Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Good and the Bad at Mill Mountain

Posted by Bruce Miller
We LOVE Mill Mountain Theater, one of our co-producers of Blackbirds of Broadway not so many years ago and a cultural cornerstone of Roanoke for over 40 years. It was with a heavy heart that I read this press release last night from their Board of Directors:

“Roanoke, Virginia, Jan 20, 2009

Mill Mountain Theatre’s Board of Directors announced today that the theater will close its doors on January 21 in order to focus on a reorganization of the Theater’s productions and business operations. Layoffs will begin on that date.

Sharply declining income, reduced state funding, lower than expected donations, changes in consumer entertainment choices, and the effects of today’s challenging economy have left the Theater unable to cover its operating costs. Existing debt is compounding the theater’s financial difficulties.

This difficult decision has been made after a long and thorough scrutiny of alternatives, reforecasts, and requests for relief made to donors and existing creditors.

‘Our traditional business model no longer works. We want to be responsible stewards of our community’s long-standing financial support so we are taking a break from business-as-usual to reinvent Mill Mountain Theater. We are taking an intermission,” says a theater spokesperson, “and plan to reemerge stronger and better than ever.’

Theater Board of Directors and staff are working closely with local officials and key contributors to create a model for the Theater’s future that acknowledges the organization’s historical importance to the region’s identify and tourism initiatives, while being sensitive to today’s economic realities. An aggressive fund-raising campaign based on the new business plan will begin upon the announcement of the plan’s details.

Theaters across the United States, including Broadway, are experiencing the effects of the economic downturn with rising costs and decreased attendance. According to the New York Times, ‘The annual post-holiday doldrums in the theater district are proving particularly doleful in 2009, as more than a dozen plays and musicals—almost half of the current lineup, incredible though it may seem—get ready to close by the end of the month.’ Regional theaters, all approximately the size of Mill Mountain, in Ohio, Florida, Minnesota, and Boston have all closed in recent months.

Theater officials assure Roanoke arts patrons, ‘Mill Mountain Theater is doing the responsible thing and securing its future by reinventing and reinvigorating how we do business.’ The first production of the newly reinvented organization is planned for the 2009 holiday season. Season ticket holders will receive vouchers for cancelled plays that can be applied to next season’s shows.

Of the plays remaining its current season (sic), Mill Mountain will present Driving Miss Daisy (WALDRON STAGE, January 21 – February 8, 2009). The theater box office will close on January 21 but tickets can be purchased by cash or check at the theater box office in the lobby of the Waldron Stage at the Church Avenue entrance one hour before the show.”

The Roanoke Times further reports today that Mill Mountain’s “staff will be let go as of this Friday, January 23, and plans for the theater’s future are uncertain.”

Our hearts and prayers go out to all of our colleagues who will be losing their Mill Mountain jobs at the end of this week.

The bad news is that Mill Mountain is in a position where they are forced to let go their staff and cancel the rest of their season. And that’s pretty bad news.

The good news, and we should celebrate this, is that the Board is facing these challenges responsibly. They are NOT closing the theatre. They are choosing to engage in the hard work of reinventing the theatre to suit emerging financial realities.

I am hopeful that Mill Mountain will return and once again light up its beautiful theatre in the heart of Roanoke. I congratulate the Board on NOT throwing in the towel and walking away. It takes courage, commitment and smarts to continue to fight the good fight, even when the Board, I’m sure, is broke, exhausted and demoralized. Three cheers and then three cheers more to all the Mill Mountain Board members who are refusing to let their institution die. That, my friends, is what it takes.

Business-as-usual is tough. Reinventing the business is a LOT tougher. But a small group of good people can make it work, and, in Mill Mountain’s case, it appears that that is exactly what's happening.

During the long hard days that now begin, Barksdale and Theatre IV will offer whatever support we can to the Mill Mountain Board as they take up this yoke of responsibility and move forward with determination and creativity. God speed.

--Bruce Miller

Monday, January 12, 2009

In Praise of Richmond Theatre

Posted by Bruce Miller
People are suggesting I add my voice to the comments on Dave Timberline’s fine blog, specifically his post of last Wed, Jan 7, entitled “Comment-ary.” To be honest, I tried to post a comment, but it didn’t work. I never seem to be able to post a comment from my home computer anymore. I don’t know what’s wrong; it just ain’t workin’.

Then the more I thought about it, the less inclined I felt to jump in. I have too much to say, and it wouldn't really work as a comment.

