Combing through this year’s schedule of holiday shows at local theaters, I was overwhelmed by the quantity of Messiahs, Nutcrackers, jolly Santas and sassy elves.
But I am so very thankful for AJC reporter Jill Vejnoska, who explained in a story on Sunday how and why we experience this merry glut of holiday shows every year. It never appeared online, so I’m posting it here, with links to help you get in on some of the holiday action.
Happy holiday show shopping:
For Harold Leaver, ’tis the season to pop multivitamins and pump iron.
“I tend to pick up my gym time as ‘Santaland’ gets close, ” Leaver, 47, sighed. “We’re talking about maintaining my elfin figure, after all.”
Leaver is starring as Crumpet, the embittered department store elf in Horizon Theatre Company’s production of “The Santaland Diaries.” For the 11th consecutive year.
As work schedules go, this one seems designed by Scrooge. Over the next month, the David Sedaris-penned comedy will play the Little Five Points theater 33 times — including shows on Christmas Eve and Christmas.
The most wonderful time of the year? Maybe. One thing’s certain: The five-week period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is the busiest time for performing arts institutions. And there’s a reason for that. Holiday shows equal money — in many cases, enough to pay for a significant chunk of other productions during a company’s season or to let it take on a more daring work later with no expectation of turning a profit.
Arts groups will work overtime presenting such classics as the Alliance Theatre’s version of “A Christmas Carol” (28 days, 29 shows). Not to mention such slightly less classics as “Invasion: Christmas Carol, ” presented by those improvisational impsters at Dad’s Garage Theatre Company (17 shows over the same time period).
At the Center for Puppetry Arts, they’ll be staging “The Shoemaker and the Elves” three times on most days. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will present three different holiday-themed shows during the same 24-hour period next weekend. And Lawrenceville’s Aurora Theatre will have Anthony Rodriguez in a demanding one-man version of “A Christmas Carol” — eight times in as many days.
“Part of what the holidays are about is being entertained and going to do something with your family, ” explained Wendy Riggs, managing director of Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company.
Then, of course, there’s the other part.
“Most theaters do a holiday show because it’s a cash cow for them, ” admitted Riggs, who said, beginning Thursday, her company will present Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity” 26 times over 25 days, seven more times than it ran last year.
Indeed, the holiday season always has been critical to the health and well-being of performing arts organizations, if not always the people who work there.
“I tell our staff they can get sick now or they can wait until after the first of the year, ” Horizon managing producer Jennifer Bauer-Lyons said three weeks before Thanksgiving. With a second holiday-themed children’s show running at the same time as “Santaland, ” she said, “We take a deep breath and try to plunge through it. We want to keep people happy and in the holiday spirit.”
Throw in an economic recession now well into its second year of making patrons’ disposable incomes less disposable, and the stakes are higher at places like Theatre in the Square.
“We need this box office revenue to get us through the first couple of months, at least, in the new year, ” said MJ Conboy, marketing director at the Marietta theater, where “A Tuna Christmas” and “Sanders Family Christmas” will have run a whopping 86 times by Jan. 3. Budget crunches forced Theater in the Square to sideline its smaller Alley Stage series for the 2009-10 season, making this holiday mini-season that much more important.
Said Conboy, “If we had one or two [holiday] shows that tanked, I don’t know what we’d do.”
No arts group wants to risk finding out — especially this year. No wonder it sometimes seems like anyone who can can carry a tune or pull on a tutu does “The Messiah” or “The Nutcracker” in December. It turns out, they’re just giving the paying public what it wants.
At the Atlanta Ballet, last year’s run of “The Nutcracker” accounted for 57 percent of the entire season’s $2.7 million in ticket revenues. This is the 50th straight year the company’s doing “The Nutcracker” and no scone is being left unturned in the effort to reach potential new or repeat customers for 20 shows at the Fox Theatre between Dec. 11 and 27: There are “Nutcracker”-themed teas, meal and room packages being offered in conjunction with the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead and Georgian Terrace, and half-price “Nutcracker” tickets available to some people buying Christmas trees at Pike Nurseries on Thanksgiving weekend.
At Horizon Theatre, Crumpet & Co. keep coming back year after year because the audience does too. Sixty percent of people seeing “The Santaland Diaries” each year are return customers. Meanwhile, demand was so high for tickets to the children’s show “Madeline’s Christmas” the first time Horizon offered it last December, it’s been brought back for a second year, with additional showtimes scheduled for weekdays.
