There are over 50 holiday shows in Chicago this year, but who's profiting off of them?

December 15, 2011

When I first set out to list every holiday show performed in the Chicago-area this season, and the reviews written about them, I thought it'd be a manageable project. I assumed there'd be maybe twenty or so, even though a smaller part of me knew that there were definitely more than twenty out there; they just all blurred together, like the many reviews I read during a given week.

But then the list started to drag on.

As I culled from many different sources, I asked our dance writer Laura Molzahn to send me the dance shows I was missing, and then there were the comedy shows I'd forgotten, and finally, I had an Excel spreadsheet with over 50 shows in it, some of which I had never even heard of, or read reviews of. I was less surprised by the three or four different versions of A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker (both the dance and the play) cropping up all over town.

With so many options for theater-goers this holiday season, I wondered if these productions are even profitable for the various companies that produce them.

General lore posits that the holidays are a great time for performing arts venues. After all, you've got all that family, and the theaters, if nothing else, give you somewhere to put them - quiet and behaved and entertained, at least for a few hours.

When I put this question out to our theater bloggers, Dueling Critic Jonathan Abarbanel was doubtful I'd get anyone "to talk cash" with me. He was right. But he also said the numbers do speak for themselves.

"There certainly is a reason more and more theaters do these shows each year, and generally return to the same ones," Abarbanel noted. 

Abarbanel pointed out that productions like The Santaland Diaries and Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer are popular even if the company that's putting them up isn't, which still allows them to pack-in the crowds at smaller, less trafficked venues (Theater Wit and Hell in a Handbag, at Mary's Attic, respectively).

But when Molzahn interviewed Mark Yonally of Chicago Tap Theatre, and asked whether the holiday-themed "Tidings of Tap" was a "cash cow" for the company, she was told no. 

“Most of our shows come very close to breaking even—or actually break a profit," Yonally told her. "We try to do shows that we think the audience will want to see.” Which means holiday-themed ones, right audience?

Every year, the Goodman produces arguably one of the most high-profile of the Chicago holiday productions. But Denise Schneider, publicity director for the theater, points out that the production isn't exactly profitable for them, given that they're a non-profit. But, she does argue that the company does well off of A Christmas Carol in "myriad ways non-monetary—most importantly, that it has served as the entry point to theater for generations (plural) of Chicagoans." The hope is that if you go see A Christmas Carol, you'll have warm, fuzzy thoughts about the Goodman and return back for some of their less family friendly productions. A gateway theater experience,  if you will.

For smaller companies, a holiday show is more of a risk. Robert Bouwman of Corn Productions, responsible for this year's Happy Holly-daze, said that the Cornservatory hadn't done a holiday show "in a long while", opting to rent out the theater for that cash instead. But this year, they're hoping that the success of their other holiday-themed shows (St. Patrick's Day, New Year's Eve and Valentine's Day) will rub off on this season as well.

So whether or not the companies are making money off of them, what should you go see?

Well, the most positively reviewed productions actually include a pretty healthy mix of larger and smaller shows. A Christmas Carol (the Goodman edition), Season's Greetings from Northlight, Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer, and The Santaland Diaries are all solid bets. Others worth checking out include Hannukatz the Musical from National Pasttime, Charles Dickens Begrudgingly Performs "A Christmas Carol." Again. from Building Stage, and The Christmas Schooner at Mercury.

But the question remains: Is more always better? I wonder if the companies behind these shows, which seem to be trying to capitalize off of the season, lose out on potential profits simply due to reviewer fatigue -- or audience disappointment -- neither of which dissipate just because there's tons of holiday cheer being forced down our throats year after year.

For instance, a friend of mine attended The Santaland Diaries over the weekend, which she thoroughly enjoyed. But she noted that one of the funniest moments was when actor Mitchell Fain asked the audience if any of them had actually been expecting author David Sedaris to be there.

The response? A few sheepishly raised hands, and a big laugh.

Perhaps these holiday shows should come with a warning label: Like the presents you get on Christmas morning, your expectations of a holiday show may be greater than the bounty you're about to receive.

***

Below is a list of all holiday shows playing in Chicago this season (excluding your child's very important holiday pageant). I'll be clear: this study was more qualitative than quantitative, so please feel free to point out any errors on my part. I admit that once I delved into this project, it was a little more than overwhelming, so comments about my grievous errors are welcomed -- let's get this list to one hundred.

And for your interest, here are the critic's holiday picks from the Chicago Reader, the Sun-Times, TimeOut, the Tribune (here and here), and of course, WBEZ.

THEATER/COMEDY

The Santaland Diaries (Theater Wit) 

The Eight Reindeer Monologues (Theater Wit) 

A Klingon Christmas Carol (Commedia Beauregard) 

A Christmas Carol: The Silent Bah-Humbug (Silent) 

Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer (Hell in Hand) 

Hannukatz, the Musical (National Pastime) 

The Gift of the Magi (American Players) 

St. Nicholas (Next) 

Charles Dickens Begrudgingly Performs "A Christmas Carol." Again. (Building Stage)

A Christmas Carol (Goodman) 

A Christmas Story: The Musical (Chicago Theatre) 

The Pirates of Penzance (Hypocrites) 

Our Holiday Stories (16th Street) 

Burning Bluebeard (Neo-Futurists) 

A Beer Carol (Drinking & Writing) 

Another Night Before Christmas (Theatre at the Center) 

The Christmas Schooner (Mercury) 

El Stories: Holiday Train (Waltzing Mechanics) 

Donny & Marie: Christmas in Chicago (Oriental Theatre) 

It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play (ATC)

Irving Berlin's White Christmas (Marriott)

Striking 12 (Heartland Studio) 

The Teeny Lounge Presents: 2011 Winter Pageant (Redmoon)

Lit! (GayCo) 

The Second City's Dysfuntional Holiday Review

The Nativity (Congo Square) 

Joy! (iO) 

Fa La La La, F--- It (Annoyance) 

A Very Sci-Fi Christmas (Chemically Imbalanced) 

Twist-a-Carol II: Moby-Nick (Vex) 

It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph (ABT)

A Christmas Carol (Citadel)

A Christmas Carol (Metropolis) 

Tinsel! The musical (Lil' Buds Theatre) 

The Santa Stories: The Nice One/The Naughty One (pH productions) 

Silent Night of the Living Dead (Theater Wit) 

The Match Girl (Overshadowed productions) 

The Annoyance Christmas Pageant 

Happy Holly-daze (Cornservatory) 

Let it Ho! (Off Off Broadzway)  

Christmas in Chicago (Chicago Dramatists) 

Junie B. Jones in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells! (Emerald City) 

The Nutcracker (House Theatre)

That's Weird, Grandma! Holiday Round (Barrel of Monkeys

DANCE

The Nutcracker (Joffrey) 

The Nutcracker (Salt Creek Ballet)

The Nutcracker (Civic Ballet of Chicago)

Tidings of Tap (Chicago Tap Theatre)

Winter Break Down (Louder Than Your Christmas Sweater) (Be the Groove)

Concierto Familiar (Ensemble Espanol Spanish Dance Theater)

Night Roars Performance Cabaret (Striding Lion)

The Nutcracker (Ballet Chicago)

The Great Russian Nutcracker (Moscow Ballet)