Bah, pandemic! How theaters are saving ‘A Christmas Carol’

By Michael Paulson

For all his flaws, that cranky old miser Ebenezer Scrooge has been a godsend for American theaters. Through recessions and blizzards and other upheavals, he has drawn small children and big money to his redemption story in “A Christmas Carol.”

Stage adaptations of the tale, which generally run between Thanksgiving and year-end, have been a tradition and a lifeline for troupes big and small, professional and amateur. But now, after decades in which the Dickens classic has sustained them, this year theaters are sustaining Dickens.

Gone are the large-cast extravaganzas playing before cheery crowds in packed venues.

Instead, theaters are using every contagion-reduction strategy they have honed during the coronavirus pandemic: outdoor stagings, drive-in productions, street theater, streaming video, radio plays and even a do-it-yourself kit sent by mail.

Many of these theaters are willingly running the long-lucrative show at a loss. They are hungry to create, determined to stay visible and eager to satisfy those “Christmas Carol” die-hards who don’t want to miss a year.

“It’s absolutely an obligation, in the best sense of that word,” said Curt Columbus, the artistic director of Trinity Repertory Company, in Providence, Rhode Island, which has staged “A Christmas Carol” each holiday season since 1977. “The story felt more urgent, and more necessary, than it has in many years.”

A primer for those who don’t know a Cratchit from a Fezziwig: “A Christmas Carol” is an exceptionally durable novella, written by Charles Dickens and published in 1843, about the transformation, via a series of ghostly visitations, of a wealthy businessman (that’s Scrooge) from mean and miserly to caring and charitable.

Dickens himself performed readings of the story for more than two decades, with stops in the United States as well as Britain, until his death in 1870; it has been repeatedly adapted for stage and screen, and the story, in one form or another, has been a seasonal staple of U.S. regional theater since the 1970s. Last year a critically lauded adaptation from England’s Old Vic theater reached Broadway; this year, it will be livestreamed from its London home, fully staged but audience-free.

“ ‘A Christmas Carol’ does everything we talk about when we talk about theater: It builds community, and it tugs us toward our better selves,” said Joseph Haj, the artistic director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, which has staged the story since 1975, last year selling 57,900 tickets to the show.

This year, the Guthrie will stream a retelling by four actors. It will cost $10 to watch and will be free for schools.

Haj doesn’t expect to make money on it. Nor does Leda Hoffmann, artistic director of the Contemporary American Theatre Company in Columbus, Ohio, which, for $20 per device, will stream a contemporary reimagining with Ebony Scrooge at its center.

“This is very likely a losing proposition, but we’re telling the story because we want to tell it,” she said.

The financial implications are enormous, especially for those that have opted not to charge at all. Ford’s Theatre in Washington last year sold $2.5 million worth of tickets to “A Christmas Carol.” This year, it is releasing a free audio version on its website and on public radio, paid for by corporate sponsorships and donations.

“Hopefully it will come back to us in other ways,” said Paul R. Tetreault, Ford’s director.

The money that “A Christmas Carol” usually brings in allows theaters to perform more challenging work at other times of the year.

In Raleigh, North Carolina, where Ira David Wood III, the artistic and executive director of Theatre in the Park, has been playing Scrooge in a musical adaptation since 1974 (he missed one year, when he had open-heart surgery), the money earned from the holiday show “enables us to do ‘Uncle Vanya’ and play to maybe 12 people,” he said.

Like many major regional theaters, Providence’s Trinity Rep is enormously dependent on the show, which accounts for half of all annual sales. This year, its one-hour streaming version looks still to be popular — in the first 72 hours, 75,000 people from 46 states signed up to watch. But ticket revenue, which last year topped $1.7 million, will be zero, because the video is being aired for free.

“This thing has kept American theaters alive for decades and decades,” said Charles Fee, producing artistic director of Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland. “Without ‘Christmas Carol,’ our company would almost certainly have failed.”

The 2020 renditions are taking place in every imaginable fashion, although rarely the traditional. Tuesday, a prominent regional theater still hoping to stage an indoor production — the American Shakespeare Center in Virginia — canceled all live performances and replaced them with digital options, citing the resurgent pandemic.

Live outdoor productions are requiring social distancing and masks.

“Obviously we understand the gravity of trying to do something right now, and we’re in a perpetual state of anxiety,” said Christopher Brazelton, executive director of the Elm Street Cultural Arts Village in Woodstock, Georgia, which is planning a short run of an open-air concert version of its annual “Christmas Carol” musical.

The Alliance Theatre in Atlanta is opting for a drive-in “live radio play” in a parking lot across from a college football stadium. Four performers will be ensconced in separate shipping containers, with attendees encouraged to honk their horns, flash lights and sing along with Christmas carols.

And the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival has enlisted PaintedBlack STL, a coalition of local Black artists, to create scenes from “A Christmas Carol” in 21 storefronts around that city’s Central West End; as patrons wander from window to window, scanning a QR code will allow them to listen to the story as sung by a hip-hop group, Q Brothers Collective. On weekend nights, there will be live performers along the route.

The most popular solutions are versions of the new normal — streaming, in Milwaukee and Houston, for example, and radio, in cities including Chicago, San Francisco and Louisville, Kentucky.

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