The actor sits in a snug white-walled dressing room, his fingers wielding a brush dipped in green face-paint. Staring at a photograph of himself stuck to a lighted mirror, Jeff Skowron deliberately copies the green, yellow and black makeup design.

Between swigs of Crystal Light pomegranate lemonade, he consults a list of instructions — a star’s paint-by-number, an advanced design for someone who confesses he can’t draw.

Skowron has to move quickly this December morning. In about an hour, he’ll leap, scowl, howl and screech onstage as the Grinch, the vile, wily antihero whom Theodor Geisel — familiarly, Dr. Seuss — dreamt up more than 50 years ago in his Mount Soledad studio.

Skowron is the Grinch this season, the 12th annual performance of the theatrical version of the beloved Seuss tale at The Old Globe in Balboa Park. The play has stretched from San Diego all the way to Broadway, where Skowron first learned the ropes as various Who characters and the Grinch’s understudy a couple of years ago.

The Pennsylvania native began acting professionally when he was 13. In high school, a counselor responded to his thespian ambitions with incredulity and a recommendation to “get a backup degree.” That landed Skowron at Penn State as a begrudging business major. But when he was cast in a production, he switched his major to theater. Since then, he’s moved to New York City and pays his bills with a combination of acting jobs and radio voiceover work.

“I think I just always planned on doing this,” he says.

Now Skowron, 33, is behind the character described best by three words: “Stink. Stank. Stunk.” Arriving in San Diego a few days before Halloween for rehearsals, Skowron has been performing as the Grinch since Nov. 21.

Skowron is one of more than 130 people making this year’s production go. They’ll squeeze more than 60 performances into five weeks, including shows for school kids. Even on days when he has four performances in a row, Skowron must remove and reapply his whole getup, from face paint to wig to hairy, hairy costume.

While he’s in town, Skowron joins the sizeable itinerant artist community that calls San Diego home for a few months each year. Though they are stars on stage, they are also plainclothes participants in the local economy. Ballet companies employ guest dancers. Chamber music groups host summer festival performers. The San Diego Opera will bring in all but three of its lead artists from out of town — or the country — next year.

This isn’t Skowron’s only temporary home this year. For some stints, he just lives out of a suitcase. Here, he hangs clothes in the closet. He soaks up the warmer weather and enjoys a break from the bustle of life in New York City.

There’s something thrilling about performing in this show in San Diego, Skowron says, the place where the Grinch was first imagined, and the birthplace of the now-on-Broadway production. And not just because the palm trees make him feel like he’s on vacation. So many local families have incorporated the production into their annual traditions.

“I’m kind of depressed about leaving San Diego, actually,” he says, his mouth contorted as he lines his lip in black makeup. “I fully unpack here. I’m in.”

Not that Skowron does much besides perform, nap, hang out with the cast and work out at the gym. He hasn’t even been to the beach yet. (He’s planning a trip next week.) But he loves fish tacos.

The music director pops his head in the dressing room to say good morning and to sing through a spot in the production where Skowron’s been singing faster than the pit orchestra. The actor nods, catching the cue, and goes back to his makeup. A wig manager comes in to attach a green hairnet to Skowron’s head and primp his wig, an exaggerated coif of green curls and spikes.

On this weekday, Skowron has just two performances — the morning matinee for elementary school children and an evening performance. But on some peak days, the cast and crew goes through the whole production four times, sometimes with about an hour between shows.

“I nap for 15 minutes, eat something, try to be quiet,” he says. “Luckily that’s just enough time to get some energy back.”

From his opening scene, it’s clear Skowron spends all of the energy he’s stored up for each performance. He slithers and dances through the story, his menacing scowl frightening the Whos down in Who-ville as he snarls his disdain for their little holiday. He prances and lunges through the set, sliding into a slump to chat with his dog Max, then bounding up to declare his malevolent plan to stop Christmas for the Whos.

The children in the audience don’t see the challenges he faces offstage. When he exits a scene, he rushes to the nearest fan to battle the sweat threatening to ruin his makeup. Before each entrance, he grabs an assortment of props and extra costume pieces — a white trench coat and sunglasses when he’s trying to blend in with the shopping Whos, a Santa Hat when he’s going to trick Cindy-Lou.

For one entrance, Skowron confronts a stunt that once terrified him — shimmying down the 17-and-a-half-foot post framing the stage. From the audience’s viewpoint, it seems the Grinch has some superhuman ability as his left arm and leg creep down. But behind the scenes, Skowron’s hidden limbs twist around rungs of a ladder rigged just for the feat.

The Grinch’s fate is slowly revealed — his heart will grow three sizes and he will come to celebrate with the Whos even though he’d once tried to kill their joy. The children in the audience grow more and more excited. When he pauses for effect, trying to choke out the word “Christmas” near the end of the play, hundreds of little voices from the audience fill in the blank.

“…. Very. Merry. Ch- ch- ch- ch,” he sputters.

The audience squirms. “CHRISTMAS!” the children shriek.

With Cindy-Lou Who’s help, he squeaks the word out at long last, and the audience erupts. Fake snow flutters and swirls from the ceiling. A few minutes later, he and his dog and the Whos clasp hands and bow, and the play is over.

Back in his dressing room, his face flushed from his morning’s work on this 10th day of performances, Skowron tosses his green hairy gloves, furry suit and the rest of his green-haired accoutrements into a laundry basket stuffed full. Dressed in a red towel and green socks, he arms himself with face cleanser and wipes and begins to scrub his face clean from the green.

Seven hours until his next performance.

View more news videos at: https://www.nbcsandiego.com/video.

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/kellyrbennett.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.