Going to a holiday show is a secular ritual undertaken by thousands of Americans each year. Add holiday shows to the long list of lost engagement in the arts during this pandemic. From an audience perspective, is the holiday experience different than the rest of the season? What is lost when audiences miss out on holiday shows this year?**
Many of us in the arts are cynical about holiday productions. But these performances are meaningful in the lives of our audiences and I think should be respected as such. In her 2003 book Nutcracker Nation, Jennifer Fisher interviews audience members who give great thought as to what the ballet means to them, spinning in-depth interpretations of the characters, marveling at the virtuosity of the performers and describing the importance of going to The Nutcracker as celebrating the passage of time in their lives. Even for those audiences that see holiday shows as entertainment, the experience goes deeper than just a fun few hours.
I’ve been thinking about these particular losses for audiences missing holiday performances:
Practicing tradition with family and friends. Studies from the National Endowment for the Arts again and again show that socializing with friends and family is by far the most frequently cited motivation for arts attendance (as in this most recent publication, Why We Engage: Attending, Creating and Performing Art, see Exhibit 1) . Many families go to see a holiday show as a way of spending quality time together, often going back year after year. It’s “just what they do”, part of the cluster of activities that make the holiday season special for them, different from the time they spend together during the rest of the year. Seeing a show is something they’ve personalized: they always go to that restaurant, the kids get to pick out something at the gift shop (a “talisman”, in Fisher’s words, p. 204), they have favorite parts of the performance they look forward to. Audiences turn over the experience in their minds during the rest of the year and reminisce about it. It marks their time together.
Building community. Holiday performances often involve a broader community than a “regular” performance. Whether it’s a chorus performing Handel’s Messiah, a theater company (professional or amateur) performing Black Nativity or A Christmas Carol, or a ballet company or school performing The Nutcracker, or myriad other options for holiday fare, there are more participation and volunteer opportunities during holiday shows. Friends and connections are made that continue through the year. Depending on the community and who is performing, a significant portion of the audience are there to support and celebrate their family members, friends, classmates, colleagues and neighbors in their efforts onstage and off. 66% of Americans attend arts events to support a community organization or event (again, Why We Engage: Attending, Creating and Performing Art, see Exhibit 1). Holiday shows are exactly the kind of event that provides an opportunity to support the community. Fisher writes extensively about the communities that are created around The Nutcracker amongst the wide range of people that it takes to put on a Nutcracker, even in an amateur production. The people she engaged with in writing her book described the Nutcracker’s “potential to forge community spirit, even if it was sometimes a temporary, tenuous thing.” (p. 173)
Once-a-year arts experience. 54% of Americans attend an arts event each year (NEA Survey of Public Participation in the Arts 2017). Most attend only once per year. Since the holiday shows are often the most highly attended at arts organizations, a holiday show is likely that one time per year. For many it’s their only live professional arts experience of the year, or maybe their only live arts experience at all. Kids will be missing what might be their first or infrequent arts experience, either through their school or with family. Increased likelihood of having someone to go with (lacking someone to go with is a barrier to arts participation) and previous experience with attending make a holiday show the arts experience with the lowest barrier and highest social return. It’s also one of the most accessible arts offerings. Fisher writes about how The Nutcracker offers a connection to ballet for people that normally feel disconnected from ballet. “The dual personality of The Nutcracker surfaced again and again – it was elite but accessible, serious but fun, decorative but meaningful.” (p. 51)
Enterprising families may replace their holiday arts attendance tradition with something else. The easiest would be to watch a virtual equivalent – plenty of Nutcrackers will be streaming online. Family arts activity kits have been one of the highlights of this time. Baltimore Center Stage and other theaters collaborated to commission plays for families to read at home. I’d love to see arts organizations and new ventures like Artistic Stamp creating holiday kits, especially those that help us all learn more about holiday traditions beyond our own cultures. Not that outside help is necessarily needed – maybe the kids will make up their own Nutcracker and put on a play for their bubble family. Maybe groups of friends will hold Zoom readings of The Santaland Diaries together.
And arts organizations may very well find viable ways to produce holiday shows. In my opinion, it would be a worthy undertaking since it’s normally one of the largest audiences and because of the reasons I describe above, especially the value of holiday shows in family traditions. But like anything these days, it should be approached as an experiment, with low revenue expectations so as to be pleasantly surprised by any financial success. While some audiences would roll with changes, putting the opportunity for connection and community first, some would decline to participate until it was back to normal.
Let me also acknowledge that the holidays and holiday shows are fraught, even painful for some people. It’s not a happy family time for everyone. Some of the frequently produced holiday shows are problematic in a variety of ways or downright racist or misogynistic. Let’s have a zero tolerance policy on cultural appropriation and oppression this year and forever into the future. While some audience members will protest changes to shows over which they feel great ownership, holiday shows provide a unique chance to lead and educate a large segment of audiences at a time when they are looking to build community and connect.
So the holidays don’t need to be canceled in the arts. I don’t think they could be anyway because they mean too much to our audiences. Sure, it will look different. Sure, we will mourn what we’ve lost. But then we’ll get on with it and adapt together – perhaps starting new traditions.
**If September seems too soon to think about this, let’s remember that the cancellation announcements for holiday shows started in late spring. I’m sure that arts organizations have been making plans since March about how to stay a part of their audience’s lives during the holidays at the same time that they are figuring out how to cope with the significant lost revenue. Artists of course immediately knew that they were losing a big income source without holiday performances.