Christmas is coming; the goose is getting fat. Please put a penny in some local shows that have nothing to do with that.
Of course, this holiday season brings the usual Grinches, Scrooges and Nutcrackers. “I’d program ‘A Christmas Carol’ tomorrow if the Guthrie weren’t doing it,” said Flordelino Lagundino, artistic director of Park Square Theatre in St. Paul.
But since that popular title is claimed, many Twin Cities area theaters are pivoting away from tidings of comfort and joy. In some cases, they’re practically running in the opposite direction.
The very title of “Animus” promises animosity, between two women in a complex relationship. Carols may herald December’s “goodness and light,” but it’s not lost on the creators of “Animus” that the darkest days are this month. That’s why the performances include a show on Dec. 21 — the longest night of the year, the winter solstice.
“It’s a dark piece, being done at a time when most of the work we see is lighter,” said Emily Michaels King, who will perform the eerie play at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis with co-creators Deb Berger and Amber Johnson. “But we really feel like the harshness and darkness of ‘Animus,’ and the psychological aspects, reflect this time of year when it’s cold and the days are shorter.”
Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” in which a woman has a nervous breakdown, King said “Animus” rings true because it speaks to “the difficult, lonely feelings that can come up at the holidays, and the complexities of interpersonal relationships we often face then.”
A happy accident
The show’s Dec. 14-22 run is an accident of scheduling, King said.
That was also true in 2013, when Dark & Stormy Productions offered “The Receptionist,” a psychological drama about an office that is not as benign as it initially seems. Sally Wingert played the title role.
“We talked with Sal and everybody about their schedules and the best time seemed to be mid-December through the first weekend in January,” said Dark & Stormy artistic director Sara Marsh, who acted in “Receptionist” and is in this year’s “Blackbird,” a play that’s even bleaker. “It ended up working perfectly. It sold like gangbusters. And it was interesting that immediately after that show, which was only our third show, we became known as the company that does holiday counterprogramming. That show filled a void I wasn’t quite aware existed.”
Dark & Stormy has continued to fill that void with December productions of “The Hothouse,” “The Norwegians” and now “Blackbird,” in which Marsh’s character confronts a man (played by Luverne Seifert) who exploited her many years earlier.
“I would love to say it was some grand plan of mine, but, honestly, it was people saying, ‘It’s great that there’s an alternative to all of the holiday stuff going on,’ and me being, like, ‘Everyone is smarter than I am. I will take that to heart,’ ” said Marsh of her darkness-for-the-holidays strategy. “It really worked, so it became a conscious thing.”
Marsh — whose résumé also includes the Hallmark movie “Love Always, Santa” — thinks the Twin Cities’ rich tradition of holiday entertainment makes counterprogramming work because it has built an audience that enjoys seasonal shows but occasionally wants something different.
The creators of “Animus” are banking on that phenomenon, too. “Typically, I don’t have a lot of holiday spirit,” King said. “Doing this piece is actually bringing some of that spirit to life in me as a contrast to what we have going on in rehearsals. It’s so dark that I’m appreciating the light around us.”
Finding that balance is the key elsewhere, too.
History Theatre did fine with its hopeful “Orphan Train” one February, but the show soared in three holiday runs. “There’s nothing in it about Christmas, except the value of people loving, and helping find a home for, children, but that was one of our biggest sellers,” said artistic director Ron Peluso.
This year he has “Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee Story,” which includes a brief holiday scene, as it did when the theater staged it two autumns ago. “We were trying to work around [star Tyler Michaels’] schedule and we need something that makes dollars and cents at the holiday,” he said.
The key element, he said, is redemption.
“We were just joking about doing Jeff Hatcher’s play about the first public execution in Minnesota, a woman who was hanged two blocks from the theater, as a holiday show — not!” deadpanned Peluso. “You don’t want to have to put speed bumps in the aisles to keep people from running out. It has to be something that fills their hearts with joy.”
There’s plenty of joy at Park Square, hoping for a holiday hit with “Marie and Rosetta,” about gospel, blues and rock pioneer Rosetta Tharpe.
Last year the theater presented “Dot,” a holiday-set family drama, but it wasn’t a great fit, possibly because audiences expected something more festive than a story about a matriarch with Alzheimer’s. Another experiment Park Square won’t repeat is “Of Mice and Men.” (“Come see a dog get shot for Christmas, right?” joked executive director Michael-jon Pease.)
“What we love about ‘Marie and Rosetta’ is that it’s a show for the family,” Pease said. “There are references to faith, but it’s not a Christmas story. It’s much more embracing and inclusive in a lot of ways. And it has music, which is another thing people love this time of year.”
A seat for everyone — and a bit of sex, too
In addition to music and multigenerational appeal, Pease thinks an important element of counterprogramming is choosing a show that speaks to regular theatergoers as well as folks who go once a year with their families or co-workers.
Only a few months into his tenure at Park Square, Lagundino knows all about those factors, since part of the hiring process required him to come up with an imaginary season, complete with a holiday show. It may pop up in the 2019-20 offerings he’s planning, so he won’t divulge the title.
“We’re looking at something that is not typically a holiday show, but it’s literary and fun, and definitely for the whole family,” he said, adding that all Park Square shows must offer a “seat at the table” to everyone, much like “Marie and Rosetta” does. “It has a sense of people needing a community, needing love in their lives, needing a place to call home.” He said “fairly robust” early sales seem to indicate “Marie and Rosetta” works as counterprogramming.
If blues music and stories of abuse sell tickets in December, maybe there’s also room for a little sex? That’s the premise of this season’s boldest alternative, “Sex Ed: The Big ‘O’ Show” at the Phoenix Theater in Minneapolis, dedicated to the idea that people get so busy with shopping, menorah lighting and caroling that they forget to, um, take care of themselves.
“We’re talking about using sex and self-pleasure as a holiday release, keeping yourself in mind as you do your family events and everything else,” said Josiah Thompson, artistic director of What’s Next, which uses improv and audience participation to address a different taboo topic each month. “I’ve seen ‘The Nutcracker’ a billion times and I don’t really feel like it, but there are people who want to go out and do things that are not your traditional shows.”
That’s the sweet spot all non-holiday shows hope to hit. “We have so many options that I can imagine it feeling a little overwhelming,” Marsh said. “You have guests in from out of town and you’re thinking, ‘What should we do?’ Or maybe you’re feeling a little holiday burnout.”
She is not a huge Christmas person — “I like holidays fine, but they go on a long time” — but even the woman who serves up the darkest human impulses every December is not immune to the trappings of the season. “Blackbird” takes place in a warehouse’s break room in December, so there’s a good chance a poinsettia or mini-Christmas tree will pop up somewhere, providing a cheeky counterpoint to the painful drama on stage.