Holiday shows spread cheer and fund the rest of the year’s programming

Favorites like ‘Nutcracker,’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ carry the costs of operating year-round
The Atlana Ballet began perfoming "The Nutcracker" in 1959 and it has become a staple of the holiday season for generations of Atlantans. Seen here is a moment from the 2022 version of Tchaikovsky's ballet, choreographed by Yuri Possokhov. Photo: Kim Kenney

Credit: Photographer: Kim Kenney

Credit: Photographer: Kim Kenney

The Atlana Ballet began perfoming "The Nutcracker" in 1959 and it has become a staple of the holiday season for generations of Atlantans. Seen here is a moment from the 2022 version of Tchaikovsky's ballet, choreographed by Yuri Possokhov. Photo: Kim Kenney

The end of the year is harvest season for Atlanta’s performing arts groups, when they reap their most valuable crop.

The reliable audiences drawn by the Dickens tale “A Christmas Carol” and the Tchaikovsky ballet “The Nutcracker” support year-round programming at the Alliance Theatre and the Atlanta Ballet.

Other groups, like Dad’s Garage, Horizon Theatre, Theatrical Outfit and even the Atlanta Botanical Garden and the Center for Puppetry Arts follow in their footsteps, producing holiday-themed crowd-pleasers every December. All generate more income than the presentations in any other season.

The Alliance Theatre presents the Charles Dickens classic "A Christmas Carol" every year, and ticket revenue from the family favorite is critical to the financial health of the company. Photo: Alliance Theatre

Credit: Alliance Theatre

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Credit: Alliance Theatre

But while the cold-weather revenue is a godsend, it puts planners at a disadvantage, with uneven cash flow concentrated at one end of the calendar. It also places groups in peril when that income is threatened.

Though the pandemic stole Christmas in 2020 and 2021, it looks like Santa will be back with a full sleigh this year.

For the Alliance Theatre, for example, Santa comes in the person of Charles Dickens, the giver who keeps on giving.

The Alliance produces about nine shows a season, from expensive blockbusters such as this summer’s “Water for Elephants” to the intimate “Knock, Knock,” a winter’s tale for very young audiences, scheduled for November and December.

None of those shows sells like “A Christmas Carol,” which produces ticket revenue equal to all the others put together. Half of the Alliance’s yearly attendees are there to see one show.

Mike Schleifer wishes he could get them to come back.

“How many people who see “A Christmas Carol” see anything else we do?” asked Schleifer, Alliance’s managing director. “The number is 6%,” he said, answering his own question. Schleifer despaired of luring the Dickens audience into the theater after Christmas.

“There are people that call themselves Christian who only go to church on Easter,” he added. “This is the theatergoers’ church on Easter.”

The Atlana Ballet began performing "The Nutcracker" in 1959 and it has become a staple of the holiday season for generations of Atlantans. Seen here is a moment from the 2022 version of Tchaikovsky's ballet, choreographed by Yuri Possokhov. Photo: Kim Kenney

Credit: Kim Kenney

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Credit: Kim Kenney

The Atlanta Ballet would also like a more observant audience.

Its yearly production of “The Nutcracker” features fabulous sets, a full orchestra and a cast of more than 230 dancers. The extravaganza is a holiday tradition for generations of Atlantans. But 70% of those who watch the brave toy soldiers battle the Mouse King don’t return for other productions.

For that reason, the success of the production is critical to the health of the company.

Said Executive Director Tom West, “We rely on ‘The Nutcracker’ to generate $1 million to $2 million net revenues; that helps underwrite almost everything else we do.”

That revenue doesn’t come cheap.

In 2018 the ballet company spent $4 million to roll out a new version of Tchaikovsky’s tale, with Brobdingnagian sets and dream-like projections. It costs about $1 million to stage it each year but has the potential to generate $2 million-plus in ticket sales.

“A Christmas Carol” is similarly expensive to mount. The remarkable rotating set, the lighting and sound design, props, costumes and licensing fees cost more than $1 million.

But, unlike most Alliance productions, this show is repeatable and will come back year after year. “If you amortize that cost over a decade, it’s $100,000 a year for a phenomenal production,” said Schleifer. “Over 20 years, it’s $50,000 a year.”

The previous production of “A Christmas Carol” ran for more than two decades, as did the Atlanta Ballet’s previous production of “The Nutcracker.” These durable shows are a good bet to recoup their costs.

Other performing arts groups are finding ways to generate their own holiday family traditions.

