gave a speech at the Manchester Athenaeum in October of 1843.

"That night of his speech in Manchester, Dickens came up with and talked about the need and the obligation to eradicate want and ignorance. He said that once the 'dragon of ignorance' was 'chased … from (the) hearth,' even the cold, hard specter of want would recede and be replaced by 'self-respect and hope.' It was after that speech that he started to write 'A Christmas Carol' instead."

International detour

In 1996, Wilkins travelled to Istanbul to address a United Nations conference about the language the U.N. uses to portray issues related to the family. The field of international family policy was not then his area of academic expertise, but it instantly hooked Wilkins, and so in 1997 he founded the World Family Policy Center through BYU Law School.

A variety of circumstances led Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, Qatar's de facto queen and director of the charitable Qatar Foundation, to approach Wilkins in 2005 with an offer to come to Qatar and oversee the Doha International Institute for Family Studies and Development.

Although the proposal piqued his interest, a deal couldn't be finalized until Wilkins successfully negotiated with Nasser on one end and Hale Centre Theatre on the other for an arrangement that would permit him to return to Utah every November and continue reprising his starring role in "A Christmas Carol."

"We know Richard really well, and we know if he wants to do something he's going to make it happen," Dietlein said. "So he told the queen of Qatar, 'I will do this, but I need this amount of time so I can play "A Christmas Carol" at Hale Centre Theatre.' She was very fascinated by this, because she's a very progressive type of a queen. … In our mind there was no question when he said he wanted to come back."

Because he wouldn't be present for rehearsals, Wilkins accepted the fact that his days of being single-cast as Scrooge would become a thing of the past. (David Weekes fills in for Wilkins during all preliminary rehearsals, and then when performances begin the two men switch off playing Scrooge.)

But the sacrifice proved worthwhile, because in short order the job at Doha Institute quickly afforded Wilkins a prominent forum for advancing international family policy.

"The importance of what Richard does is his involvement in the process of formulating international policy," said Susan Roylance, the international policy and development coordinator for the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society. "The Doha Institute holds expert group meetings and creates documents from those expert group meetings, and those documents help guide international policy and push it in certain directions."

His time in Qatar was initially supposed to last for only two years, but Wilkins eventually opted to officially retire from BYU Law School and extend his stay in Doha indefinitely. He and his wife, Melany, now expect to remain in Qatar at least through 2014 for the 20th anniversary of the International Year of the Family.

"I like getting out and doing stuff, and sometimes administration doesn't feel like you're doing anything," Wilkins mused.

"But the positive thing is that I believe that our little center in Doha keeps a very important perspective open and alive on the international scene, and that is that the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society. … Without strong families, things fall apart — and that's also a very strong message in 'A Christmas Carol.' "

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