Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Drama at the Drive-Through

Posted by Bruce Miller
I hustled home a few minutes ago after restoring order to our Willow Lawn lobby following our latest edition of Rostov’s Coffee & Conversations. Eric Williams from Sanders Family Christmas did a terrific job of moderating. Scott Wichmann and John Moon (actor and director, respectfully, from This Wonderful Life) answered all questions and waxed lyrical about the behind-the-scenes process that led to our current hit production.

For those of you who are unable to make our Tuesday morning C & C events, I’ll be posting the full discussion on YouTube in the coming days, and I’ll provide links to the digital recordings through this blog.

Anyway … on the way home I pulled into Hardee’s to get a Mushroom Swiss ThickBurger—so bad for me, I suspect, but so tasty!

When I reached the drive-though ordering station, this deep African American male voice came from the speaker, doing his best over-the-top sexy Barry White imitation. “Welcome to Hardee’s. Would you like to try our absolutely delicious Frisco Melt," he purred, getting really slow and deep on the “absolutely delicious.”

I almost laughed out loud. Call me crazy, but it’s a little off-putting to hear some guy sound like he’s coming on to you while he’s trying to sell a hamburger.

“No,” I said, a little nervously. “I’d like one Mushroom Swiss Burger. That’s all.”

To my relief, a cheery female voice responded. “That’ll be $4.31,” she said, without a hint of Barry White. “Drive up to the second window.”

While she was taking my money, I asked if the first guy’s voice I heard was a recording. “Yeah,” she said, rolling her eyes. I’m not sure if the eye-roll was a response to me or the recording—or both. “They’re pushing the Frisco. Your thickburger’ll be ready in a minute.”

This parting phrase prevented me from dropping my voice an octave to ask if the Frisco Melt was really “ahhhb-sooo-loooot-leeee deee-lihhh—shusssss.”

What struck me then—what strikes me still—is that Hardee’s has determined that it’s in their best interest to hire an actor to emote the heck out of a sales pitch for “the Frisco” and broadcast it to each customer over the drive-through squawk-box. Adding a little drama to so mundane a business transaction must be good for business.

Barksdale and Theatre IV add a little drama to so many facets of our daily lives in Central Virginia (and beyond) that it’s nearly impossible to recount them all. With the privilege of being Greater Richmond’s leading professional theatre comes a huge responsibility, and we try our best to fulfill it.

During any given year, our two nonprofit companies will present approximately fourteen mainstage productions in our three venues—Barksdale at Willow Lawn, Hanover Tavern, and the historic Empire Theatre—serving over 80,000 single and group ticket buyers and subscribers.

We provide full or part-time employment to, at this moment, 53 of our community’s foremost theatre artists and administrators. In addition, we offer per-show employment (over $400,000 worth each year) to another hundred or so of Central Virginia’s leading actors, directors, designers, technicians and playwrights.

Each year we tour 17 to 22 professional plays for young audiences to schools throughout Virginia (we’re the only company in history to have been booked by every school district in the state). We're also very popular nationally, earning fans in major performing arts facilities throughout most of the United States. We’re the largest producer of touring African American history programs in the nation.

Our company reaches out in innumerable ways to help our colleague theatres—providing free rehearsal and performance space, rushing over with a loaner light-board when emergencies occur, serving as paymaster for AEA actors, partnering on individual productions and festivals, donating over 500 free tickets a year to charity auctions, finding and securing a last minute scenic artist when a set hasn’t been finished and the show opens tonight! Etc etc etc.

As a matter of principal, we donate approximately ten percent of our tickets and tour shows to less advantaged audiences that otherwise couldn’t attend. We innovatively serve through our outside-the-box hospital audience initiative. We offer sign interpreted performances for a growing deaf audience. We partner with James River Writers on Irene Ziegler’s wonderful Virginia Arts & Letters Live (the major annual fundraiser for the READ Center). We raise thousands each year through our holiday cabaret for the lifesaving Richmond Theatre Artists Fund.

Our time-honored child sexual abuse prevention program, Hugs and Kisses, is now in its 26th year of caring for Virginia’s children. Our universally acclaimed Bifocals Theatre Project takes smiles and fellowship on tour serving hundreds of senior citizens connected with countless retirement living facilities and senior community centers.

And our fun and informative Coffee & Conversations programs add extra luster to our productions and to the lives of a significant body of retirees.

