December 11, 2018
As with every holiday season, I ventured out to see A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie. Donning my holiday finery (a to-die-for-floor-length sequin shirt and cowboy boots—it was chic—don’t make that face) I scurried through the halls of the theater to take my seat seconds before the lights went down.
And for the next two hours, myself and hundreds of others, were lost in 19th century London. No cell phones, no side conversations. Just pure holiday pageantry.
After 44 seasons of producing A Christmas Carol (and countless more adaptations produced around the world since 1843), the Guthrie’s performance got me thinking: why in the world do we keep doing the same play?
Just like The Nutcracker, A Christmas Carol is a holiday staple that can be seen on every major theater’s calendar year after year. Nostalgia plays a big role in performances like this—whether it’s remembering your own past or glimpsing at days gone by—and it can feel therapeutic to remember the past.
These works are also considered “accessible,” meaning they are open and available to many different people. And the proof of just how many people is in the financials. These types of shows tend to be cash cows for theaters and ballets, helping fund organizations the entire year.
There’s an assumption that a lot of artistic work coming out of theaters, ballets and other performing groups can be difficult to approach and challenging to engage with. And yet, “accessible” work carries a negative connotation of being less rich, less complex and less unique. In essence, work that’s “dumbed down” for the masses to consume.
On the other hand, accessible means that theatergoers can literally and figuratively walk into an experience without fear or difficulty. Leaving the real question: what happens to the attendee once he or she is inside the theater? At the Guthrie, I found myself asking: now that all these people are in the room, where can this play take us?
From my experience, accessible plays are no less rich, complex, murky, joyful, evocative or dark. They just welcome you from where you are and invite you in. They start in a familiar place and often, end up in a strange place. Unfortunately, this year’s production of A Christmas Carol kept us all warm and safely (sleepy?) in our beds. Next year, I hope they bring out a few more monsters from under that bed.
As I think about our own experiential practice at Fast Horse, A Christmas Carol is an important reminder. In a world where clever, creative and shocking often trump the familiar, it doesn’t mean that familiar can’t be effective. In many instances, the familiar is more effective at engaging audiences. The magic lies in where you take them once they’re in the door.