Now let me play the holiday season’s favorite character—Scrooge! That’s the bah humbug part, not the money grubbing, no time off for family and friends part, the part that asks: “Does Washington really need all of these Christmas shows? I mean—really?”.
It’s bad enough that TV has begun airing its traditional favorites from White Christmas and Miracle on 34th Streetto Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, to new favorites likeNational Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and A Christmas Story to newer favorites like The Grinch and The Muppet Christmas Carol, but they are also piling on additional 21st century ones from It’s Christmas, Carol and Hitched for the Holidays to Matchmaker Santa and That Cyborg Santa’s Got an Ax (not really, but a sci-fi fan can dream!).
And it’s even worse that Black Friday, that beginning of Commercial Christmas’s selling season—though not yet an official holiday—has become solidified in our national consciousness as a day where it is our patriotic duty to shop for Santa. Although stores have been starting their sales in Black Friday’s wee hours for 30+ plus years and, then, last year many opened at midnight, this year Target and Walmart moved Black Friday into Thanksgiving Thursday. Pretty soon, those Black Friday sales will have Labor Day in their sights!
And to top it off Fox News has made “The War on Christmas” its annual holiday event, during which its pundits claim that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the idea of Christmas is under siege by atheists and civil libertarians alike, who are out to do away with America’s number one cultural obsession.
So do so many of Washington’s theatres have to make a Christmas show such a cultural given as well? According to my research, this December there are no fewer than 17 professional Christmas shows in the immediate Washington area alone: no fewer than 6 Christmas Carols and 4 Nutcrackers, A White Christmas, a couple of gritty punked out Christmas shows, a Christmas show on the prairie and one in Ireland, a Christmas pageant, and a one-man version of A Wonderful Life. And I’m not even counting the Christmas concerts!
I mean, is all this abundance really necessary? Does it help theatres meet their bottomline? Does it help them fulfill their patriotic duty? Does it help people get into the Christmas spirit? Are Christmas shows like prayers helping us all bring Peace on Earth and Good Will toward Men? If they are, then one would think that there would be a little more evidence that their abundance worked. Last I looked, however, our politicians are still just as gridlocked in their nastiness, the war in Afghanistan still wages on interminably, the Middle East is still on the verge of Armageddon, and traffic in DC is just as hostile as its ever been. Hence, these shows do not seem to be bewitching anyone’s disposition—even briefly.
Theatre critics never mention the cost of a ticket when we write our reviews, almost as if price doesn’t matter and the aesthetics of theatre operate independent of budget and cost. Maybe that’s because we critics don’t pay for tickets, so we never leave a show saying: “I just paid $102 for that! I’d have enjoyed myself more at my child’s Nutcracker or my Great Aunt Nelly’s piano recital!”
The reality is, of course, buying the opportunity to experience a theatrical production is no different than buying a bottle of wine. If I were to shell out $232,692 for a bottle Chateau Lafite (1869) or even $80,000 for a Screaming Eagle Cab (1994) – yes, those really are the latest prices for those wines – it had better have a darn good bouquet and a taste that lasts forever. Whereas, if I go to my local Safeway and buy a Clos Du Bois Chardonnay for $10.99 or a bottle of Three Wishes Chardonnay for $2.99 at Whole Foods, I only expect to relax and enjoy myself a little without a bitter aftertaste. In my youth, a bottle of Boones Farm served one purpose and one purpose only, and it did not have a thing to do with aesthetics.
So let us be honest: when it comes to theatre, price matters. If we pay more for a theatre ticket, we expect more from the show. Top prices at Arena Stage and Shakespeare Theatre are now over one hundred dollars a ticket, whereas at the National Theatre a single ticket approaches $200. Studio Theatre and Woolly Mammoth, on the other hand, charge a mere $60 to $75, whereas a company like Avant Bard (WSC) or a Fall Fringe production charge $30ish and $20ish respectively. Now, we can all admit that when we walk through the doors at Arena or Studio, our expectations are different (and higher) than when we slide into a cheap seat at the Fringe.
The question remains, however, what exactly are theatre-goers expecting for that higher price? I guess the simple answer is: the best that money can buy. I do not know what the exact relationship is between a theatre’s budget and its ticket prices; but generally it seems that the more money a theatre has, through charitable donations, grants, and box office, the more money it has to spend on its productions and the more it charges for its tickets.
So the essential question is: when it comes to theatre, what does all that money buy?
A hot script to be sure. Whereas theatres with fewer resources must rely on tried and true scripts, or obscure risky scripts, or newly invented original scripts, the wealthier theatres can afford to get the rights to that latest gem or enduring blockbuster.