The post and the 15 comments that follow it on Dave's blog discuss two, and only two, anonymous opinions that were among the several comments posted online at the Style website, responding to Dave’s year-end wrap-up article. The first comment reads:

“My husband and I moved here from Bethesda, MD almost seven years ago. We were frequent patrons of the theater in Washington, although we never subscribed anyplace. We have been disappointed by the lack of professional theater in Richmond. Most of the shows in Richmond are more like the community theater shows in Washington, which has an excellent community theater scene, but it's just that - community theater. The things that Richmond theaters consider cutting edge look like old hat in other cities. I agree that Scott Wichmann is a wonderful actor, and I look forward to seeing Audra Honaker soon. We would love to see more talent in Richmond. If that means more union theaters, that is what we should try to get.”

I pretty much agree with this comment, and I don’t feel in any way offended by it. None of us should. She’s basically saying that when Richmond theatre features talent like Scotty and Audra, she feels satisfied. When the cast is less talented that these two A-teamers, she feels like she’s watching community theatre. I could add ten names of Richmond actors whom I consider to be in the same league as Scotty and Audra, and my guess is that the Bethesda theatre fan hasn’t seen those ten, or at least hasn't seen them doing their best work. I’ll bet she’s seen other shows that feature B-teamers, or C or D-teamers, and when she does, she longs for her theatres back home in D. C. that can afford to hire Scotty’s and Audra’s all the time. She makes the “if that means more union theatres” comment seemingly unaware that Audra is non-union.

I basically feel the same way she does. I think Richmond has some shows that come off as “professional,” and a lot of shows that come off as “community theatre.” As Ms Bethesda hastens to add, there’s nothing wrong with good community theatre. Would all of Richmond’s theatres like to offer “professional” shows and nothing but? Probably. Do we? No way. Why? Money.

Of course it's not just about actors. Set, costume and light design and construction also effect considerably whether or not a show comes off as "professional." Ditto direction, choreography and music direction. Each of these components is also tied to that old standby ... money.

And yes, what Richmond audiences consider "cutting edge looks like old hat in other cities." Other larger cities, yes. You could say the same thing about any other aspect of Richmond's culture--music, dance, restaurants, bars, clubs, museums, etc etc etc.

The second comment is so much the same-old-same-old that I bet I know who wrote it. It reads:

“Much of the problem, and one of the distinguishing features of Richmond's theatre scene from that of other, demographically similar communities, is the lack of professionalism in the industry in Richmond. There is almost no serious union work, which means the most talented and dedicated professionals have to go to some other, more supportive market to ply their trade. With just a single union theatre, operating on the lowest paying union contract, and the occasional "Special Performance" contract non-union theatres use (terrible money, no benefits), and very limited union TV/film work, there's no incentive for talent to remain here. And audiences are to be congratulated for opting not to spend large sums of money to see theatre which is less than fully professional. The symphony and opera and ballet would never dare use non-professionals (except for children in the Nutcracker, of course) why is theatre allowed to get away with doing so?”

I think this comment is mostly hogwash. With only a few exceptions, Richmond does NOT offer less AEA work than most “demographically similar communities”; Richmond offers more. Richmond's "single union theatre"--I presume he means Barksdale--does NOT operate on "the lowest paying union contract." There are several AEA contracts that pay less. Some talented and dedicated professionals leave Richmond for work in other markets; others stay—Scotty and Audra being two prominent examples. As I've opined before, this is a sign of Richmond theatre's strength, NOT its supposed weakness. Who would say, "Several VCU grads moved on to pursue their doctorates at Harvard and Yale," and consider that to be a negative?

Those who always see “other, more supportive markets” as being greener, should check-in on a regular basis with actors in the D. C. talent-pool. I hardly ever hear from a D. C. actor who doesn’t complain that there’s “no work” in D. C., and talk about how lucky we are here in Richmond. And as for the symphony, opera and ballet never using “non-professionals”—I will in no way disparage my talented colleagues who perform with these great organizations, but if Anonymous is defining “non-professional” as “non-union,” and he is, a significant number of them are non-union and work with compensation packages similar to or less than the compensation packages offered at Barksdale.

I agree that Richmond theatre should be better funded and be able to employ more AEA actors, thereby encouraging more AEA actors to move to or remain in our community. I’m all for better pay for all theatre artists. But wishing for money doesn’t make it magically appear. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to congratulate audience members for ignoring Richmond theatre simply because state and local funding falls so far below national norms. There’s a lot of great theatre in Richmond, and those who can’t see it are, for whatever reason, blinded to the truth.

