Chamber Music Northwest Beethoven's Complete Piano Trios The Old Church Portland Oregon

Letter From Seattle: Ho Ho Ho? Or Woe Woe Woe?

Seattle's theater companies are hoping a sleigh full of holiday shows will bring in audiences and help overcome a slow bounceback from the pandemic and a soaring cost of living.

|

Phillip Attmore and Taryn Darr in The 5th Avenue Theatre's production of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas." Photo: Mark Kitaoka
Phillip Attmore and Taryn Darr in The 5th Avenue Theatre’s production of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” Photo: Mark Kitaoka

The holiday season used to plump up the theater box office figures significantly in Seattle, a city with an extra Christmas-crazy plethora of winter entertainment fare. And in a very tough year for many nonprofit theaters in town and throughout the country, the big buffet of theatrical comfort food is back — with high hopes that patrons that will dig in.

After more meager Christmas rations onstage last year, the holiday chestnuts are plentiful now.  ACT Theatre is dusting off its picturesque A Christmas Carol, for the 48th time; and at Erickson Little Theatre, Intiman Theatre is bringing back, after a decade’s absence, Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity, the rousing gospel musical that was an annual Intiman event for more than a dozen years (until 2012). 5th Avenue Theatre is again decking its downtown showplace with White Christmas, a snow-speckled retro-musical based on a 1954 Bing Crosby-Danny Kaye movie and stocked with Irving Berlin tunes (including, of course, the title number).

 On another, shall we say more adult-oriented end of the December entertainment spectrum, the cult fave A Very Die Hard Christmas at Seattle Public Theatre returns (just in time for a re-release of the 1988 Bruce Willis action flick it spoofs). And at ACT Theatre, there’s The Dina Martina Christmas Show — a nearly indescribable, scarily hilarious drag camp-fest communion with a deranged diva, played brilliantly in horror-garish makeup by Grady West for over 25 years. (Think a far more surreal, low-rent, American Dame Edna, with a fanbase that includes John Waters and Bette Midler).

Jeremy Steckler and Ays Garcia in "Georgiana and Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley," half of a holiday two-fer at Taproot Theatre. Robert Wade Photography.
Jeremy Steckler and Ays Garcia in “Georgiana and Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley,” half of a holiday two-fer at Taproot Theatre. Robert Wade Photography.

Festive neo-burlesque? We have that, too: Land of the Sweets: The Burlesque Nutcracker at the Triple Door nightclub.

In a more serious key,  Strawberry Theatre Workshop is encoring Fellow Passengers,  another Dickens Christmas Carol but reimagined as a fable of radicalization rather than simply repentance – in line with Dickens’ deeply critical 19th century view of capitalism. Several veteran Seattle actors play some 50 characters, at 12th Avenue Arts.

And the family-friendly Taproot Theatre is double-decking: On the mainstage is Georgiana & Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice. (It’s a cousin to last year’s 2022 Taproot holiday entry, The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley, by the same writers – who apparently grab every chance to link Jane Austen with Yuletide). In Taproot’s smaller studio space, characters from the “Peanuts” cartoons mark the season in the mini-musical A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Brad Lo Walker with Chloe Michele, Karin Terry, Kooper Campbell, Keola Kapulani Holt, Alexander Kilian, and Alegra Batara in "A Charlie Brown Christmas" at Seattle's Taproot Theatre. Robert Wade Photography.
Brad Lo Walker with Chloe Michele, Karin Terry, Kooper Campbell, Keola Kapulani Holt, Alexander Kilian, and Alegra Batara in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” at Seattle’s Taproot Theatre. Robert Wade Photography.

That’s not all.  You can see the show details and what else is spreading holly jolly on the calendar of the helpful site nwtheatre.org.

Sponsor

Chamber Music Northwest Beethoven's Complete Piano Trios The Old Church Portland Oregon

But will audiences show up for these and other tinselly offerings in large enough numbers to help support the less seasonal, more adventurous fare coming up in the rest of the 2023-24 season?

 It is an intriguing question to ponder, after the tough (to say the least) high pandemic years for the arts.   Eager to win back audiences and woo a cross-section of theatergoers, most stage outfits have yet to find that sweet spot between mass appeal, artistic adventurousness, and multicultural representation.

Early this year Seattle lost a beloved long-running company (Book-It Repertory Theatre), but most theater outfits here have survived and are in their own ways endeavoring to adapt to a New Normal – whatever that is, in a society that in almost every respect (politically, socially, financially) feels fissured and unsettled.