The bigger the budget, the more famous an actor the theatre can hire. How many theatres in Washington could afford the likes of a Stacy Keach or a Cate Blanchett or a Laurence Fishburne or a—you get the picture. A big name doesn’t guarantee expectations being met, but it frequently covers the bet.
If not the big name actor, then a bigger budget ensures a higher quality ensemble—or both. Yes, money definitely opens the door to a plethora of quality actors with more training and experience.
More extraordinary sets and beautiful costumes also cost more. If you are going to witness a helicopter flying around on stage, or a large set piece descending from the sky, or an even larger set piece emerging from the floor, ticket prices have to be higher than a dinner at Applebees.
The richer the theatre, the more luxurious the theatre experience. Now, this expectation might be more true of Washington than any other city in America because Washingtonians, who have grown used to the comforts of government largess, expect no less from their entertainments. Thus, theatre lobbies need to be large and well equipped, guaranteeing that a production’s half time show is not a cigarette in a dark alley.
The costlier the ticket, the richer the audience. As prices escalate, the professional theatrical experience becomes increasingly limited to a wealthier and wealthier clientele. Of course, theatre managers understand this fact; hence, theatres offer a host of reduced-priced ticket opportunities, from Ticketplace to Living Social to Goldstar to discounts for theatre-goers 35 and under to Pay-What-You-Can nights.
Ultimately, however, more theatrical money produces a more monied aesthetic. For, to be sure, money brings with it its own idea of beauty. If we set aside the creative factor—which I never like to do by the way, but let’s set it aside this once—money in theatre, like money in politics, can make a dull idea look interesting and bright and thought provoking and thus a joy to behold. In other words, that expensive look, supported in part by those high-ticket prices, can gloss over an Everest of “been theres, done thats, so who cares?”
I don’t know if we critics ought to start mentioning the price of admission when reviewing a show. Saying, “For $25, it ain’t a bad show!” doesn’t really sound like an endorsement; but a ticket’s price should at least filter into the equation, as it already does for many theatre-goers or would-be-theatre-goers who then decide to save that $100 bucks for their kid’s college fund. And I say that even though I know that money cannot make a show worth seeing or memorable. Creativity and empathy do that! It’s the story that does that! So remember, while some of the most creative and most empathetic people don’t make squat for their artistic labor, they can be found at theatres anywhere and at any time.
In this season of spending and economic uncertainty, as you wrestle with which holiday show you want the family to see, I’m sure you’ll consider the price tag of that Nutcracker or Christmas Carol. Rest assured, that if you go for the lower priced Tiny Tim, no one will consider you a Scrooge for doing so.
Though not quite standing room only, the Strathmore was packed from its crowded orchestra to its fourth tier balcony; even some of the throwback box seats elevated along the sides of this enormous structure had audience peaking over the rails. The stage was empty, however. The chorus had not yet arrived. The orchestra was nowhere in sight. “Where were the instruments?” the audience might have asked. “The piano and the big bass drum?” Were the two performers going to sing a cappella?
As it turned out, poet Wallace Stevens’ famous line, “Music is feeling, then, not sound,” was more than apropos for this occasion, as our two performers were not singers, but poets; and the thousand plus eager ears in the audience were yearning not for the sonorous chords of an oboe or a lute, but for the small wonders of two of America’s most famous bards: Billy Collins and Mary Oliver (who is, by the way, of no relation to this critic).
As a poet and performer myself, I have long bemoaned most poets’ inability to engage a live audience, almost as if years of academia had trapped their voices within the books they are constantly reading. To be sure, with the emergence of performance poetry—slam and spoken word—that lack of a live voice is disappearing. With the gain, however, comes a countering decline in poetry’s essential solitude—its ability to question the rawness of experience. Oh, how I hoped that Collins and Oliver would strike a balance or bridge a synthesis between those paradoxical necessities!
And did they ever, bringing to life on the Strathmore stage the sublime solitary of poetic expression while at the same time embodying its desire for community. By the end of the event, Collins and Oliver stood before satisfied ears to a thundering ovation.
Much has been made of Hillary Rosen’s recent comment about Ann Romney never having “worked a day in her life.” Even though everyone knew she was speaking of working outside the home for pay, the republicans made much of the comment, saying it was an attack on motherhood.
In January, however, in New Hampshire Mitt Romney said that poor mothers who get federal assistance should be required to go to “work”. Yes, “to work” to borrow that phrase used by Hillary Rosen. Romney’s political approach (and now its the approach of the whole republican party) has become the theatre of lies. (And, yes, the democrats are only one step behind I must say.)
To believe anything that is said these days in the political sphere requires such a huge “suspension of disbelief” that it can not longer be “willing”. Kool Aid is needed–two doses!