You don’t have to program it during the holidays to sell a bunch of easy tickets. That tactic works for lots of companies though, which made me wonder why. With anything as big as A Christmas Carol, there is more than one reason.
Holidays are full of rituals, marking or assuring the smooth recurrence of the years. Theatre began as ritual observation. A holiday chestnut play that generations of families attend together makes perfect sense.
Almost everyone already knows the story. As sad as it is for those involved in new theatre creation to admit, familiarity is a powerful draw. Usually more powerful than novelty.
But I think the main thing is that beyond its familiarity and ritual appropriateness, A Christmas Carol is a great story. Scrooge is a wonderful instance of a hero on a quest, albeit much older than most questing heroes. His life is at a point of crisis which he just begins to recognize. He has extraordinary experiences, and emerges from them changed, and changed for the better; happier, readier to take a well-integrated place in society. One description of the ethos of drama is “Big things happen and people change.” In A Christmas Carol, we watch Scrooge experience that arc.
So, to save your theatre company, or at least make you and everyone involved in it happier and readier to take a secure place in your community, what can you learn from Scrooge’s experiences?
Scrooge starts from a place of unfocused dissatisfaction with himself and his place in the world. His associates hint to him in ways both subtle and clear that the world offers him an opportunity to live differently; but at the beginning, he isn’t ready to recognize or act on what they are saying. Many arts leaders express a similar vague unease about the state of their organizations. They hear things from their stakeholders – staff members, contract artists, audience members, donors – that they wish they weren’t hearing but can’t quite come to grips with. Many of them are one up on Scrooge in that they have already decided they want to make some kind of change, but the specifics of what to change and how escape them.
First, Marley shows up to crystalize Scrooge’s sense that he is on an imperfect path. You probably wouldn’t have read even this far if you didn’t suspect some undigested bit of beef in your life. Reflect within yourself or ask those who are important to you – what isn’t right? In what way is your life in the arts failing to be the fulfilling adventure it ought to be? What chains are you forging in life that you don’t want to carry with you?
Christmas past takes Scrooge back to earlier times when he had a clearer and warmer view of what his life could be. This gave him a perspective from which to reassess the intervening choices he had made which had taken his life in a different direction. You can confront your own past in a similar way. What were the personal and artistic impulses that drew you into theatre in the first place or led you to found or join your current organization? What effect did you want to have on the world? Those impulses and objectives should change as you learn and mature; but have you allowed any of them to be stripped away unfavorably? What did you used to do early in your artistic life that you don’t get to do anymore? Live with those memories for a while, like Scrooge did, from a place of appreciation and enjoyment. Spend just a little time on what might have gone wrong. Like Scrooge, you won’t actually be able to change that. It already happened. What you can do is come out at the end of the process ready for constructive change.
Christmas Present largely gives Scrooge what a strategic planner would call an environmental assessment. He visits other homes on Christmas day and sees how others behave differently than he does, and what effect that behavior has on their outlooks and their outcomes. Similarly, you can reflect on, or perhaps visit in the flesh, other artists and other artistic institutions whom you admire. Observe and ask about what they do that may differ from your own practices. It is all too easy when thinking about other people or groups to focus on what they may have that you lack. Avoid that during this exercise. You can’t decide to have a longer production history or a municipal government that spends more on the arts. You can decide to emulate and incorporate wise or inspiring practices from other organizations. Your focus should be on what others do that you are not currently doing. Consider whether anything like this that you observe should become a part of your better future.
Christmas Yet To Come offers Scrooge a view of a bleak future which conveys his probable outcome if he continues to behave in accordance with his established patterns. Envisioning a negative feasible outcome can have more power than most people think. It leads to two beneficial things; an opportunity to look forward to upcoming decisions and signpost which lead to the bad case and motivation to make the choices that lead to a better case. It is an artifact of Dickens’ genius that CYTC doesn’t show Scrooge the better possible outcome. No one can tell another with authenticity what right path is best for them. Like Scrooge, it is incumbent on you to choose your own better path, informed and chastened by dwelling, briefly, on what might go wrong.
For Scrooge, the spirits do it all in one night. He has an epiphany and changes. That is, to paraphrase David Lindsay-Abaire, not [usually] how it works (Wonder of the World). Real change, in an individual or an organization, takes commitment, effort, and repetition. Bet you thought I was going to write it takes time, but time by itself isn’t enough. The commitment, effort, and repetition take time in which to work; but without them, time only adds age. What can happen in one night is the recognition that you need to make a change, ideally one small focused change that will make your art and life better and perhaps supply you with a bit of fuel to identify and tackle the next little bit of constructive change you decide to take on.
You may be tempted to dismiss the Scrooge arc because at the end of the experience, all he has to do is start spending wealth he already has. You’re in the arts, so a lack of wealth is probably at least a part of your problem set on a daily basis; however, you lack wealth only in currency. You almost certainly have a wealth of creativity, vision, relationships, or ambition with which you are for some reason playing the miser. Like Scrooge, you can loosen the purse strings on whatever you are holding back and then reap the benefits of what letting it flow into the world brings to you.
If you’re intrigued at all by what you’ve read, you can put yourself through this exercise on any scale. Maybe scribble down some answers to the questions I posed and see whether they give you an idea or two. You could set aside a measured hour for each of the three spirits (and 10 minutes at the beginning for your Marley) and use your ideation method of choice (note taking, rap, interpretive dance?) to interact with each spirit. You could ask friends to be your spirits. You could devise a performance piece then perform it every year at the holidays until it becomes your company’s annual chestnut. Whatever level of engagement seems valuable to you, I hope your time is repaid with some kind of valuable insight. And, of course, God bless us, every one!
Self ordained chaplain of the American theatre.