Even when slightly stooped to suggest old age, actor Marc Pouhé towers above the action onstage. His presence is solid, commanding, larger than life.
And although he is only 45 years old, Pouhé uses very little makeup to play Scrooge in Zach Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol,” just a little gray dusted into his short beard.
What really sets his Scrooge apart — aside from the fact that he is the first African American to play the role in Dave Steakley’s boisterous and extremely popular adaptation of the Charles Dickens tale — is his ample speaking voice.
Pouhé treats phrases like music. His intonation rises and falls with each utterance. His words are exact, concrete and utterly consequential.
After playing dozens of leading men as a professional actor in classics from Shakespeare to Noel Coward and Arthur Miller, Pouhé reshapes Scrooge into a hero, a man as horrified as Macbeth, as desolate as King Lear, and yet wonderfully warm, comical and playful when the narrative turns Dickens’ infamous miser into a fully dimensional man and, more so, a benefactor in the best sense of the term.
“Scrooge is not a typical leading man,” Pouhé says over burgers and fries at Carpenter Hall. “My biggest goal is to make him as real and grounded as possible. It might be a little darker Scrooge than most people are used to — no pun intended — but I really tried to explore the pain he experienced in life and the walls he put up. His mother died in childbirth. His father did not like him. And in this version, his sister dies giving birth to his nephew. He torpedoed his one love relationship because of his concern for financial success. All these things shaped him.”
Many excellent actors — the list includes Alastair Sim, Albert Finney, George C. Scott and Jaston Williams — have played Scrooge in various media. Pouhé finds a way to make the character current, palpable and unexpectedly heart-rending.
“Marc has always possessed such great command of the stage and made himself infinitely watchable in a variety of significant roles,” says Zach artistic director Dave Steakley. “He brings the vigor of a man in the prime of his life to this interpretation of Scrooge that is resonating so strongly with the audience. Scrooge is usually played by an actor in their senior years, but the character is 55 in the novel.
“Of course people didn't live as long during Dickens’ lifetime, so what was considered ‘old’ is young by today's standards,” Steakley continues. “We have an expectation that when we are older we will create the space for reflection in our lives that time doesn't always permit when we are younger. It brings a renewed significance to see a man mid-life like Marc making a significant change in who he is going to be, moving forward in the next 40 years of his life.”
Born in Wyandotte, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, and reared mostly in Baytown, Pouhé discovered the power of his voice at age 12 or 13.
“My parents both have accents,” he recalls, “so they often asked me to get on the phone for them.”
His mother, Yolaine Pouhé, is from Haiti and works as a pharmacist in Harlingen; his deceased father, Albert Pouhé, was from Cameroon and worked as a chemical engineer.
After high school, Pouhé joined the Navy. As part of an ROTC program, he attended Tulane University in New Orleans and then transferred to Texas State University in San Marcos, where he graduated in 2003. At Tulane, he studied biomedical engineering with an eye to becoming a medical doctor. He discovered acting along the way.
“I had a crush on a girl, and she asked me to audition for ‘Pericles,’” Pouhé says of Shakespeare’s famously curious and confusing play. “I didn’t realize whether it was hard or easy, but it was a pretty good part. The relationship didn’t pan out, but the love for theater did.”
He continued to win juicy roles in plays and musicals at Tulane and Texas State, which he attended before Kaitlin Hopkins transformed its training for musical theater, regularly ranked in the nation’s top 10 for such programs.
“I was fortunate to be cast in significant roles early on, which gave me confidence,” he says. “Texas State was good when I was there, but it’s really taken off and is world-class now. I’m very proud to claim it as my alma mater. I got to play Billy Flynn (the male lead) in ‘Chicago.’ I don’t know if that would be the case now.”
While managing a professional acting career in Austin, Pouhé works from home in Georgetown during the day. Employed by the American Cancer Society, he helps patients navigate the world of health insurance.
For this show, the theater company and the cancer society helped Pouhé work out a schedule that allows him to keep both jobs. Luckily, Zach Theatre recently adopted a League of American Theatres/Actors Equity union agreement that allows for longer hours of rehearsal within a shorter period of preparation, about two weeks per show, which gave the theater more flexibility to negotiate Pouhé’s rehearsal times.
Lucky, too, for audiences, since Pouhé — who received a transplant after kidney failure detoured his acting career for three years— is in constant demand from casting directors as one of the city’s most sought-after leading men.
