* the renovated 1760 seat Carpenter Theatre (formerly the Carpenter Center, home to the Richmond Ballet, the Richmond Symphony, the Virginia Opera and an occasional touring show),
* the new 176-seat Libby Gottwald Community Playhouse (home to African American Repertory Theatre and Richmond Shakespeare),
* the wide open Rhythm Hall (with full catering facilities, casual seating and intimate acoustics, a major rehearsal space for the Richmond Symphony), and
* the Genworth BrightLights Education Center (giving local students the chance to see, participate in and learn through the performing arts).
Our own Tony Foley (star of Barefoot in the Park and Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap at Hanover Tavern) served as Master of Ceremonies for the groundbreaking. And our own Alia Bisharat, (Dorothy in Theatre IV’s The Wizard of Oz) sang "Over the Rainbow" while the groundbreaking began. The crowd then set off for the First Fridays Artwalk, most on foot following a brass band and others by trolley.
Rosanna Bencoach and Catherine Dudley, two true theatre enthusiasts, share their perspectives on the Empire’s most recent First Friday.
The afternoon had kicked off with the ceremonial groundbreaking
for Richmond CenterStage, which will incorporate a renovated Carpenter Center and other, new performance spaces.
Alia Bisharat, wearing the blue gingham dress and ruby slippers from her role as Dorothy in Theatre IV’s The Wizard of Oz, capped the ceremony with a lovely performance of “Over the Rainbow.”
Oversized versions of Dorothy’s ruby slippers were still perched atop the Empire marquee, immediately drawing the visitor’s attention. The display window by the main doors featured posters from Barksdale Theatre's upcoming production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods and brand-new color publicity photos from the show.
Inside, all the photos on the walls and cast board had been replaced with photos from outstanding Theatre IV and Barksdale Theatre productions from recent seasons. The newly framed color photos down the hallway brightened the space, and led to numerous “I remember that!” comments. Labels below the photos helped those who didn’t immediately recall the show or year, or hadn’t caught that production.
Visitors streamed into the auditorium for a better look at the 1911 theater, and helpful staff answered questions about the building (Virginia’s oldest extant theater) and productions. Large set pieces from The Wizard of Oz (including Dorothy’s house and parts of the Emerald City) were arranged on the stage, and the yellow brick road was still in place. (They looked much different without stage lighting.) Staff explained that they don’t have room to store set pieces for reuse, so they create them individually for each show. They’re presently busy building Into the Woods sets for Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn.
At one end of the lobby, a video about 10 minutes long looped continuously on a wall-size screen, showing highlights from recent Theatre IV musicals. My compliments to whoever selected and edited the clips they did a great job, capturing some the spirit -- and sheer joy -- of those shows.
But the highlight of the evening was the opportunity to see a collection of costumes from various Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV productions, up close. The display included costumes from Disney's Beauty and the Beast, Seussical The Musical, The Magic Flute, Intimate Apparel and others, gowns to hats, elegant to comical, with photos of the actors wearing the outfits in the shows. The detail in the costumes was amazing, and showed beautiful workmanship. Great care had obviously been taken in selecting the costumes and properly arranging the display. I hope that such displays will become at least a semi-regular feature of First Fridays at the Empire. (I hear that they have a treasure trove of shoes in the Empire’s attic!)
-- Rosanna B.
Blog editor’s note: Rosie is one of Barksdale Theatre/Theatre IV’s fantastic volunteer ushers. For information on volunteer opportunities, visit the Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV websites. Many thanks, Rosie, for the generous and passionate personality you share with everyone you meet!
And now, an additional note from Catherine Dudley, the staff member who coordinates Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV's First Friday participation.
I just wanted to let you guys all know… if you’re not coming downtown on the first Friday of every month- you’re missing out! Every event the streets are swarming with people and the energy is amazing. The restaurants are packed, the art galleries are filled to max capacity, the music is spilling out into the streets from numerous storefronts and we, here at the Empire Theatre, are proud to show off our beautiful and historic building. Some months our lobby presents live music from awesome bands around the Richmond area, and some months we have a video montage of several of our past productions playing on a large screen in the lobby. Every month there is a gallery display of some kind- photography, artwork, sculpture, costume display, etc…, but there is always a ton to be seen. The bar is ready to serve and the theatre space itself is ready to be admired. So come on down and join us every first Friday night and see what you’ve been missing! The theatre beckons…