"Invasion: Christmas Carol" is the cheeky version of the Dickens classic  presented every holiday season by Dad's Garage Theatre. In this alternate universe, a strange character (unknown to the players) enters the action and the rest of the cast must improvise around the invader. Here, Thanos, the destroyer from the Marvel Universe of "The Avengers," encounters Scrooge. Photo: Chelsea Patricia

Credit: Chelsea Patricia

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Credit: Chelsea Patricia

With “Invasion: Christmas Carol” edgy Dad’s Garage Theatre stages a more or less faithful version of the Dickens tale, but with the addition of a sometimes rowdy uninvited character, who is a surprise to both the audience and the cast, which is forced to improvise. “The cast must do their best to continue telling the classic story, all while incorporating a chaotic guest,” Dad’s Garage tells us.

There will be 25 performances this year and 25 different “invaders,” said artistic director Tim Stoltenberg. On one memorable evening the invader was all 11 Harlem Globetrotters. “We bank on having that large turn-out from our supporters,” said Stoltenberg. “It greatly impacts our budget.”

Tom Key and Max Walls are in "A Christmas Story" at the Theatrical Outfit, the classic tale by radio man Jean Shepherd of Ralphie and his quest for a Red Ryder BB gun. Photo: Theatrical Outfit

Credit: Theatrical Outfit

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Credit: Theatrical Outfit

This year the Theatrical Outfit is presenting a stage version of the classic holiday movie “A Christmas Story” with hopes that the tale of Ralphie’s quest for a Red Ryder BB gun could become a new Atlanta tradition. “We’d love that to be the case,” said Managing Director Vanya Foote.

Center for Puppetry Arts' “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which runs through Dec. 31, is adapted from the 1964 stop-motion special. Photo: Courtesy of Center for Puppetry Arts / Clay Walker

Credit: Clay Walker

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Credit: Clay Walker

That’s already happened with “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” at the Center for Puppetry Arts. Their stage version of the 1964 Rankin/Bass animated television special is performed with meticulous copies of TV’s celebrated stop-motion puppets — including Rudolph, the young elf Hermy, prospector Yukon Cornelius and the Abominable Snow Monster.

There will be 100 performances of “Rudolph” this year, accounting for almost a quarter of all family series shows at the center’s theater. “Rudolph” is responsible for half of the ticket revenue generated by all the kids’ shows.

There are at least three reasons that holiday season productions are so lucrative. Arts programmers say there is a motivated audience out there during the winter months, when families are reunited and are looking for entertainment. West, of the Atlanta Ballet, said that these families establish traditions and pass them on to their own children. Finally, arts groups that create a strong “brand” can expect those audiences to return again and again, said Beth Schiavo, the puppetry center’s executive director.

In 2011 the Atlanta Botanical Garden created a memorable brand with its “Garden Lights, Holiday Nights” event, while transforming a fallow time of year (for gardens) into must-see entertainment.

November and December were the “shoulder season” for the garden, said President and CEO Mary Pat Matheson. Today, about a quarter of the garden’s 800,000 yearly visitors come during this time. “‘Holiday Lights’ turned the shoulder season into the No. 1 season,” she said. “That’s a pretty awesome return on investment.”

Matheson emphasized that the event has also become a celebratory occasion, which we all need.

Circumstances foreseen and unforeseen can threaten these traditions.

The COVID-19 pandemic was disastrous for the performing arts world. At the Atlanta Ballet, moving “Nutcracker” performances from the Fox Theatre to the Cobb Energy Centre was also problematic, as sales dropped from $3.3 million to $2.3 million.

“It’s taking a little while for people to get used to coming out here,” said West. “We need to increase (sales) by a full third to get back to where we were.”

Because the Cobb venue is smaller than the Fox (2,600 seats compared to 4,600), catching up will be a challenge. But West is optimistic. “The Cobb facility has better parking, better sound, better seats, it’s just a better theatrical setting. And we have done some things to make it a more special winter wonderland.”

In its favor is the Nutcracker’s ability to network with former cast members and new fans. There are 190 children in the five casts this year, said West. Children from past years grow up, have their own children and bring them to the show.

“There are tons of kids’ roles,” said West. “They bring their kids back to the Nutcracker and it becomes this community family experience.”

Holidays shows

“The Nutcracker.” Presented by the Atlanta Ballet. Through Dec. 26. $30-$158. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 404-892-3303,

“A Christmas Carol.” Through Dec. 24. $45-$110. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-4600,

“Invasion: Christmas Carol.” Through Dec. 30. $31-$56. Dad’s Garage, 569 Ezzard St. SE, Atlanta. 404-523-3141,

“Garden Lights, Holiday Nights.” Through Jan. 14. Tickets are timed. $47.95-$72.95. Atlanta Botanical Garden, 1345 Piedmont Ave. NE, Atlanta. 404-876-5859;

“A Christmas Story.” Through Dec. 24. $25-$45. Theatrical Outfit, Balzer Theatre, 84 Luckie St. NW, Atlanta. 678-528-1500,

“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Through Dec. 31. $21-$36. Center for Puppetry Arts, 1404 Spring St. NW, Atlanta. 404-873-3391,