I’m not trying to say we can shrug off constructive criticism. I don’t think we can or should. I don’t think we do. The Richmond theatre community lacks nothing when it comes to being self-critical and self-assessing. I know very few members of the theatre crowd who support the status quo. My worry is NOT that we sit around congratulating ourselves and basking in glory. My worry is that we eat our young. Negative voices are often the loudest and get the most attention.

Friends, there are people out there with axes to grind. They are resentful of Richmond theatre’s successes. They’ve been hurt, they feel abused, they can’t stand someone or other’s guts. Probably mine.

And they blog on and on, almost always anonymously, and then we debate on and on regarding the validity of their beefs. I think it’s time to be positive and move on.

It’s time we start appreciating what we have here. Often, our published voices paint a picture for the rest of the community that says we don’t think we're very good. The published voices supporting dance, music and opera in Richmond are not nearly as self-critical.

I LOVE theatre in Richmond, warts and all. I believe there are a million ways to make it better. I feel like I’m dedicating my life to doing just that. So are a lot of other talented people. When it comes to talking about Richmond theatre to the general public, I'm going to say it's GREAT, because in many ways it is, and because that's an important step to bringing in new audience members.

Many of the naysayers, in my opinion, have their own agenda that has little to do with improving theatre in Richmond. Maybe I’m all wet. I don’t think so.

--Bruce Miller

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Happy Birthday to Linda and Harry!

Posted by Bruce Miller
Please join me in wishing a very Happy Birthday to two of Richmond’s greatest theatre scribes: Linda Escalera Baggs and Harry Kollatz, Jr. I’m privileged to call each of them my friend. Unlike their fellow birthday celebrant, J. R. R. Tolkien, Linda and Harry tend to base their writing on personal experience and history rather than fanciful acts of the imagination.

I first encountered Linda Baggs on a flight back from London in 2003. Phil and I had just led our first theatre trip abroad, and I was seated next to one of the maiden voyagers who had accompanied us, the wonderful Gerri Escalera. As we talked, she began telling me about her daughter Linda, who had recently left a successful advertising career to become a fulltime playwright. I remember being amazed that here was a mom talking about an adult child leaving a lucrative career to pursue a theatrical dream, and she sounded excited about it. “What a great mom!”, I thought.

And what a great daughter! One year later Barksdale produced Silent Heroes, a new play written by that daughter based on the “Marine wife” experiences of that mom.

Linda Escalera Baggs is one of Virginia’s foremost playwrights. Apparently theatre has been in her genes since her conception, but it took a while to bubble to the surface. Her grandmother was an actress born in Hollywood, but when push came to love Grandma gave up an opportunity to appear on Broadway and chose instead to marry Linda’s grandfather.

Linda’s father was a Marine, and so she spent her childhood moving frequently up and down the East Coast from one base to another. Linda wrote her first short story in the 4th grade as a present for her theatrically inclined granny, and immediately discovered that she loved to write. As she matured, Linda’s practical side convinced her artistic side that she should pursue a career in advertising, and so she did. For 18 years she earned a living, great acclaim, and a couple of ANDY’s and Clio’s writing commercials and assorted ad copy.

In 2000, she heard a funny story and her creative juices transformed it into a one-act play called Who’s Margaret?. When the Richmond Playwrights Forum selected the play for a public reading, and actors breathed life into her characters for the first time, the audience roared with laughter. Linda was hooked. She gave up advertising to pursue playwriting fulltime.

Now, three full-length plays, two short plays and three one-acts later, Linda has earned 18 nominations and awards, and 13 productions (including stagings in NYC, at Barksdale and at the Firehouse). Along with Paul Deiss, Doug Jones, Randy Strawderman, Bo Wilson and Irene Ziegler, Linda is one of the Virginia playwrights to whom Barksdale offers an on-going commitment. Hopefully we’ll see more of Linda’s work on one of Barksdale’s stages soon.

Until then, you can catch her show Silent Heroes opening next week on Jan 8 in New York City produced by the Round Table Ensemble. How cool a birthday present is that!?

Harry Kollatz Jr., I’ve decided, is my mirror image, only he looks good in hats and I don’t. And then there’s that little matter of him being more than a decade younger than me, but who’s counting?

Harry Kollatz and I are both Richmond natives. He graduated from VCU in 1986; I graduated from U of R in 1974. Harry co-founded the Firehouse in 1993; I co-founded Theatre IV in 1975. Harry married Richmond artist Amie Oliver in 1994; I married Richmond artist Terrie Powers in 1985. (Amie and Terrie are colleagues, friends, and alumnae of 1708.)

