This season, many of us may be haunted by the ghosts of more joyful holidays past — the reunions with distant family members, the large feasts, the holiday shows.
In this season of lights, our stages remain dark, as pandemic restrictions banning live performances continue. But performing arts groups in the Seattle area are giving us a chance and hope of escaping a dreary, showless fate. Organizations big and small — many of which typically get a hefty chunk of their annual revenue from their holiday shows — have determined that the show must go on, even if that means the show must go on…line.
Most of these organizations project that the virtual offerings will bring in only a small fraction of their usual holiday revenues. And the cast and crew of these virtual shows have found themselves filling multiple roles due to staff cuts and navigating new mediums and technology.
But many say they’re thankful for the chance just to practice their craft again, and hopeful that their efforts will provide a welcome dose of cherished tradition in a year that upended so many of them, and inject some much-needed cheer into holiday celebrations that, for many, may be more isolated than usual.
The specter of holidays past
As a little girl, Lia Chiarelli used to watch battles between mice and tin soldiers and a magical land of candies come to life from backstage at the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Nutcracker” every year.
Her father, PNB’s lighting designer and technical director for many years, started bringing her to the production at age 4 — an experience that made her fall in love with the ballet. PNB has been putting “The Nutcracker” onstage for almost 50 years, and Chiarelli has been attending for about 40 of those.
Now, with two kids of her own and working as the chief marketing and advancement officer at PNB, Chiarelli helps the company reach new admirers, many of whom she says are introduced to the wonders of ballet through “gateway” shows like “The Nutcracker.”
“We take ‘The Nutcracker’ very seriously,” she said. “This is the time of year when we’re most visible. … It’s the biggest opportunity of the year to show people what we do.”
In a typical year, approximately 100,000 audience members come to PNB to see “The Nutcracker,” bringing in almost $6 million — roughly half of the company’s revenue from performances for the season.
This year, PNB will be streaming archival footage of its George Balanchine “Nutcracker” and is offering “Nutcracker” gift boxes that can be delivered to viewers’ homes to try to bring a small piece of the usual fanfare that accompanies live performance.
With the loss of the in-person “Nutcracker” and expecting that the virtual experience will only bring in around $200,000, PNB has scaled back its marketing efforts for the show as well.
For other ballet companies or schools, the percentage of revenue their holiday shows typically bring in might be even higher. Evergreen City Ballet’s “Nutcracker” performances, for instance, bring in 70% of its annual revenue.
A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) makes approximately $900,000 each year with its annual production of “A Christmas Carol,” which is roughly one-third of the theater’s annual revenue from programming (not including grants and contributions).
For the 5th Avenue Theatre, which typically puts on several large productions throughout the year, it’s less of a dent. The family favorite shows produced for the 5th Ave’s holiday season usually bring in around $4 million but only make up about 15% to 20% of the annual revenue.
Still, because the 5th Ave is projecting it’ll bring in less revenue with this year’s holiday concert (only about $40,000), it’s scaling back production costs as well.
“The disappointment is that typically during a holiday show we bring in a lot of revenue, but equally important is that we employ a lot of people,” said Bill Berry, artistic director of the 5th Ave. “The revenue that normally comes in on a holiday show is significant and helps us to do all the other things we do throughout the year — education programs and various aspects of the organization — and of course that revenue isn’t going to be there this year, anywhere near the way it would normally be. And yet I think that it’s still worth it, from a financial model as well, to engage with our audience and our community in the best way that we can.”
For others, like the burlesque duo Kitten N’ Lou’s “Jingle All the Gay,” the holiday show is the show. The cast and crew work on the show basically all year long and it provides around one-third of the company’s revenue.
This year’s production will be a virtual check-in with the show’s characters to see how they’re surviving these unprecedented times. By offering ticket prices on a scale ($15 to $200), they’re hoping fans will help make up for any financial losses.
“I think we’re going to be OK because we have incredible fans,” Kitten said. “The show was originally created for people to get to have this holiday tradition who maybe were estranged from their families or didn’t have holiday plans, and it’s really become this huge community event. People really feel that when they’re in the room.”
It’s clear that continuing with holiday shows is not just about dollars. Enjoying these shows has become such an essential part of the holidays for so many that performing arts groups are making tremendous efforts to ensure that at least some form of COVID-safe holiday productions can make their way into audiences’ homes.
The COVID of holidays present
Dancers clad in masks performing to empty auditoriums, carefully positioned desk lamps on living room stages standing in for whole lighting crews, actors performing ensemble musical numbers separately in heavily sanitized recording booths, sound designers working to translate elaborate 10-minute dance numbers into a few seconds of audio …
This year, with COVID-19 making in-person rehearsals risky and restrictions prohibiting live audiences, theater artists have had to try their hands at new skills and ramp up on new mediums to keep holiday show traditions alive.
This is the first time in 45 years that ACT will not hold an onstage production of “A Christmas Carol.” But rather than forsake tradition altogether, ACT decided to create a radio-play version.
