For arts patrons who aren’t fans of Christmas shows, this isn’t exactly the most wonderful time of the year. The so-called “sweet weeks” between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day are packed with Christmassy fare, with Tiny Tim duking it out with the Sugar Plum Fairy and the entire populations of Bedford Falls and Santaland competing with holiday films and parties for family entertainment dollars and time.
Woe to the company who spurns tradition to stage “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” or “La Traviata” instead, and arts companies aren’t just going through the motions when they stage the same play for decades in a row. While there’s no arts equivalent to retail’s Black Friday, holiday shows are the closest thing to a license to print money that the nonprofit performing arts have. But that’s not the only reason why we see the same types of shows every December.
No Substitute for Some Traditions
The Louisville Ballet has produced “The Nutcracker” since the 1960s, and ticket sales from the winter wonderland ballet cover a full quarter of the company’s annual budget. Last year, the production brought in about $600,000 in sales, says artistic director Bruce Simpson, and not necessarily from ballet stalwarts.
“Most people who come see ‘Nutcracker’ won’t necessarily come see another ballet,” says Simpson.”And most people who buy a subscription will come see all of the ballets, maybe with the exception of ‘Nutcracker.’”
Simpson attributes this spike in attendance to the power of cultural traditions that are especially strong around the Christmas holidays.
“It’s also generational,” says Simpson. “I know so many people came to Nutcracker when they were young, brought by their parents, and now they’re bringing their kids and grandkids.”
“Families are looking for great entertainment around the holiday period, and they want to make sure it’s a safe environment, an appropriate environment, and Nutcracker covers those bases,” he adds.
But for the Ballet, “The Nutcracker” isn’t some sacred cash cow. Because it’s an attractive option for school groups, the company’s weekday matinees give hundreds of kids their first taste of the ballet every year.
“So many communities in America have never been to the theater, have no experience of being in a theater, of how to behave, how to get to the restrooms, what to do when the lights go out,” says Simpson.
In other words, holiday shows help hook ‘em while they’re young, with hopes they’ll return when they are older, even if it’s just once a year with their own kids to see Clara’s nutcracker prince battle the Rat King. But why “The Nutcracker?” Isn’t there some other ballet they could swap in every other December? Simpson says that’s an unequivocal “no.”
“There’s some really good versions of ‘Peter Pan’ out there that would be quite attractive to younger people, and there are quite a few ‘Draculas’,” he says. “But one that has such an extraordinary broad range of entertainment, of beauty and magic for the entire intergenerational situation, no, I don’t think so.”
Familiarity Breeds Comfort
The intergenerational appeal of tradition is one reason why Actors Theatre of Louisville has been producing “A Christmas Carol” for 37 years and counting. Managing director Jennifer Bielstein says the same tradition of families attending the show help the theater fulfill a key part of its mission.
“We want to serve a broad range of people in this community and we have multiple streams of programming to do so. We see ‘A Christmas Carol’ as something that provides a point of introduction for people who have never been to the theater,” she says. “We love that tradition that people have of going year after year. The memories that adults recall from their childhood days of going with their families, it piques their interest to go to other shows.”
Bielstein says about 13,000 people see “A Christmas Carol” every year, and as with the theater’s other holiday shows (Halloween’s “Dracula” and other recurring Christmas shows like “A Christmas Story” and “A Tuna Christmas”), “A Christmas Carol” is a safe financial bet.
“Our annual productions are the only shows that cover their direct expenses and do a little better,” she says. “For the super majority of the shows we do, we have to have funding to cover expenses for a show.”
That’s ticket sales at work, and in Bielstein’s experience, holiday shows are easier to sell to a general audience than other plays.
“Often the work that is done through the rest of the season, whether it’s a new play in the Humana Festival of New American Plays or a contemporary play in the Brown-Forman series, our mainstage series, it’s not a known entity to some people,” she says. “They feel more comfortable going to something that they know and have a history of attending.”
Or have a history with the material already, from “very special episodes” of beloved television shows that use the Scrooge/redemption structure to teach their protagonists important lessons to film adaptations starring the Muppets, Mickey Mouse and Bill Murray.
A Communal Experience
But familiarity with source material isn’t the only thing holiday plays have going for them. Timing is everything, and during the holidays, people are more likely to go looking for entertainment outside of the home.
“It’s a communal experience,” says Bielstein. “And also I think people are moving towards focusing their resources on experiences with others, versus just products.”
The Bunbury Theatre Company has seen the lure of the communal experience overcome the power of the known quantity in their holiday programming. For more than a decade, the company produced William Gibson’s Nativity comedy “The Butterfingers Angel, Mary & Joseph, Herod the Nut & the Slaughter of Twelve Hit Carols in a Pear Tree,” but when producing artistic director Juergen Tossman started messing with tradition a few years ago, adding in original material like his “A Hanukkah Christmas with Klurman and Goldstein,” there were no riots in his aisles.
“Actually, the attendance is just about the same,” says Tossman. “Our audiences know who we are and they’re looking to Bunbury to present a show worthy of their ticket price. I believe that we have a good enough reputation that they believe we’ll do something worthy and artistically challenging.”
Tossman does see bigger houses for the holidays. Part of that he attributes to season ticket holders bringing friends and family with them to the holiday play, whatever it might be in a given year. (This season’s “The Last Hanukkah Christmas,” written by Tossman, opens Dec. 13 in the Henry Clay Theatre). Holiday shows feel special, he says, because they’re a once-a-year event.
“For people who don’t often go to the theater, it has to be a destination for them,” he says. “When the theater becomes an event, you start to see bigger houses. It’s a time people can come and share together, and if they get a warm fuzzy feeling around the holidays, they’re more likely to try theater again.”
Warm Fuzzy Feelings
Those “warm, fuzzy feelings” are key, says Doug Schutte, executive director of The Bard’s Town Theatre, the company he and artistic director Scot Atkinson run out of their Highlands restaurant and bar of the same name. The Bard’s Town is closing its second season the same way they closed their first, with a holiday production of Schutte’s own “The Kings of Christmas,” an irreverent take on the good old fashioned fun family Christmas complete with a dead cat and the ghost of an Elvis impersonating magician, with a narrative structure loosely borrowed from “A Christmas Carol,” which Schutte sees every year at Actors Theatre.
“It is funny how holiday shows can be done again and again. If you had your exact same season the following year, it would not do well,” Schutte says with a laugh.
He didn’t plan on starting a new tradition with “The Kings of Christmas,” but the play did well last season and he had requests to see it again, despite its decidedly non-traditional story. He speculates on why people flock to the theater during December—’tis the season for unusual events?
“Decorating, spending money, parties all the time,” says Schutte. “People spend like it’s going out of style.”
“We’re thankful for it, I know that,” he adds. “For us, the way that our theater is set up, it’s intimate, so we typically can fill up any show we do, so for a Christmas show, it becomes an issue of turning people away or adding nights to a run.”
While The Bard’s Town hasn’t seen a dramatic difference in ticket sales during the holidays, Schutte says what is significant is the size of group reservations. Most of the advance ticket reservations go to couples and foursomes, but for “The Kings of Christmas,” he sees groups of ten and more who want to sit together—that’s an event. Schutte thinks these shows re-kindle traditional beliefs in the spirit of the holidays that have nothing to do with, as he puts it, “knocking people over in stores to buy toys,” and that feeling is what people are chasing when they buy their annual tickets.
“You know the type of experience you’re going to get,” he says. “You’re going to leave feeling good.”