“I studied acting in college, yes, but I really am a person for whom a fear of failure has been my greatest teacher,” he says. “That and being shoved into opportunities that are bigger than myself. It forces me to grow. It also helps being able to analyze a script, which I picked up through all that classical work. So I can take on any role.”
Pouhé landed the role of Shakespeare’s “Othello” right out of his one semester of graduate school at the University of Texas. Guy Roberts, then artistic director of Austin Shakespeare, caught him in a showcase audition and offered him a small part. When the actor originally cast in the title role left town, Pouhé took over.
“I have to be honest, the role was a lot for me at the time,” he says. “It was a role I regretted not doing as well as I would have liked, but I got a chance to revisit it and was very proud of the later production with Ann Ciccolella (the current captain at Austin Shakespeare).”
Coming back after his kidney transplant in 2012, Pouhé broadened and deepened his acting range.
“Facing death will do that,” he says. “Having a second chance at life will do that. I can draw from the pain, draw from the hope. I don't have to pretend on a whole range of emotions.”
Along with his roles at Austin Shakespeare and Zach Theatre, he has become a regular at Austin Playhouse, where he played Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” (with his favorite scene partner, Carla Nickerson), Martin Luther King in “The Mountaintop” and the title role in “Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Swing.” As a guest artist at St. Edward’s University’s Mary Moody Northen Theatre, he excelled in somewhat matching roles as de Guiche in “Cyrano de Bergerac” and Richelieu in “The Three Musketeers.”
In his very first stage show at Zach, he made a splash as corporate baddie Caldwell B. Gladwell in the musical “Urinetown.”
“I don’t consider musicals my strength,” he says. “I have a good speaking voice, but there are levels of singing I’m not comfortable with. Directors can help with that. If I had the opportunity to play Caldwell Gladwell again, I would.”
In “A Christmas Carol,” he gleefully sings and dances parts of three songs.
Pouhé is not the only newcomer to Zach’s annual “A Christmas Carol,” which debuted in 2014 with a changing playlist of pop songs and soulful versions of traditional carols overseen by gifted music director Allen Robertson. Among the memorable newcomers this season are Mary Bridget Davies, Tony Award-nominated for Broadway’s “A Night with Janis Joplin”; Matravius Parrish, who earned a master’s degree in vocal performance in musical theater at New York University; and Matthew Kennedy, who earlier this year won the W. H. “Deacon” Crain Award for Outstanding Student Work from the Austin Critics Table.
They join returning stage powerhouses such as Roderick Sanford, Kenny Williams, Paul Sanchez, Leslie McDonel and Michael Valentine.
And while the cast includes more than a dozen people of color of all ages, Pouhé stands out as Zach's first black Scrooge. It’s a choice with precedent. American directors of Shakespeare as early as the 1960s were casting people of color in roles traditionally played by white actors — and casting women and men in nontraditional gender roles — making them among the first to do so. A systematic push for the practice took off in the 1980s. In 2015, musical mega-hit “Hamilton” consciously cast nonwhite actors as the country’s founders and other historical parts.
“Theater is a visual medium,” Pouhé says about this evolution. “The spectator thinks: How does this fit? Even if they don’t have (traditional casting) in the front of their minds, subconsciously, they are thinking, this is the way it has to be.”
Pouhé, however, thinks that audiences like the unexpected, and once the threshold has been crossed, they don’t look back.
“I believe in looking at something with a fresh lens,” he says, “especially if it adds to the story, or if the actor is so qualified, there’s no question that he or she should be in the role.”
When Steakley’s “A Christmas Carol” premiered five years ago, critics dinged it for reductive or stereotypical portrayals of people of color and their cultures. According to follow-up reviews, those problems appeared to be fixed by the next season’s iteration.
Since at least the 1990s, Zach has been a leader in producing the plays of African-American playwrights such as August Wilson, Suzan-Lori Parks and Anna Deavere Smith, as well as countless musicals that featured nonwhite casts. The theater company has steadily cultivated a steadfast corps of nonwhite artists and audiences.
“Part of my job is to inspire kids who look like me to think about the possibilities,” Pouhé says, “and to inspire writers, directors and actors to think differently and to write stories that open doors for underrepresented people.”
The “Hamilton” phenomenon doesn’t hurt.
“I think it's a great thing,” Pouhé says. “Not just on Broadway but also in film, some of the most successful movies and plays now have international and racially diverse casts. Part of the reason is that demographics are changing and producers know that the return on their investment will be met. It's not 1965 anymore.”