Drawing on the expertise of cast members who already had a background in audio, and exchanging the stage for a recording studio with eight recording boxes that were sanitized after each use, the creative team of “A Christmas Carol” came up with several different plans to try to capture the magic of the usually multisensory Christmas experience in a way that was safe for their multigenerational cast, which includes some immunocompromised members.
ACT projects the radio play will earn only $90,000 dollars, a measly 10% of what the show usually brings in for the theater. And John Langs, ACT’s artistic director, says he’s not certain this will be the last holiday season upended by the pandemic.
“Even with the vaccine coming, our best guess about onstage performance is late summer to fall, but who knows when people will actually be ready to come back,” Langs said. “If we go another Christmas where we’re still not banging on all cylinders as a society, maybe next year will be the year that we film it, or maybe instead of a 30-person ‘Christmas Carol’ we’re down to a 10-person ‘Christmas Carol.’”
So why go through all this effort?
“Knowing that it’s a 45-year-old tradition and how important it’s become to many people,” said Langs. “In a year when everything has gone so badly, it’s a story that really is about renewal and redemption and all the things we need right now. So we were holding onto it with an iron grip and it slipped away a couple of times until we figured out how we can produce it.”
One such audience member is 30-year-old Seattle resident Sam Harris, who first saw ACT’s “A Christmas Carol” in 1995, when he was just 5 years old.
Harris says part of his family’s tradition is talking about the ways the play is different every year. This year would have been Harris’ 25th time seeing the production. Instead, it will be the first year he’s listening to it, an experience he says will make him think about his uncle, who grew up in a time when radio dramas were popular and who used to attend the show with Harris and his family. Harris’ uncle passed away a few years ago.
“It’s such a family tradition and I think his absence is going to be felt extra this year,” Harris said.
Of course, it won’t be the same, but some are seeing how the changes can be a good thing.
The spirit of holiday shows future
“I really didn’t think I’d be creating a docu-dance film right now,” said Bennyroyce Royon, artistic director of Evergreen City Ballet (ECB).
Back in the summer, when Washington was seeing its COVID-19 cases rise again after the state’s initial swell of cases, Royon had a sneaking suspicion that ECB wouldn’t be allowed to operate in person by fall. So as the season for the school’s 26th annual “Nutcracker” production neared, he began thinking, “How do we create something new?”
The answer: a film. But it’s not just a video performance of “The Nutcracker.” This “docu-dance film” aims to bring the audience beyond the stage by examining the origins and history of “The Nutcracker,” sharing how the school created the production in these extraordinary times, and including nods to Royon’s Filipino heritage.
The show will be released in three different streaming versions throughout December, each featuring different student casts and choruses, because for Royon — a former ECB student who credits the school with helping him find community, launching him to successes at Juilliard and as a professional dancer in New York — putting on “The Nutcracker” this year was “all about the kids.”
When COVID sent everyone into isolation and ECB classes were eventually moved to Zoom, Royon made it his mission to keep the kids connected. For Royon, “The Nutcracker Suites” film became an opportunity to engage as many kids as possible and put into practice some of the lessons about resilience and adaptability that he teaches.
“We’re dancers. We’re used to taking on challenges after challenges,” said Royon. “We just have to find new ways of doing things constantly.”
And this new way could mean reaching a wider audience. “People as far as the Philippines could tune in!” Royon said.
Indeed, some predict that the video and streaming elements of this year’s performances will become a fixture of the future.
PNB’s Chiarelli says the company has seen more subscribers from outside the King County area, with its online content drawing subscribers in 45 states and nine countries.
“I don’t think video is going anywhere,” said Chiarelli. “The whole sector is just trying so hard to be innovative and meet people where they’re at … if it all wasn’t so sad, it’d be really fun.”
Rethinking the way things have always been done is nothing new to Donald Byrd, artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater.
In fact, adaptability and resilience are themes of this year’s workshop production of a portion of “The Harlem Nutcracker,” Byrd’s take — originally created in 1996 — on the classic ballet through the lens of Black history, present and future. Last year’s workshop was presented at On the Boards. This year’s workshop — the second of a planned three-part production — will be presented virtually, and looks at struggles for justice in Black history through to today’s protests over the death of George Floyd.
“I think the experience of Black artists is different,” said Byrd. “For us, things don’t come easily. We get used to early on in our development that doors don’t just open. So you have to work through [it].”
Still, Byrd knows the pandemic is taking its toll on everyone, his students included, and he understands that traditions — even if they come in new forms — offer comfort in difficult times.
He hopes that “The Harlem Nutcracker” will someday become one of those traditions, one that helps Black people feel included in the tradition of “The “Nutcracker” — something that they may have historically felt they could not be a part of.
“Which [traditions] should we keep and which ones should we let go of. The pandemic forces us to make that decision,” said Byrd. “The traditions we want to go back to are the ones that involve family and connection. … Tradition helps us remember we’re not alone in our despair.”