Saturday, October 25, 2014
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The creeping of Christmas shows

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Raye Birk plays Scrooge in the Guthrie Theater's 31st production of "A Christmas Carol." (Photo courtesy of the Guthrie Theater)
Over the years the holiday shopping season has crept ever earlier. It used to be that people would complain if stores mounted their displays before Thanksgiving. Nowadays many retailers put up the Christmas wreaths as soon as they take down the Halloween jack-o-lanterns. Less noticeable, perhaps, is the expanded holiday stage season and the growing number of shows. Even though it's early December, Christmastime theater, music and dance productions are already in high gear. It wasn't always like this.

St. Paul, Minn. — Back in 1977 when VocalEssence first began performing its "Welcome Christmas" concerts in the first weekend of December, artistic director Philip Brunelle remembers that it was one of the first holiday productions of the season.

This year both the Guthrie Theater's "Christmas Carol" and Penumbra Theatre's "Black Nativity" have been running since before Thanksgiving. The City Children's Nutcracker has come and gone.

Ross Murray of Minneapolis says he's already been to several holiday events. "My parents came to town and we attended "Amahl and the Night Visitors," the Mannheim Steamroller Christmas concert, the Holidazzle parade and the Marshall Fields display."

To satisfy holiday appetites like Ross Murray's, just about every theater and musical group offers something special for the season. Pioneer Press theater critic Dominic Papatola says the more shows there are, the earlier they have to start.

"The density of shows has gotten such that it's almost impossible for all of these shows to physically open at the same time," he says. "What I've been seeing in the last couple years is that there is 'holiday creep.' Things used to start maybe the Friday after Thanksgiving, then it was the week before Thanksgiving and now it's two weeks before Thanksgiving. It's at the point now where every weekend there's three, four sometimes five shows opening, beginning two weeks before Thanksgiving and continuing until probably two weeks after Thanksgiving."

Another reason to start early is to catch people who want to attend just one holiday show. For Linda Muldoon of Minneapolis, timing is crucial. "Prior to the week before Thanksgiving it doesn't feel like the holiday season to me," she says. "And as we get to the week before Christmas there's just too much going on."

Raye Birk plays Scrooge in the show that's become a Twin Cities holiday ritual, Guthrie Theater's "A Christmas Carol." He says he notices a change in the audience as Christmas approaches.

"As we get closer to the holiday people get a little testy about Christmas when it gets overwhelming. I think people get a little cynical about it and there's a certain kind of laughter and appreciation of Scrooge's point of view when he says Christmas is a humbug and 'what's Christmas to you but a time of paying bills without any money?' I've heard some evenings when people really enjoy that and think that it's true."

Now in its 31st year, "A Chrsitmas Carol" is a big hit each season, playing to a house of 90 to 100 per cent capacity. Guthrie productions the rest of the year average around 89 per cent. While that in itself doesn't make a big difference, Guthrie Marketing Director Trisha Kirk says the show has a significant impact on the the theater's bottom line. Because they can reuse sets and costumes, there's a greater profit margin.

"A Christmas Carol" also brings new people to the Guthrie. Kirk says half of the audience are first timers. The Minnesota Orchestra has a similar experience with its holiday offerings. Cindy Grzanowski is the orchestra's Director of Marketing, Single Ticket Sales and Audience Development.

"From year to year the number fluctuates a little bit, but somewhere between 35 and 45 per cent of people who attend holiday concerts are brand new to the orchestra," she says. "They've never been to another concert at any other time of the year or come to Orchestra hall before."

With so many presenters trying to reach the big holiday audience, actor Raye Birk says they all have to be careful to maintain their integrity. At this time of year especially he feels the cultural community should look at more than just the bottom line. "Otherwise it becomes a victim of the commercialism of Christmas," he says. "And that's kind of sin against the holiday."

If there is sinning going on, some retribution may be on the way. Critic Dominic Papatola senses that the holiday market is becoming saturated. Last year for the first time, he says some presenters told him holiday shows weren't meeting projections. At the end of this season, Papatola suspects, they'll be telling him their slice of the Christmas pie has been sliced even thinner.

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