For generations of Kansas City families attending big shows such as A Christmas Carol, The Nutcracker and The Messiah is a holiday tradition. But these shows are equally important traditions for the organizations that produce them.
One fourth of the people who come to the Kansas City Repertory Theater every year, for example, come between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, says artistic director Eric Rosen. Rehearsals for A Christmas Carol started with a first read-through on Oct. 31 – so when the rest of Kansas City was celebrating Halloween, the Rep’s cast was focusing on Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future.
Besides A Christmas Carol at the Spencer Theatre, the Rep also puts on The Santaland Diaries at the Copaken Stage downtown. A normal cast and crew for a production, Rosen says, might be four actors and four crew members for eight shows a week. All of that changes in November and December.
“We have 35 actors on payroll, 22 people running the show, every shop is booked to capacity remaking costumes, rebuilding sets, remaking video images, working nonstop all the time. We become this giant organization for eight weeks, then we shrink back down to our normal size.”
Downtown at the Kansas City Ballet, there’s also a massive production – and a similar return on investment.
“The Nutcracker is the highest-grossing production we do every year,” says Artistic Director Devon Carney. “It can vary, but in single ticket sales we can get up to around $1.4 million. It really covers a lot of the costs of the lower-grossing performances we do in the rest of the season.”
Performances bring in around 1,500 to 1,600 people for each show, multiplied by about 20 shows. And most of these attendees aren’t the Ballet’s regular audience.
“Around 65 percent of our audiences (for The Nutcracker) are new to seeing Kansas City ballet,” Carney says. “New. Never seen us. It is a great introductory ballet to bring someone in and see what the ballet world is like.”
Accompanying The Nutcracker, of course, is the Kansas City Symphony – but The Nutcracker is just one of many shows in the Symphony’s packed holiday schedule. But over the last two decades, the Symphony has dramatically expanded its holiday offerings to include additional styles of performances and programs, says Executive Director Frank Byrne.
There’s Tuba Christmas, with 650 performers spread out over two noon-time concerts. There’s a pops concert, “Waltzing in a Winter Wonderland.” There’s a special benefit concert, with Chris Mann and Oleta Adams (a benefit for the Mission Project and First Downs for Down Syndrome). There’s the Christmas Festival, with the Symphony and the Chorus performing traditional favorites and an appearance by the big guy in the red suit.
And there’s Handel’s Messiah, when the Symphony and the Symphony Chorus combine with the Independence Messiah Choir – 250 total voices. The Symphony Chorus started those rehearsals back in early November. “It’s really thrilling to hear this many voices in the acoustics of Helzberg Hall,” Byrne says.
The grueling November-December schedule isn’t limited to large organizations.
Christmas in Song at Quality Hill Playhouse, for example, might involve only four performers, but artistic director J. Kent Barnhart adds dates to meet the extra demand.
“We have about 2,000 season subscribers, but more than 5,000 people will see the show over the run,” Barnhart says. The venue seats just 153 people, so each show is intimate, with its own personality. “I try to make it an experience for everyone, so we have all different styles of music: popular, traditional, sacred and secular.”
Barnhart starts figuring out that “personality” in July.
“That’s when I have time to think about it,” he says. “Once Christmas starts there’s really no stopping. We just hit the ground and go for two months.”
For Kansas City’s professional performers, who have little time for anything other than rehearsals and shows in November and December, the payoff is both literal – in the form of overtime checks – and intangible, as in the emotional reward that comes with deep audience appreciation.
“People assume that A Christmas Carol is a ‘cash cow’ for us,” says the Rep’s Rosen, “but it also costs a fortune to put on. One of the things I love about A Christmas Carol is it’s not so much about getting money for us to do other work, it’s about getting money to put into the pockets of Kansas City artists.”
With so many extra performances, actors make much more than they do the rest of the year. Peggy Friesen, who acts and plays the harp, has been in A Christmas Carol for 29 years. She’s played Mrs. Cratchet. She’s played the Ghost of Christmas Past. When she was younger, she played Belle. Now she’s Mrs. Fezziwig.
“Doing A Christmas Carol is really important for every cast member who is in it,” Friesen says.
The Rep is among the nine Kansas City theaters employing members of the Actors Equity union, so it pays a living wage.
“So to get a job at the Rep for any length of time – and A Christmas Carol is a fairly long contract – is very good,” Friesen says. “I mean, I have a pension because of A Christmas Carol and other shows that I’ve done in Equity theaters here and in other places.”
They might be doing their jobs, but these performers know that means they have a special role in Kansas City’s holidays. Geoffrey Kropp has been with the Kansas City Ballet since 2005, where he’s performed almost every male role in The Nutcracker. He started dancing when he was seven, so he’s been in some version of the Nutcracker for 22 years.
“Holiday equals Nutcracker for a ballet dancer, absolutely,” Kropp says. “For a lot of people it’s a tradition they go see every year. We usually have really enthusiastic audiences, which is really great for us – it makes it so much better onstage.”
Back at the Rep, Peggy Friesen says it’s always rewarding when audience members come up after the show and tell her it’s part of their family tradition.
“The audience is like a friend. They come back year after year. I’ve seen families grow up and bring their children. So I feel like I’m doing something very positive even if it takes time away from my family,” Friesen says. “I mean, I’d love to be able to see the Nutcracker, but I can’t! I’ve never been able to.”
For Friesen and other performers in A Christmas Carol, seeing The Nutcracker will have to wait for Christmas future.