Revisiting Christmas — Courtesy of Paul Morella

Last night I had the opportunity to see a Christmas Carol at Olney Theater in Maryland.

It was an excellent experience for two reasons…

First, the 70 year old Olney Theater (technically the Olney Theatre Center) is an outstanding example of what regional theaters used to be before the United States was infected with the affluence illness.  It provides top-notch theater at a very reasonable price, cares deeply about its local roots, and pulls in visiting artists that are at the top of their game in theater, having, for instance, had visits from Helen Hayes, Gloria Swanson, John Carradine, Olivia de Havilland, Ian McKellen, Roy Scheider, and Marcia Gay Harden.

724px-Charles_Dickens-A_Christmas_Carol-Title_page-First_edition_1843Second, while the Christmas Carol, as it is normally seen, is an excellent stage play — Charles Dickens at his best —  it is in Paul Morella’s adaptation and presentation that it really shines because Mr. Morella has turned it back into what it really was:  An intimate story-telling set in a 1840ies parlor.

In a tour-de-force Mr. Morella applies a minimalistic approach, telling the story exactly as written, effortlessly bringing to live 40 or so diverse characters.  The result is intimate, personalized story-telling, but also a return to the basics and a demonstration that an austere approach can handily beat big productions, a principle I am beginning to strongly believe in.

The idea of a one person-show is not new, but the idea of taking a story-telling that has morphed into big product plays and bringing it back to basics is — and to Mr. Morella’s credit it works.

Much of the reason why it works is that Mr. Morella, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors, is a fine actor, capable of completely commanding the attention of an audience.  But it is also that the entire experience is wrapped in a personal touch with Mr. Morella first greeting each and every spectator before the show, explaining before the show exactly what he is going to do, and thanking and debriefing each and every spectator after the show as they leave.

You may recognize the name Paul Morella from The Pelican Brief, where he (in a brief scene) played a lawyer from the fictive firm White & Blazevich, scaring the bejesus out of Julie Roberts’ character, or from the TV shows The Wire, Homocide: Life on the Street, or The District, where Mr. Morella have had small roles. Or perhaps you recognize his name from his “performances” at American University’s Washington College of Law, where Mr. Morella participates in the Trial Advocacy Program, helping make more effective trial lawyers through the application of acting techniques.

What Mr. Morella is doing with Dickens at Olney Theater is, of course, to reintroduce us to the very roots of theater.  And this is where he very much merges with the Olney Theater, an institution that strongly care about its constituents and where each an every spectator matters.   Something that today’s big theaters are increasingly forgetting.

There are very important business lessons here.  First, over the years, the personalized touch of  the Olney Theater, the obvious appreciation of long-term customers,  the appreciation and embrace of austerity — enabling a low price level, and the localized approach has resulted in a high degree of customer loyalty (stickiness, if you will) and grass-root marketing by existing customers, resulting in each customer spending considerable amount of money and the theater experiencing low churn rates and having almost no customer acquisition costs.

Compare this to, say, Verizon, AT&T, or Sprint, where intimacy is lost, where a recurring customer is considered less attractive than a new customer, where fancy offices and store-fronts is the norm, and where there is no sense of community or locality.  The conclusions should be obvious….

On a side-note, watching and listening to the the reading of a Christmas Carol on the tail-end of 2012 was very appropriate as 2012 is 200 year from the year of Mr. Dickens’ birth. Born on February 7th, 1812, Charles John Huffam Dickens died on June 9th, 1870, having suffered a stroke the day before. Having appreciated austerity and having grown up in the shadow of its ugly twin, poverty, he was a hard worker all of his life, and it is therefore no surprise that he suffered his stroke after having put in a full day’s work on The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Show some Christmas spirit

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