There’s more that I’m leaving out. Lots more. We work with tens of scout troupes each year, participate in over 40 school career days, and perform live in various prisons and detention centers. We provide award-winning educational workshops—lots of them—mostly for free as afterschool activities in under-achieving, less-advantaged schools.

We own and maintain the historic Empire Theatre.

With confidence, I assert that no other nonprofit arts organization in any arts discipline does more to make Greater Richmond a vibrant and vital community. None of this work comes free, or even cheap. Our joint operating budget exceeds $5 million annually (approximately a cost-effective $5 for every person we serve during a given fiscal year).

To deal with the current economic challenges, we’ve eliminated five fulltime staff positions, spreading the work out among those who remain. Phil and I began accepting a 7% salary decrease last June 1 (before the cut we were paid salaries equal to high school principals in Richmond Public Schools). We eliminated company payments to our retirement funds about six years ago. We’ve tightened the belt in every way there is to tighten.

Barksdale and Theatre IV are in no danger of going away. We’ll weather this storm just as we’ve weathered others over the last 55 years. But if you can help with a financial tax deductible contribution of $10, or $30, or $50, or $100 or more, please know that your gifts are genuinely needed, will be wisely spent, and greatly appreciated.

Bringing drama to everyday life is what we do. And few if any do it better. I hope you and all of your friends and family will continue to support Barksdale throughout the current recession.

Hope to see you at the theatre!

--Bruce Miller


Rick St. Peter said...

One of the things you also failed to mention, Bruce, is how many careers Theatre IV and Barksdale Theatre have launched over the years and how many Theatre IV/Barksdale alumni are working in theatre's all across the country. I proudly acknowledge that Theatre IV gave me my start, as a fight director on The Hardy Boys and the Mystery of the Haunted House, followed closely by directing two touring shows in Raleigh. I was straight out of grad school at VCU and not sure if I could actually make it as a director. Directing The Sword in the Stone and Shake Hands with Shakespeare confirmed for me that this was absolutely how I wanted to spend my life. I also had the great pleasure of working backstage on A Christmas Carol and The Wizard of Oz, which provided extra income for me when I was a struggling freelance artist. Finally, I learned a ton about what it takes to be an artistic director by watching Bruce work, both up close and from afar, and I believe he is the single most successful AD I have ever had the pleasure of working for. I model myself after him as much as I can(that means I steal alot of his great ideas in Richmond and try to transpose them to Lexington)and if I can have 1/2 the career Bruce and Phil have had, I will count myself lucky in this business.

Finally, last week, in addition to all Theatre IV does for local companies in Richmond, I had an emergency here in Lexington prior to our opening of THE FANTASTICKS and I contacted Bruce and Phil about borrowing some strip lights for our show. Essentially with no questions asked, the answer was "yes", they were going to let us drag their strip lights 500 miles to Kentucky for 5 weeks just like that. Great people, great company...I urge EVERYONE in Central Virginia to support Theatre IV and Barksdale...I shudder to think what would happen to that community without them.

Happy Holidays from an ardent admirer!

Rick St. Peter

Bruce Miller said...

What a nice comment to read first thing this morning. Thanks, Rick. It means a lot.

Steven Koehler said...

Speaking as another whose career was launched by Theatre IV, I completely agree with everything Rick has said. Both as a lighting designer whose career was launched by John Moon asking him to design lighting for The Magic Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, and his administrative career by selling tickets through for Janine through Theatre IV America. Not to mention that I am a little sad right now knowing that someone else is running sound on Pageant, many a Christmas travel and present were made possible thanks the the 20 odd performances of Pageant or Christmas Carol. I owe so much to Bruce and Phil for all they did for me.
There is a long history of promoting from within, and truly helping to train and develop the staff as much as possible.

Every time I have to respond to the "public" in any way I think of Bruce. No one I have ever know is better at communicating his passion than Bruce. And I draw constantly on lessons learned by watching Phil deal with complex budgets and tight cash flow.

I also owe a huge thank you to Theatre IV/Barksdale for production assistance. When in Richmond this past spring designing lights for Peter Pan, Sue helped me load in two huge boxes of Wildcat basketball and cheerleader costumes for High School Musical. Being able to put costumes on stage for a small community theatre in Indiana that had been designed and built by one of the best costume shops was a dream.

Finally, for the first time since I left Richmond, I will be a part of a large office Holiday party. We have to have Board members prestne to fill out our small staff, and it won't be the same without Gordon Bass's Sausage Balls, but I am doing it in memory of the wonderful times I had working for one of the best companies I have ever had the pleasure to work for. Happy Holidays.