The Price of Being Risky for The Holidays

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 23, 2008

"Talk about risk-taking. I made a decision to open a new theater with two plays by Marlowe and play them through the holidays. So I get the risk award," jokes Michael Kahn of the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Kahn was one of six leaders of area theater companies that Backstage asked to discuss the artistic and financial chances they took on their holiday-season shows -- several of which garnered decidedly mixed reviews and box office results. They staged rarely performed classics, new works or unusual variations on traditional fare, all in the midst of a retail sales dip, rumblings of recession and multiplexes full of Oscar bait.

"If we're not taking risks, what are we doing?" asks Arena Stage's Molly Smith. Her holiday slate featured two world premieres: the musical "The Women of Brewster Place" and "Christmas Carol 1941," set in wartime Washington. "Premieres are notoriously unpredictable, but they're a huge part of who Arena is. . . . It's important for us artistically to produce world premieres," Smith says.

Paata Tsikurishvili also adapted "A Christmas Carol," but using Synetic Theater's dance-oriented, often gothic stagecraft. The director says he had "a hard time balancing Synetic's extremes and family [audience] needs. . . . I was trying not to push the pedal all the way."

Even the most traditional "Christmas Carol" in town, the Ford's Theatre production, took liberties, imagining Charles Dickens himself morphing into Scrooge. "It's by no means a cutting-edge production. The Cratchits aren't all in the nude," jests Producing Director Paul R. Tetreault, yet he recalls losing some patrons when Ford's retired its old production four years ago.

"You look at the downturn in the economy, you look at everything," says Signature Theatre Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer. "I think people forget what a huge risk it is when you're putting on a new play." He says he "was really proud that we did something like" the new dance/play "The Studio" by Christopher d'Amboise and the world premiere of "The Word Begins," a rap piece by performers Steve Connell and Sekou (tha Misfit). Signature's shows were scheduled to run over Thanksgiving, but not Christmas.

At the 400-seat Round House in Bethesda, the holiday offering was an adaptation of "Treasure Island" by Ken Ludwig. "I think it's healthy if things get less than stellar reviews, if they still do well and engage in entertaining audiences," says Artistic Director Blake Robison. "That's the sign of a healthy organization."

How healthy were the six theaters' shows?

Shakespeare's ambitious rep of Christopher Marlowe's "Edward II" and "Tamburlaine" closed Jan. 6 and sold at 75 percent of capacity on average, about 8 percent below its goal, Kahn says. The company had "budgeted for not doing as well this first season" in the new 775-seat Sidney Harman Hall, he adds.

"It was important for me to make a statement about the institution and the fact that we're in a new theater and that we're not going to have to do ordinary programming to fill the house," Kahn says.

Arena reports that "Brewster Place" played to full capacity despite some harsh reviews. James Magruder's "Christmas Carol 1941," averaging about 80 percent of capacity, was still seen by about 26,000 people. Smith says that "artistically, we're extremely happy and financially, I think we're quite happy. We always want to do better, though."

Smith notes that theatergoers seem less swayed by either good or bad notices. "That's not to say that when we get a super review we don't get a change in box office, but not what we saw four years ago," she says, crediting word-of-mouth and the Internet. "There's citizen reviews, there are bloggers, there are just many other avenues through which interested audience members can get information to make their selection," she says.

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