Saturday, December 13, 2008

In Memoriam: W. R. Hutch Hutchinson

Posted by Bruce Miller
There were/are a couple handfuls of great men in Richmond theatre. These men will long be remembered for extraordinary talent and for modeling selfless commitments to theatre as an art form. For them, theatre was much more than an avocation or job. It was a calling.

Richmond theatre would be nowhere without them.

These men were committed not only to the art form but also to Greater Richmond. They pursued their callings here by choice. They were leaders and servants, forward thinkers and caretakers of the past.

Among those who have died, Barksdale co-founder Pete Kilgore certainly belongs in this fraternity of honor, as do fellow Barksdale legends Fred Haseltine, Mallory Freeman, Jay Lundy and Kim Strong. (Fred and Mallory also acted extensively and provided leadership at Virginia Museum Theatre; Kim acted at Swift Creek and acted and provided leadership at Theatre IV).

William Robert Hutchinson, whom everyone knew as Hutch, died on Thursday. Attention must be paid. Anyway you look at it, Hutch was one of the few who earned the honor of being among the Great Men of Richmond Theatre.

There’s a nice tribute piece in this morning’s Times-Dispatch. Unfortunately, some of the Richmond theatre history noted in the T-D is incorrect.

Hutch’s greatest contribution to Richmond theatre history, in my opinion, was his founding and artistic direction of the Experiential Theatre, and his creation of The Empty Space theatre facility in the basement of the Boys’ Club facilities located at the intersection of Robinson and Kensington.

The Times-Dispatch says, “In 1995, three years after retiring from the Boys’ Club, he founded the award-winning Experiential Theatre in the club basement. After a short run, the group folded, but Mr. Hutchinson continued to rent the venue, dubbed The Empty Space, to other experimental groups for several years.”

I don’t pretend to have the exact dates in front of me, but I know the T-D dates are about two decades off. Hutch founded the Experiential about the same time Phil and I founded Theatre IV, which was 1975. I hope Matthew Costello will weigh in with a comment—I’ll phone him on Monday—because when Matthew was in his early 20s he was very involved with the Experiential and with Hutch.

The Experiential had a huge impact on theatre in Richmond, and then slowed down in the late 70s or early 80s. By approximately 82-83, Theatre IV was renting The Empty Space for its adult audience season.

It was during our watch, and I report this with a significant feeling of guilt, that The Empty Space was shut down by the Richmond Fire Dept. due to inadequate sprinklers and egress. The facility had stayed “under the radar” during the Experiential days, but the increased scrutiny brought about by Theatre IV’s use of the space brought about its undoing. About six years later, the Fire Dept. also shut down Stanley’s Backstage for the same reasons after Theatre IV assumed residency there.

Hutch was not retired from the Boys' Club when he founded the Experiential and created The Empty Space. He was very much large and in charge. By the time he retired in ’93, and then began new theatre ventures in ’96 (perhaps reviving the name Experiential--I can’t remember), he was producing at the Windy River Winery. I hope Erin Thomas, who was in Hutch’s production of The Seagull at the Winery, will weigh in with some accurate info. Stephanie Kelly, who was a good friend of Hutch's, may also be able to shed some light.

I’ll be writing more about Hutch, the Experiential, and The Empty Space in the next few days. I’ll try to get the facts straight. It’s important to me that Richmond theatre history is honored, or at least accurately recorded. Please feel free to pass on any and all info you may have about Hutch. He's deserves our remembrances.

Hutch was an amazing, hard working and inspiring talent. With affection and respect, we will dedicate our upcoming production of Children of a Lesser God (which Theatre IV originally produced in The Empty Space in the early ‘80s) to Hutch’s memory.

--Bruce Miller


Jacquie said...

Hi Bruce. My heart is heavy to hear of Hutch's passing. I was the stage manager for the production of Death of a Salesman that Hutch starred in, directed by U of R’s Walter Schoen . He was a true professional and gentlemen of the theatre. He will be missed.

Anonymous said...

You should not feel any "guilt" at all about The Empty Space being shut down after Theatre IV's usage brought to the attention of the Fire Inspector that there were inadequacies regarding sprinklers and exits. The Fire Inspector shuts down theaters for one reason and one reason only: to save lives. Who knows, perhaps Theatre IV deserves credit for preventing a disaster. That's the only way to look at it responsibly.

HEK said...


Thanks for giving this attention to a great figure in Richmond theater. I had opportunity to work with him at the Firehouse and he did several shows there -- a one man Clarence Darrow show, and he put Bill Gordon through his paces in "Diary of A Mad Man." I think you are right that he did these under the Experiential banner.

When Firehouse produced "Persistence of Memory" in 1997, Hutch was the natural choice for historian and novelist Clifford Dowdey, and he brought a genuine passion and world-weariness to the role that I didn't write, but he put there.

I'm quite fortunate that I got to share some wonderful times with him.

Thanks again for putting this to record.

Bill Gordon said...

Bruce, thank you for this chronicle.

Hutch did, indeed, re-establish The Experiential Theater in the late 90's, and produced all of the Windy River Winery shows under that banner."Padded Cells," which featured "Diary of a Madman" and Liz Ernest in "The Moonshot Tapes," was a co-production of Firehouse and the Experiential.

I was fortunate enough to have been directed in all three of the shows Hutch did that first summer out at Windy River ("The Playboy of the Western World," "The Importance of Being Earnest," and "The Seagull"), and Hutch also directed me in "Diary," my last professional Richmond role before moving out to the Shenandoah Valley.

I was even briefly Oscar Madison to Hutch's Felix Ungar in a real-life Odd Couple scenario... I moved in with Hutch for a couple of weeks after my house in Richmond had sold, but before I moved to the Valley.

Such was the kindness and generosity of this man.

I don't think they make them like Hutch anymore. He was one of a kind. God knows my life is richer for having been touched by his.

And I am certainly not alone in that.

Stephanie said...

Bruce, I thank you for writing such a wonderful piece in memory of Hutch. He was beyond an extraordinary man and a GREAT Man of Richmond Theatre. Hutch holds a dear place in my heart, as I know he does in many hearts. Although I'm sad of his passing, it is only for selfish reasons. He and all the work he's done for Richmond Theatre and the Boys Club will live on for years to come.