(the first in a series blog by Sean Walbeck, WSCTA Vice President)
So even though I should more specifically focus my first blog entry towards the upcoming Spokane Kaleidoscope of 2011, I find myself distracted by my niece Brydian’s first community theater foray in A Christmas Carol at the Valley Center Stage in North Bend. The distraction comes in two forms, the first that although I want to support the kind of misspent life playing the boards encourages, I may not be able to attend, and the second, I wouldn’t 100% be sad about missing the joyous event in my niece’s creative life.
Supporting our friends and family by attending their plays is a genre of community theatre, after all. While the rest of the theatrical world has realized more actors cost more money and has whittled their cast sizes down to accommodate that economic reality, community theater’s bottom line understands that you cast an actor’s family and friends as audience, so the more the merrier. Anyone of us who has filled their Wizard of Oz munchkin chorus with every auditioning child who mastered the art of simultaneously walking and smiling has embraced this genre, and were it not for the slight hint of impropriety it suggested, the Cratchits could easily be the proud parents of 24 precocious little ones, a full half of them tiny with little crutches god-blessing us, everyone.
Who am I kidding? There’s dozens of versions of A Christmas Carol, some of which are written specifically to pad the cast. Am I right in remembering an orphan chorus more suited for an Oliver Twist musical thanking Mr. Scrooge sarcastically? And how about the version that decided Hunger and Poverty should be a stream of walking-and-smiling kids in rags, marching out of the Ghost of Christmas Present’s robes like clowns out of a car? How many Fezziwig’s parties have you seen expanded from its office party roots to an all-ages event with girls, girls, and more girls showing off the hoofing skills of those rakes of accounting, Young Scrooge and Young Marley? Find me a play publisher catalog, I’ll find you at least three versions of Scrooge’s Nightmare on Undigested Beef with cast size from 10 to a jillion (flexible) available for affordable royalty and a “don’t ask-don’t tell” policy on “script alterations.” You know what version you don’t find at a community theater? Patrick Stewart’s solo performance of all the roles. Why? Cuz Patrick Stewart’s family’s not big enough to fill your house, and the little darlings you didn’t cast are pretending to dance in The Nutcracker down the street and guess who’s in that audience?
The truth is –Christmas pays the bills. Listening to Seattle public radio recently, I heard the Pacific Northwest Ballet Artistic Director speak openly about their Nutcracker representing 25% of their organization’s number of tickets sold and 50% of their income through ticket sales (i.e. more full-price tickets to non-subscribers). Two out of the Big Three in Seattle have “annual holiday traditions” (ACT-A Christmas Carol; Intiman-Black Nativity) and the third wrote a satire about having such a potboiler (Inspecting Carol) that’s performing at a college near me (Western Washington University). When American Theatre annually lists their most produced plays of the non-profit professional theater, you know what they don’t count? Count with me here - (1) adaptations of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and (2) The Chimes (Dickens’ own attempt to cash in on this Xmas gravy train he started); (3)adaptations of O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi. Then (4) A Tuna Christmas (after one year on the list); (5) The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (after several appearances). and (6) The Santaland Diaries (after eight years on the list). (7) Inspecting Carol and variations of (8) It’s a Wonderful Life have also made the list (though not specifically proscribed) so that makes EIGHT titles the pro’s don’t think should count anywhere but the box office. The pro’s learned from us and we learned early in our community theater work – counter programming a non-holiday play in December just reminds you to do a Christmas play next season.
So all that snark indicates why I won’t exactly miss another production of this holiday redemption, but doesn’t alter the fact that my niece and her mother Robin are performing together for the first time a ninety minute drive away. Another descendent dabbling in this art form I’ve dedicated my life to: learning to be comfortable in false clothes and a fake name and repeating everything exactly every time –the frustrating pursuit of perfection that fills your body with adrenalin and your mind with self-doubt. And she’s doing it in a cozy space, with laughably affordable ticket prices to a crowd that’s on her side.
And don’t we go to the theater to have an emotional experience?
Next posts, I talk more about Kaleidoscope and picking scripts, and all sorts of stuff, but to start, I write where I’m at. But while I’m here, don’t take a Christmas show to competition, no matter how good your production is. Adjudicators are at their best when they’ve never seen the play you’re doing before, and frankly, visions of Alistair Sim/Jimmy Stewart/Ralphie/themselves “when I was in” will be dancing in their heads. Hundreds of plays out there without a bathrobe pointing at a tombstone – choose one of those.
Sean Walbeck, VEEP, WSCTA
Theaters mentioned: Valley Centre Stage (North Bend); Pacific Northwest Ballet (Seattle); ACT (Seattle); Intiman (Seattle); Western Washington University (Bellingham)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily anyone else's, particularly not of anyone else on the WSCTA board (even though they might secretly agree).