CINCINNATI -- Eleven-year-old Javon Davis read Charles Dickens' “A Christmas Carol” last year with his fifth grade class at Hays-Porter Elementary School. He liked it OK.
But then, he and his classmates went to see Playhouse in the Park's production of the holiday classic.
“The play -- the play made me feel,” Javon said. “It made me feel enthusiasm.”
On Dec. 13, another set of Hays-Porter students, along with more than 500 children from schools around Greater Cincinnati, will see “A Christmas Carol” at the Playhouse during the annual Macy's matinee.
About 6,000 students visit Playhouse in the Park every year to watch Scrooge rediscover his Christmas spirit during 10 matinees set aside for schools. Tickets for these matinees are about $15 each, a cost generally covered by schools or parents -- except for the Macy's matinee.
“For that performance, Macy's covers the entire bill for everybody,” Playhouse Artistic Director Blake Robison said. “That's what's so remarkable about it.”
The Macy's matinee is set aside each year for schools with high rates of students receiving free or reduced-cost lunch. At Hays-Porter, between 95 and 98 percent of students receive free or reduced lunches, and most students live in West End, where the median household income is about $13,000.
“A lot of these students don't have the opportunity to go to arts events,” Hays-Porter resource coordinator Richara Richardson said. “Lots have never been to the Playhouse in the Park. … This is a chance to see the book, the book they read in class, come to life.”
Macy's also buys a boxed lunch for each student and covers the schools' transportation costs. Hays-Porter, for example, usually needs two buses to get students and chaperones to the Playhouse in Mount Adams, Richardson said, and each bus is $300.
Playhouse in the Park has produced “A Christmas Carol” since 1991, and Macy's has sponsored a matinee since the beginning.
“Macy’s believes in giving back to the places where we live and work. We’re dedicated to creating stronger and more vibrant communities for our customers and associates and proud to lead and support the causes that matter most to them,” Macy's Chief Financial Officer Karen Houget said in an email. “The support of arts and culture has always been a fundamental piece of Macy’s giving. Macy’s contributions in 2016 provided more than 6.3 million people access to arts and culture performances across the country."
After the Macy's matinee of “A Christmas Carol,” students get a chance to talk to the actors. Richardson said the experience gives students ideas about how they could use their skills and talents.
Students like Javon, who has older siblings, look forward to their turn seeing “A Christmas Carol.” When their chance comes, Richardson said students are almost always transfixed by the story -- watching Marley rattle his chains, wondering how the set turns.
“It's like they couldn't take their eyes off it,” Javon said of his classmates.
Every December director Michael Evan Haney and Bruce Cromer, who plays Scrooge, along with the rest of the cast, try again to inspire that sort of awe, Robison said, especially at the student matinees.
“Children are the most honest audience you can get,” Robison said. “If they love it, they squeal with delight and murmur and laugh, and when they get bored, they let you know that, too. When we see those big eyes, we know we're doing something right.”
The Christmas matinees are just one part of Playhouse's school programs, which provide theater experiences and educational lessons to more than 50,000 students each year.
“One of our most important missions is making sure young people experience the performing arts so it becomes part of their life,” Robison said. “Sometimes, we are providing arts curriculum to schools that wouldn't have it otherwise, and we're building the audiences of the future.”