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November 27, 2023 Arts Biz

Theaters hope holiday shows provide much-needed box office sales boost

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED Cast members from “A Christmas Carol” perform at the Hartford Stage. The play returns to Hartford Stage this year for the first time since 2019.

Holiday shows have traditionally provided a major financial boost to Connecticut theaters, but this year — with audiences still not returning to pre-pandemic levels — industry executives are anxiously tracking ticket sales for their perennial attractions.

Productions like Hartford Stage’s “A Christmas Carol” and TheaterWorks Hartford’s “Christmas on the Rocks” are trying to draw back still-reluctant theatergoers, who have not fully returned to live performances for a variety of reasons, ranging from a pandemic-induced shift in entertainment habits to lingering wariness of large crowds.

“The stakes are high,” said Cynthia Ryder, managing director of Hartford Stage. “‘A Christmas Carol’ is always important to Hartford Stage, but it’s even more important now because it brings the largest audience to the theater.”

Cynthia Ryder

Ryder said the show attracts two demographic groups: Families and those who typically don’t go to the theater — both critical audiences for the 500-seat venue to return to pre-pandemic ticket sales and revenues.

So far this season, which kicked off in October with an adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice,” Hartford Stage’s subscriptions, or season ticket sales, are down more than $1 million from pre-pandemic levels, and “making up for that is a challenge,” Ryder said.

Subscription numbers this year are running comparable to last season, she noted.

Entering its 23rd holiday season since 1998, “A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas,” has traditionally generated nearly 20% of Hartford Stage’s annual $3.6 million in ticket revenue.

This year, early benchmarks are encouraging, Ryder said, with the holiday production estimated to generate about 25% of total box office revenue for Hartford Stage’s nine-month season that runs through June.

“So far, we’re ahead in our [sales] tracking of any other year,” said Ryder, adding that advance sales have been solid with increases not only in single- and multiple-ticket purchases, but also in group and school bookings.

The show has not been presented since 2019, sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic.

All live productions were put on hold during most of 2020. In 2021, with some pandemic restrictions still in place, Hartford Stage presented a modest production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” “which did not attract the audiences that ‘A Christmas Carol’ usually brings,” said Ryder. “There also wasn’t a demand for that show for student matinees.”

Hartford Stage leaders stuck with “It’s a Wonderful Life” for a second season in 2022, before returning to the family-friendly and community-centric “A Christmas Carol” this year.

The production has revived student-matinee ticket sales, which are a significant part of the show’s overall revenue during its approximately four-week run, from Nov. 24 to Dec. 24.

Demand has been so high that the theater has increased the number of student shows to 11, Ryder said.

“A Christmas Carol” debuted at Hartford Stage in 1998, when then-incoming Artistic Director Michael Wilson wrote and directed a stage adaptation of the Charles Dickens novella. (Wilson has returned this season to direct the show again for the first time in many years.)

The initial investment in 1998 was much higher than a typical production costs, but was amortized over several years with the hope that the show would run five, or perhaps even 10 seasons.

It’s now in its 23rd year.

The play has far exceeded those initial expectations and attracted — pre-pandemic — around 20,000 theatergoers each holiday season. More than 400,000 visitors have seen at least one of its 1,000-plus performances, easily making “A Christmas Carol” the most produced theatrical production in Connecticut.

This year’s production features Allen Gilmore playing Scrooge for the first time.

Allen Gilmore

Because the production has not been presented in four years, and with a principally new cast, the show’s cost this year has been higher with more rehearsals than usual.

“There are more costs in producing it this year than in years past,” said Ryder, “but financially we will still net about $150,000.”

The show’s annual income, she noted, also depends on where Thanksgiving falls on the calendar, which determines the number of income-generating performances.

TheaterWorks’ holiday show

Holiday programming is also vitally important to TheaterWorks Hartford, which annually presents its cheeky and popular “Christmas on the Rocks” as alternative holiday programming at its 200-seat theater.

During the pandemic shutdown in 2020, the theater presented an online version of the show, and then brought back the live production in 2021. Ticket sales have increased each year since then, edging to pre-pandemic levels, said Freddie McInerney, TheaterWorks’ director of marketing and communications.

“We see an entirely different audience for this show,” which helps draw in new theatergoers, McInerney said.

For the show’s 2020 online production, it wasn’t clear what the response was going to be for the untested platform, McInerney said.

Although it didn’t bring in pre-pandemic revenues, it still managed to earn more than $100,000 in sales. (In 2019, it grossed $219,000, attracting nearly 5,000 theatergoers.)

Since TheaterWorks returned to live performances of the holiday show in 2021, the numbers have increased, and last year it generated close to $200,000 in revenues.

“So far, we’re ahead of where we were last year,” said McInerney. “This may be the year when we actually perform at pre-pandemic levels.”

This will be the 11th season for “Christmas on the Rocks,” which changes slightly each year with new actors.

Richard Kline

This year, Richard Kline, best known for his role in the 1970s-80s TV sitcom “Three’s Company,” joins the three-person cast. The show runs from Nov. 29 to Dec. 23.

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