A User’s Guide to Stay-At-Home Holiday Theater
Audio plays, Zoom performances, and other ways theater companies are getting creative with their seasonal fare
In the world of performing arts, the holiday season traditionally promises low anxiety (since there’s no need to agonize over what shows to program) and high financial returns (because audiences come back every year). This time around, of course, local companies are under heretofore unfamiliar stress — the coronavirus pandemic has nixed many perennial favorites, chief among them the Joffrey Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker, which would have been the show’s first staging at the Lyric Opera House. But artistic institutions are finding novel ways to present their holiday staples, even if they look (or sound) a little different from previous years. Here are four top picks.
The Goodman Theatre’s annual production is the longest-running holiday play in Chicago; the Dickens favorite has rung in the season since 1978. The company discussed staging the show without an audience to capture on video, says executive producer Roche Schulfer, but the large cast and crew would likely have violated safety guidelines. So this year, Goodman will present A Christmas Carol as an audio drama, with Jessica Thebus directing a cast that includes new faces — er, voices — and familiar ones (Larry Yando, pictured, keeps his own streak going, in his 13th year as Scrooge). The production will be available for free listening at goodmantheatre.org from early December through Christmas, though if you’re moved to open your purse strings like Ebenezer at the story’s end, donations will be welcome.
The ensemble-based American Blues Theater holds second place for long runs (19 years and counting) with its adaptation of Frank Capra’s classic movie, performed as if the audience is in attendance at a live radio broadcast in the 1940s. The energy and ephemerality of the in-person experience are so important to the company, says artistic director Gwendolyn Whiteside, that ABT will attempt to bring them to the virtual plane: The cast will assemble live on Zoom for five performances a week from November 12 through January 2. Tickets to view the livestreamed performances range from $25 to $75.
The late choreographer Ruth Page’s version of the dreamy, candy-colored ballet was originally presented at the Arie Crown Theatre from 1965 to 1997. (In more recent years, it’s been staged by Ruth Page Civic Ballet at Northeastern Illinois University’s North Park campus.) A Nutcracker Retrospective: Past, Present & Future, a new documentary on the production’s long history, will be available to stream from November 27 to December 31 ($20 at ruthpage.org). And from December 4 to 20, the Ruth Page Center for the Arts on the Near North Side will welcome visitors for Visions: A Nutcracker Experience, a socially distanced guided tour through the five-story complex, where attendees will encounter toy soldiers, the Sugar Plum Fairy, and other figures from Clara’s dreams, plus see excerpts of Page’s work performed by live dancers. Tickets are $45 for adults and $25 for kids 12 and under.
Ensemble member Mary Zimmerman, a Tony-winning director and MacArthur “genius” grant recipient known for visual spectacle, adapted this lesser-known Hans Christian Andersen tale about a toy soldier and a paper ballerina into an hourlong holiday pantomime that premiered at Lookingglass Theatre in 2018 to universal raves. That initial run sold out so quickly that the company brought it back for a longer engagement in 2019. For 2020, an archival video of the production will be available to stream at home starting in December. The dialogue-free storytelling, with the narrative conveyed entirely through movement and whimsically designed puppetry, makes Soldier accessible to younger kids — even more so when you can hit pause for potty breaks. Info on exact dates and pricing was not available at presstime; for details, visit lookingglasstheatre.org.