Some good news on the media front: The Seattle Times has hired a veteran and adept local arts critic in Gemma Wilson, who has to cover a lot of territory but specializes in theater. And new Times staffer Margo Vansynghel reports on the  business and economics angle of the arts scene with distinction.

Book-It Repertory Theatre, a longtime Seattle favorite that went out of business earlier this year, had a sterling reputation for its smart and often witty stage adaptations of books, including this 2017 musical version of “Howl’s Moving Castle.” Alabastro Photography
Book-It Repertory Theatre, a longtime Seattle favorite, went out of business earlier this year. Above: The company’s 2017 musical version of “Howl’s Moving Castle.” Alabastro Photography

But with an ever-shrinking amount of print and online coverage, it is clear regional theaters can’t afford to be insular or passive. They have to make their value to the community known somehow, since (anecdotally, at least) many of their once-loyal attendees are still wary of spending a lot of time in largely unmasked public gatherings. To addresses these concerns, some companies are scheduling specific performances that require masking. Some have a new emphasis on ticket affordability, with the idea that those who pay full price will make up for those who shell out $5 or $10 on pay-what-you-can and sliding scale schemes. And some runs are being shortened, or performance nights eliminated, to maximize ticket sales and cut running costs.

But theaters in boomtowns like Seattle encounter additional problems in reclaiming and growing their audiences. High-rise apartments have replaced many theater-handy parking lots.  Restaurants have upped prices significantly,  and a good many spots to get a quick, reasonably priced pre-show meal have shuttered. The traffic (especially in this extra-rainy El Nino year) can be brutal. And Seattle’s cost of living, driven by a lack of affordable housing, is too high (9th in the country in some surveys, 13th in others) for lower-income performing artists to stay or move here.

All this makes drawing in crowds and maintaining strong companies difficult, but not impossible. Theater, like hope, springs eternal.  And according to a quick survey, a lot of those holiday extravaganzas are selling well.

Sponsor

Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

Meanwhile, I’m personally excited about what’s coming to our stages in early 2024. I’ll give you a rundown in a January dispatch.

Be part of our
growing success

Join our Stronger Together Campaign and help ensure a thriving creative community. Your support powers our mission to enhance accessibility, expand content, and unify arts groups across the region.

Together we can make a difference. Give today, knowing a donation that supports our work also benefits countless other organizations. When we are stronger, our entire cultural community is stronger.

Donate Today

Photo Joe Cantrell

Misha Berson, Seattle-based writer and teacher, was the head theater critic for The Seattle Times from 1991-2016. She is the former theater critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and has contributed to American Theatre, Los Angeles Times, Oregon ArtsWatch, Crosscut.com and Salon.com, among other outlets. She is the author of three books, including Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination (Applause/Hal Leonard Books). She was chair of the jury for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, and has been a Pulitzer drama juror three additional times. She has taught at several universities, including Seattle University and University of Washington.

SHARE:
Chamber Music Northwest Beethoven's Complete Piano Trios The Old Church Portland Oregon
City of Hillsboro Walters Cultural Arts Center She's Speaking Live! Hillsboro Oregon
Grace Goudy Distinguished Artists Series Willamette University Salem Oregon
Portland State University College of Arts William Shakespeare Measure for Measure PSU Portland Oregon
Portland Chamber Orchestra Young Artist Competition University of Portland Free Event Portland Oregon
Portland Area Theatre Alliance Fertile Ground Portland Oregon
Portland Art Museum Virtual Sneakers to Cutting Edge Kicks Portland Oregon
Tilikum Chamber Orchestra Lake Oswego High School Fairy Tales and Folk Songs Lake Oswego Oregon
Portland Center Stage at the Armory Quixote Nuevo Portland Oregon
Portland Columbia Symphony Realm of Nature Beaverton and Gresham Oregon
Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon
White Bird Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon
Northwest Dance Project Sarah Slipper Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon
Corrib Theatre Contemporary Irish Theatre Portland Oregon
Seattle Opera The Life and Times of MalcolmX McCaw Hall Seattle Washington
Metropolitan Youth Symphony Music Concert Rooted Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon
White Bird Dance Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall Newmark Theater Portland Oregon
Newport Visual and Performing Arts Newport Oregon Coast
High Desert Museum Sensing Sasquatch Indigenous Art & Knowledge Bend Oregon
Oregon Cultural Trust donate
We do this work for you.

Give to our GROW FUND.