Friday, February 8, 2008

Richmond's Role in American Theatre

Posted by Bruce Miller
To clarify one thing from my last post … A couple folks thought I was intending sarcasm when I said “maybe after I retire, Terrie and I will be so lucky” as to hang with Dave and Holly Timberline. No sarcasm was intended. Terrie and I like the Timberlines a lot.

And for whatever it's worth, here’s another thought on the STYLE “report card.” This one relates to actors leaving town for larger markets. Call me a glass half-full kind of guy (I am), but may I suggest that the fact that Richmond theatre artists sometimes move on to greener pastures is a testament to the strength of the Richmond theatre scene, not the weakness.

Throughout my 33 years, there has always been a percentage of talented theatre practitioners who start their careers in Richmond and then move onward and upward. From where I stand, that percentage hasn’t become noticeably larger or smaller in recent years. It’s pretty much stayed the same. That’s healthy.

Talk to Woody Eney. He left Richmond many years ago to seek the opportunities available in larger markets. So did Hansford Rowe, Blair Underwood, Steven Furst, Emily Skinner, Joe Inscoe, Dianne Pennington, Rusty Wilson, Burt Edwards, Denise Simone, Dee Slominski, Bev Appleton, Jeri Cutler, Sean MacLaughlin, Duke Lafoon, Jason Butler Harner, Skip Harris, Joe Doran, Michael Cole, Tom Hewitt, Foster Solomon and Susan Sanford, Kathy Halenda, Scott Wichmann, Maury and Yvonne Erickson, Cliff Todd and Michelle Carter, Lynn Keeton and Alan Flannagan, Laine Satterfield, Eddie Pierce, Kris Koop, Tia James, Scott Nogi, Chris Evans, Sara Heifetz, Robert Easter, Walker Jones, Brad Greenquist, David Winning, Michael Kingman, Jake Mosser, Jerrold Solomon, Michael Hersh, Larry Shue, Jack Cummings, Corey Bradley, Susann Fletcher, Andy Umberger and countless others whose names didn't immediately come to mind in the 30 or so seconds it took me to type this sentence.

Others like John Glenn, R. L. Rowsey, Denise Simone (the second time she left), Rick St. Peter and Jack Parrish left Richmond for full time opportunities in smaller markets, and they’re doing great.

Some of those who emigrate return; some find success on Broadway and/or in Hollywood; some switch careers. It’s all good. It's sad to see each of them move (really sad for me in a couple cases because they were close friends). But their departures were and are a fact of life—nothing less, nothing more.

Richmond is not New York, Chicago, L. A. or Philadelphia. It never will be.

But for those who appreciate the many wondrous things that Richmond has to offer, it’s better than a major market. It’s home. Ask Joe Inscoe.

What I don’t understand is why anyone would look on this as some sort of negative blot on the profile of Richmond theatre. It doesn’t make us look bad, it makes us look good. We should wear it like a badge of honor. Many of those whose names appear in the list above have established major careers; a few have achieved national recognition. Would any of them have done so well in the national spotlight were it not for the experiences, opportunities, successes and failures they encountered here in Richmond? We are and should be proud of our artists who move on, and proud of ourselves for ably filling the niche that Richmond fills in the national theatre scene.

Robin Harris-Jones (my friend who is quoted in STYLE and on this blog) and the others who have moved on most recently (Chris Steward, Hannah Zold, Andy Nagraj, Jonathan Spivey, Christopher Clawsen) will continue to be in the Richmond theatre family until they decide to cut the tie. And you know what? Most theatre artists who move on don’t cut that tie. They stay in the family forever.

The world is a small place and getting smaller every day. Richmond plays a vital role in the national theatre scene. The artists who leave town to pursue opportunities elsewhere are not gone, forgotten or unreachable. Many of them return to Richmond for a show every now and then, and are welcomed back with open arms. Ask Duke Lafoon.

Or better yet, come see him in Doubt, opening at Barksdale Willow Lawn on Feb. 15, and see for yourself what he's up to. And will Duke's performance in Doubt be all the better because of the experiences, opportunities, successes and failures he’s encountered since moving to NYC? You tell me.

--Bruce Miller


Frank Creasy said...

Just when cynicsm and negativity start to cloud the atmosphere, Bruce, your well reasoned optimism disperses the gloom.

Richmond is my home, and I hope it always will be. I hope to keep acting here, supporting the theatre community in any way I can when not onstage, and keeping close the many friends I've made along the way. I hope the many folks you named know that they will indeed always be welcomed home to our community and to our stages.

Great post Bruce, thanks so much.

Anonymous said...

But isn't it your job to make theatre in Richmond as plentiful, exciting and lucrative as theatre in Chicago and Philadelphia, so that more actors can choose to stay? Yes, we all know that there's no Broadway in Richmond, but why can't we have the vibrant theatre life of a city like Philadelphia, or, as Mary Burrus said, Baltimore? Art is about vision and talent, not money. You should stop making excuses.

hoosier steve said...

When Richmond has the corporate support, population and governmental support of Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, etc, then you can make these comparisons. A more accurate question would be, does Richmond compare to cities with similar demographics and population. This would be more along the lines of comparing Richmond to Oklahoma City, Jacksonville, FL, Hartford, CT or Louisville, KY. To my knowledge Richmond compares quite favorably to most communities of its size. Actors Theatre of Louisville is the only thing that tips the balance, but as Rick St. Peter has pointed out, outside of ATL, Louisville is NOT a great theatre community.
Art is not about money, but giving actors a chance to make a decent living wage is very much about money. Without the support structure that you will usually only see in much larger communities some actors, and I have to include designers, technicians and directors as well, will leave.

