I really miss A Christmas Carol.
It makes regional theater make sense to me. Holiday shows of all kind, really, but – Christmas Carol holds a special place in my heart. I’ve worked on over a dozen holiday shows over the years, including 7 Carols. The first one, I was an intern armed with a major in social history and dazzled my superiors with my deep understanding of Malthusian economics and the role of women and wives in 19th century England and a sense of how completely ruined the Cratchits would be if Bob lost his situation with Scrooge. Well, I was dazzled. Somehow I had managed to make it to 23 years old without ever reading or seeing a version of Christmas Carol. As a nice Jewish girl from Long Island, it just never came up before that. I learned in school that the purpose of theater is to delight, to educate, and to move. Good golly, A Christmas Carol does all that.
But, that’s not what I miss.
I miss the audience. I miss watching them feel together as a group in the dark something wonderful come of the story.
My first year at Actors Theater of Louisville, there was a blizzard (ok – it was a good snowstorm, but Kentucky totally FTFO). An e-mail went out to the staff asking for help ushering the show that night. I had nowhere to be, and figured it would be an ironic mitzvah for me to hang out and pitch in. There were almost no empty seats that icy night. In front of me was a family that had braved the weather. Two grandparents, two sets of parents, and 5 kids. The littlest girl, maybe 6, started to cry when Marley’s ghost howled in rage and rattled his chains. She moved into her dad’s lap, and the grandfather looked at the dad and smiled. Was he saying, “I remember when you climbed into my lap.”? I think so. I don’t know, really. But, I think so. I spoke to them at intermission. It was their 17th year attending the show. By the end of the show, the girl was singing and cheering.
There are many shows I’ve loved to watch or read or work on or all of it, and I have been thrilled to see many audiences connect to or even go nuts for our work. But, that night has stayed with me. With that show we acknowledged our long-standing relationship with our regional audiences in a truly beautiful and profound way, but I’m not sure we always appreciate it. I was the dramaturg for the show every year I was there because I wanted to be near the community feeling, and I wanted to make sure my interns experienced it as well. Yes, sure, holiday shows are our cash-cows. They often get pawned off on a staff director to save money and cast with a ton of kids to pander to local parents and as many non-eqs as you can legally hire. That is all true, and what I hope we remember is that it was that 6 year old’s whole family had been coming for years. That they loved it so much, that it was as part of their tradition as anything. That they and their neighbors drove through the snow to get there.
We all want to do shows that people want to see over and over again and for which they’d drive through a blizzard. But how much and how are we thinking about our audiences when we program our seasons? In the 20 years I’ve been in season planning meetings, I’ve often felt we are afraid of them or disappointed in them. I’ve also been in season planning meetings where no one (including me ever, not having worked with the Jews of Long Island) in the room is actually from or involved in the community. So we sit in a conference room and pretend we can predict what they might like/buy without talking with them about what is important to them or us. We don’t ask often enough why we do this work where we do. And we certainly don’t ask often enough who it is we are doing this work for. We forget we are their local theater. We exist for them.
Is there another show that provides such a deep sense of community than some almost 200 year old novella where an enormous cast of people dress in big hats and pretend they’re English – and – a kid may die? That’s pretty risky, maybe even a little edgy. It also often the show that theaters try nontraditional casting (there was a particularly unthought out Carol I saw years ago where Scrooge was white, younger Scrooge was Latino, and child Scrooge was African-American – think about it, wait for it, there you go), but even so, if you want to get on it for being patriarchal and too Christian and representative of white privilege, I won’t really stop you. Nu. And, if you want to fight with me that holiday shows should be free to or a fundraiser for our communities instead of regional theaters cash-cows – come on along. We’ll lose. But it is a good fight. For the ganze mishpoche.
There was a time when theater was the center of cultural and communal conversation, and we may not be back there ever. But, there must still be a craving there if someone buys 11 tickets and drives through the snow instead of just watching Alasdair Sims or George C. Scott or Mr. Magoo. There are families that want to cry together when Bob recalls walking faster with Tim on his shoulder than he can now that his son is dead – or cheer and cry harder, together, when Scrooge’s reclamation is complete and he becomes a second father to Tiny Tim, who did not die.
I miss it.
This blog salon is curated by David J. Loehr, the editor and artistic director of 2amt. For more posts and conversations surrounding audience & community engagement, and other ways of “thinking outside the black box”, visit the 2amt website, or engage on Twitter at #2amt and @2amt.
Julie Felise Dubiner is the Associate Director of American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. From 2004-2010, Julie was the Resident Dramaturg at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Prior to Louisville, she was in Philadelphia as Project Manager of The Rosenbach Company and Dramaturg at the Prince Music Theater. Before that, in Chicago she freelanced for Defiant, blue star, Steppenwolf and others. Julie holds degrees from Tufts and Columbia and has taught at University of Evansville, Walden Theatre, University of the Arts, the Philadelphia public schools and Chicago Dramatists. Julie has been a guest dramaturg at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference, the New Harmony Project, the Kennedy Center/KCACTF, and elsewhere. She is a co-editor of a couple of volumes of Humana Festival anthologies and a co-author of The Process of Dramaturgy. She is a Board Member of LMDA and is the lead mentor for the Early Career Dramaturgs.