I'm Dreaming of a Green Christmas

Believe it or not, holiday theatergoing-as-ritual is a relatively recent development, its appearance coinciding more or less with Franco's death and the Captain & Tennille's Grammy for "Love Will Keep Us Together." By the time A Christmas Carol had become a full-fledged holiday industry, it was almost Morning in America. In fact, one could probably chart an inverse relationship between the boom in Christmas Carols and other holiday shows and the decline in national arts funding from its Nixon-era acme. These days, almost every major theater in town has some kind of reindeer to milk come holiday time, and even a few of the more artsy micro-theaters are trying to stuff their stockings with loot.

These shows were once so far from the mainstream consciousness that in 1974, the year before their first Christmas Carol, the Guthrie earnestly presented an Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn play at Thanksgiving. A seasonal author of sorts, to be sure--he of Gulag Archipelago fame--but to artistic director Michael Langham's disappointment, no audience turned out.

"Michael called, very upset, and said, 'No one's at the theater,'" recalls Guthrie Education Coordinator Sheila Livingston, a volunteer at the time. "I said, I've always thought we should do a show geared to the season, and he said, like what? I said, What about A Christmas Carol--people love that. He didn't say very much, but the next day he asked me, 'Were you serious?'"

If you could patent lightning bolts, Ms. Livingston would be a rich woman and the Guthrie could go back to Solzhenitsyn: A Christmas Carol was an instant success, and, according to legend, the rest of the nation's regional theaters played copycat. At the Guthrie, the show has become sacrosanct by virtue of its money-making potential; it's become such an integral part of the theater's budget, they're now happily stuck with it. Says Livingston, "I always got a kick out of the fact that every new artistic director, except Joe Dowling, would always say, Next year we're going to do something else."

The cunning Dowling and his dutiful elves spearheaded a much-needed revamp of the show last year, from script changes to new costumes, sets, and props. It was a savvy move: While other theaters suffered a "soft" holiday theater market, the Guthrie broke records, according to Managing Director David Hawkanson. The show, in his account, also serves as a major audience-development tool. "In any given year approximately 55,000 to 60,000 people come to A Christmas Carol," he says. "Of those, approximately 60 percent are first-time visitors to the Guthrie."

Both the Children's Theatre and In the Heart of the Beast take a different tack to the holiday sweepstakes--perhaps in part because they've never found a monster hit quite like A Christmas Carol, and also because they don't want to wear out their moneymakers. HOTB relies on its holiday show for a full half of its annual ticket revenue, and rotates a rep of about three shows. Its biggest hit, La Befana, does best if given a rest every so often. HOTB did exceptionally well last year, partly by limiting its holiday run to eight performances: Each was standing room only.

"Like everyone else, we're aware of the fact that the holiday show is a cash cow," says CTC Managing Director John Haynes, "but we choose not to do the same show year after year because it gets tired for the audience and the performers. It's also risky to do a brand-new holiday show, so we have a rotation of three to five blockbusters." And he does mean blockbusters; How the Grinch Stole Christmas brought in almost $1 million in both its first and second seasons.

Last year, box office was "off" at CTC, which Haynes blames on the fact that Thanksgiving fell so late in the calendar. This year, it's even later, but Haynes says it's not a problem because their new production, Peter Pan, doesn't sound like a holiday show. "We chose Peter Pan because it's one of two or three evergreen family shows, and we chose to do a musical version," he says. "While it's not a holiday theme, it still has the major elements of family, love, togetherness, redemption--families will leave feeling suffused with the spirit of Christmas. Nonetheless, economically, we need to do a blockbuster, you bet. And generally that means a musical."

The crassness of the equation is so obvious, it almost doesn't bear mentioning: People want to feel Christmasy, and they'll pay theaters for the service. More than any other time of year, people hunger for theater's unique qualities: The primal sense of group ritual, of celebration; the see-and-be-seen experience of lobby culture; the apple cider. Theater executives are pretty candid about the whole thing, and won't hide the facts: They need money, lots of it, and this is the one time of year when they stand an honest chance at making it.

Penumbra Theatre staffers are especially candid about last year's bomb with Black Nativity--a production that typically yields a third of the company's total budget. Though it was the show's 10th anniversary, attendance dropped disastrously--estimates of losses hover around $150,000. The company blames several factors: a brand-new marketing director; competition from Broadway tours; lack of press interest and of a media sponsor. This year, UPN-9 is providing free TV commercials, and things seem to be picking up in the press as well. They'd better; the theater can't afford another flop.

"At this point, we consider this a test year," says Penumbra Executive Director Ervin Dixon. "If it does better, we'll stay [at the Fitzgerald theater], if it doesn't, we'll have to seriously consider a smaller space." Have they thought about giving the show a rest? "It's been talked about, but we haven't thought about it in a real systematic way. What compels us is the fact that on visits to other places over the summer we learned that Black Nativity is now being done in other communities."

It's tough to know which came first: the need for such massive revenue from seasonal shows, or the availability of it. Have theaters dug themselves into a financial pit, expecting to climb their way out on a Christmas tree? It seems the answer, in some cases, is yes. A few local troupes have shied away from that game, including the Jungle Theater; this will be their first year in the pageant, with a double bill of Kevin Kling's storytelling and a reading of A Child's Christmas in Wales. It's also a first for the smaller-budget Eye of the Storm, which will present a late-night one-man show at the Loring Playhouse alongside the Ballet of the Dolls' Nutcracker?!.

Perhaps most bizarrely, the tiny Burning House Group will be doing a somewhat holiday-oriented show, the Grimms' Bremen Town Musicians. This from a troupe better known for heady productions of Jules Feiffer and inscrutable East German playwright Heiner Müller! Burning House Group's Randal Berger admits they're not expecting a blockbuster. "We wanted to give an alternative to Black Nativity and A Christmas Carol. Even though there's a zillion shows, we intentionally made it a very basic show, where people go to see actors, where people have a chance to think about the experience of being in an audience with a group of people, together, without all the spectacle. That's what this holiday is supposed to be about."

That and visions of Santa delivering an oversized, Publisher's Weekly-sized check, downstage center.

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