Bruce Miller said...

To Frank and Anonymous, thanks for the comments.

In this response to Anonymous, I'm going to use "I" instead of "we" because I don't want to presume to speak on my co-workers' behalves.

It’s my job to make Barksdale and Theatre IV artistically rich and relevant, and financially sustainable. Because B’dale and TIV have the privilege of being in leadership positions, I also have the responsibility of doing what I can to grow, enrich and support the theatre community in general, including organizations and individual artists.

I believe that sometimes the best way to support a diverse and growing arts community is to participate in visionary planning, dreaming and reality checks all at the same time.

You’re right that artistic success requires vision and talent. I'd add commitment to that short list. But I think it’s naïve to think that artistic success over the long term is not also dependent on money. I think you can create an amazing show on a minimal budget every once in a while, but I don’t believe you can or should be expected to sustain a significant level of artistic excellence over time without adequate funding.

And I think there is a LOT of artistic excellence in Richmond theatre.

Richmond is a great city in many ways. I love it here. I’m here by choice. But Richmond simply doesn’t have the financial resources of the larger markets you mention. And all Richmond theatres lack the funding that we really need.

And don't forget, even in major markets, 85% of all AEA actors are unemployed (as actors) during any given week.

To the extent that I appear to be “making excuses,” I apologize. I have no desire and feel no need to make excuses or defend myself, my theatres, or Richmond in general. I’m proud of my work, the theatres that I’m blessed to lead, and the Richmond theatre community—a community that I consider to be exceptional. And anyone who knows me knows that I'm not one of those people who goes around thinking that everything I do is great. If anything, I have failings in the other direction.

I enter into these conversations at the risk of seeming arrogant and/or defensive, but I think it would be inappropriate for me to remain silent. As always, my opinion is just my opinion, and no more valid that anyone else's.

Like Dave Timberline, I'm sad when artists and friends leave town. And I agree that it's my job to come up with the money needed to pay them enough to enable them to stay in town, if that's what they want to do.

I don't have statistics to prove this, but I honestly believe that more money is going into the pockets of local theatre professionals today than at any time in the past. It's true that TVA paid more per week in their AEA LORT contracts than B'dale, TIV, Firehouse etc. pay now in our AEA SPT contracts, Special Appearance contracts, and Guest Artist agreements. But we are hiring a lot more local professionals today than TVA ever did, and our shows today run longer. When you add it all up, I think things are better today. And I agree there's continuing need for improvement.

I also agree with Rick St. Peter and others when they say that things are getting to insular and we need to bring more artists in from out of town. It's a balancing act, and we're working on it. As Joe Pabst said in a comment at Dave's place, you can't say "bring in more artists from out of town" and "provide more employment to Richmond professionals" without realizing that there's juggling involved.

I believe there are many reasons to be proud of theatre in Richmond. There’s also much we can and should do to improve. I’ll keep talking about all these issues in future blog entries.

Again, thanks for your comments. I welcome the positive thoughts and the constructive criticism as well.

Anonymous said...


I am very proud of my tenure in Richmond and I certainly would not be where i am today (which is currently Juneau Alaska!) without the experience and opportunities I received in Richmond, beginning with my VA Union University production of Tartuffe at the Empire starring Scott Wichmann in 1998 and certainly without everything I learned working on shows at Theatre Gym. I would love to see at LORT theatre back in Richmond, I was certainly sad to see TVA go and I think the community CAN support it...WILL they support it is another question all together. How does Richmond stack up to Norfolk when looking at MSA'S? I believe the MSA for Norfolk will include the entire Tidewater region but I think that is a fallacy, having grown up down there, I can tell you each individual community is pretty insular...but Norfolk supports a LORT theatre and their support of it seems to be increasing from what I hear...

Finally good for you for responding to an anonymous cheap shot. Running my own theatre, I understand and appreciate more than ever what you deal with, and like your response to the boycott of Theatre IV, I am always amazed you don't just tell people to go blank themselves!! Steve Koehler can attest to the fact that there have been many occasions in Lexington where I have stopped myself and said, "How would Bruce Miller respond to this??"

Rick St. Peter

Bruce Miller said...

Rick and Steve,

Thanks for the comments. We all miss you both. Rick, I hope Juneau is a success!

Norfolk (home of Virginia Stage Company) is located in the 34th largest MSA, with a total population of 1,649,457. Richmond is 43rd with a total population of 1,194,008. So the Norfolk MSA is 38% larger than the Richmond MSA.

And, in terms of artistic quality, community connections, and institutional strength, I think Barksdale does really well when considered alongside Virginia Stage Company.

You're quite right to comment on the insular tendencies of the various communities within each MSA, but what's true for Norfolk is also true for Richmond. Sussex is in the Richmond MSA, and I can tell you with confidence that we don't draw a big crowd from Sussex.

In addition to population, the MSAs reflect the economic size and strength of the community, so I believe they make a difference.

But there are some other great strengths that exist in the Norfolk region that don't exist in Richmond. Arts leaders in Richmond have been studying those differences for a while, and together we're starting to launch some initiatives that we hope will allow us to replicate Norfolk's success. I'll report more on that later.

Thanks for the kind words.