The take from these two holiday shows is enough to fund “one other complete production from beginning to end” during Horizon’s regular season, said Bauer-Lyons, adding that the success of “Madeline” has even gotten the 25-year-old theater company thinking about putting a family/children’s show in its summer lineup for the first time.
Right now, though, it’s all about surviving the most wonderful time of the year’s many logistical challenges. Next Saturday, for instance, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will present “Gospel Christmas” at 2 p.m. and “Handel’s Messiah” at 8 p.m. With the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra and three local high school choruses taking over Symphony Hall for Sunday afternoon’s back-to-back performances of “ASO Kid’s Christmas, ” the backstage maneuvering could get as tangled up as Christmas lights just out of the storage box.
“On Saturday, we get together to rehearse as a group for the first time from 9 a.m. till noon, ” said Ric Reitz, the creator/producer of “Second Chance Christmas, ” the ASO show for young audiences. “Then they break down our stage and set up for ‘Gospel Christmas.’ We come back in at 10 p.m., when the ASO finishes ‘The Messiah, ‘ reset our stage and light it for the first time. At 9 a.m. on Sunday, we have our one technical rehearsal and then we go on that afternoon.”
Meanwhile, no arts group wants to wear out its holiday welcome with audiences. While some shows’ appeal never fades, others end up like that same goofy reindeer sweater of your uncle’s: Everyone’s tired of seeing it. Before last year, for instance, True Colors had done “The Wiz” in December, which was a very popular show. Along with supporting the company’s mission of nurturing young actors, the move to “Black Nativity” was part of an effort to develop a rotation of shows that would feel fresh to new and returning audiences each year.
“Especially during this tough economic time, what do you choose to do?” asked Riggs, the managing director at True Colors, which won the coveted Best Ensemble-Musical prize for “Black Nativity” at last month’s Suzi Bass Awards, aka Atlanta’s version of the Tonys. “Do you always do the same thing and hope families will keep coming back? [Then] when times get tough and people have to make a choice, will it not seem as special?”
Make it even more special, said Atlanta Ballet artistic director John McFall. With the company performing “The Nutcracker” here for the 50th year, that’s been his approach. There’s a newly choreographed “Waltz of the Flowers” in this year’s production, plus a rather daring reimagining of the role of Marya, usually a girl, as a young woman who becomes a ballerina. Finally, two separate couples (up from the usual one) will get to perform signature pas de deux in each show.
Back in “Santaland, ” Leaver takes daily catnaps and extra vitamins to get through the arduous 33-show run. But ask him if he ever becomes bored playing the same part and he rejects it like the ridiculous notion that there’s no Santa Claus.
“My honest reaction is, I can’t wait to do it, ” he said. “There are moments when I’m onstage and, even though I’ve played this role in front of thousands and thousands of people, I recognize one person. They’ve come before and now they’re back and sitting up close, just waiting to be heckled or harassed by me.”
Sounds a lot like being with family, something that never gets old at the holidays.
Not even after 11 years.
Want to go?
Alliance Theatre: “A Christmas Carol, ” 29 performances, Nov. 27-Dec. 24
Atlanta Ballet: “The Nutcracker, ” 20 performances, Dec. 11-27
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra: “Handel’s Messiah, ” two performances, Dec. 3-5; “ASO Gospel Christmas, ” two performances, Dec. 4-5; “ASO Kid’s Christmas” (with Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra), four performances, Dec. 6 and Dec. 13; “Christmas with the ASO, ” four performances, Dec. 10-12; “A Very Merry Holiday Pops, ” three performances, Dec. 18-19; “ASO New Year’s Eve, ” one performance, Dec. 31
Center for Puppetry Arts: “The Shoemaker & The Elves, ” 92 performances, Nov. 17-Jan. 3
Dad’s Garage Theatre Company: “Invasion: Christmas Carol, ” 17 performances, Nov. 27-Dec. 23
14th Street Playhouse: “Scrooge in Rouge, ” 14 performances, Dec. 3-27
Fox Theatre: “Radio City Christmas Spectacular,”35 performances, Nov. 19-Dec. 6
Georgia Ballet: “The Nutcracker, ” five performances, Dec. 4-6
Synchronicity Performance Group: “Naughty & Nice Holiday Cabaret, ” one performance, Dec. 13
True Colors Theatre Company: “Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity: A Holiday Gospel Celebration, ” 26 performances (including previews), Dec. 3-27
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