Chamber Music Northwest Imani Winds and BodyVox Beautiful Everything The Reser Beaverton 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


Cascadia Composers May the Fourth be with you Bold new music for winds and piano Lincoln Recital Hall PSU 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.


Portland Opera Puccini in Concert Keller Auditorium 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.

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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, and, 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.

Portland Opera Puccini in Concert Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon
Portland Center Stage at the Armory Coriolanus Portland Oregon
Cascadia Composers May the Fourth be with you Bold new music for winds and piano Lincoln Recital Hall PSU Portland Oregon
Chamber Music Northwest Imani Winds and BodyVox Beautiful Everything The Reser Beaverton Oregon
Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante Voices of Tomorrow Beaverton and Gresham Oregon
Portland Baroque Orchestra Harmony of Nations Concert First Baptist Church Kaul Auditorium Reed College Portland Oregon
Newport Visual and Performing Arts Newport Oregon Coast
Kalakendra Indian Classical Instrumental Music First Congregational Church Portland Oregon
NW Dance Project Moving Stories Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon
Triangle Productions Perfect Arrangement Portland Oregon
Portland Playhouse Passing Strange Portland Oregon
Oregon Repertory Singers Finding Light 50th Season Portland Oregon
Imago Theatre Carol Triffle Mission Gibbons Portland Oregon
Maryhill Museum of Art Goldendale Washington
Portland State University College of the Arts
Bonnie Bronson 2024 Fellow Wendy Red Star Reed College Reception Kaul Auditorium Foyer Portland Oregon
PassinArt Theatre and Portland Playhouse present Yohen Brunish Theatre Portland Oregon
Pacific Maritime Heritage Center Prosperity of the Sea Lincoln County Historical Society Newport Oregon Coast
Portland Art Museum Virtual Sneakers to Cutting Edge Kicks Portland Oregon
High Desert Museum Sasquatch Central Oregon
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