Harry earns his living writing for Richmond Magazine and publishing books; I earn my keep at Theatre IV writing plays for young audiences and grants. Harry’s most successful writing is inspired by local history (his regular column “Flashback” at Richmond Mag, his new book Richmond in Ragtime, his first book True Richmond Stories). Many of my most successful plays also are based on local history (Buffalo Soldier, The Maggie Walker Story, Arthur Ashe – Champion of Honor). Harry brought local history to life as an interpreter at the Valentine Museum; I did the same directing Do Lord Remember Me at the Valentine.

Harry was in the first acting company of the Playbooth Theatre on Palace Green in historic Williamsburg; my daughter Hannah was just accepted to William & Mary.

Harry keeps the blogosphere abuzz with The Blue Raccoon; I make my regular contributions to the b’o’sphere at the B’dale Buzz. Harry co-created the Theresa Pollak Awards for Excellence in the Arts in 1998. I won one in 2006.

All coincidence, or some twisted trick of the parallel universes? You decide.

Anyway, if you haven’t read one of Harry’s amazing books, you should. I’ve been a longtime fan of True Richmond Stories. Phil just bought his copy of Richmond in Ragtime: Socialists, Suffragists, Sex & Murder at a local book signing. I ordered mine today on

Linda and Harry are invaluable assets to our Richmond theatre community. As they blow out their candles, we all wish them a wonderful 2009!

--Bruce Miller

Friday, January 2, 2009

"Theater Talk" Talks Back with Barksdale

Posted by Bruce Miller
Theater Talk is an acclaimed PBS television series devoted to the world of the stage. To the best of my knowledge, it provides the nation’s preeminent in-depth, theatre-focused TV coverage. The show began on New York television in 1993, and continues to be co-hosted today by Michael Riedel (Broadway columnist for the New York Post) and the series producer Susan Haskins, pictured above and to the left.

Theater Talk is one of the few independent productions on PBS and now airs weekly on Thirteen/WNET in New York and WGBH in Boston. CUNY TV also rebroadcasts the show each week, offering NYC viewers additional opportunities to catch each new interview.

Thirty-five other PBS affiliate stations around the country pick up the program, including WHTJ in Charlottesville, WUNC in Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill, WUNE in Charlotte, and WHUT and WETA in Washington D. C. Alas, the show is not currently being aired on WCVE in Richmond, but that gives us (and John Porter?) something we can work on in 2009. If enough of us in the community begin to promote the same idea, our Community Ideas Station may respond positively by broadcasting the show.

For the time being, theatre aficionados in Greater Richmond can keep up with the show on line, by visiting the program’s website at You can watch streaming videos of current and/or archived programs, and subscribe to their podcast.

I bring all this up because I was delighted to receive a comment to our blog, on New Year’s Day no less, from Susan Haskins, producer and co-host of Theater Talk. She had recently read Billy Christopher Maupin’s article of Monday March 10, 2008 announcing an upcoming episode of Theater Talk during which Haskins and Riedel planned to interview the all black Broadway cast of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Apparently that show never took place, and she wrote in to the Barksdale Buzz to explain why.

She didn't have to write. The post was nearly nine months old, and her responsibilities to explain her program to theatre lovers in Richmond VA are minimal, seeing as how the show isn't even broadcast in this market. But write she did. I was mightily impressed.

More and more the national theatre scene is noticing what’s going on here at Barksdale and in Richmond, and this is all to the good. The more our theatre community connects with national institutions and artists, the stronger we become.

We appreciate Ms Haskins taking notice and corresponding with us. We hope to begin a friendly grassroots campaign to bring Theater Talk to WCVE on a regular basis.

--Bruce Miller

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Give YOUR Regards to Broadway

Posted by Bruce Miller published its Best of the Year list today for 2008, and the top three productions selected are South Pacific, Billy Elliott and In the Heights. You can read the full report at

You can catch video clips of the three shows at:

These three megahits also happen to be the shows we selected last spring for our March 2009 theatre junket to NYC. We purchased terrific orchestra seats nearly a year in advance to these sold out hits. We also lined up friends in the companies of South Pacific and Billy Elliott to talk with our group backstage after the show. (We’re working on lining up something from In the Heights as well, but can’t promise anything yet.)

Forty Richmond theatre enthusiasts will be venturing to the Big Apple from March 5 – 9. We’ll be traveling in our own Amtrak coach, staying at the sumptuous Marriott Marquis in Times Square, and seeing these three great shows (there's time for more shows for those who want to buy additional tickets on their own).

I’ll be leading a fun and fact-filled walking tour of Broadway’s theatre district, Phil will be leading enthusiastic post-show discussions in the Marriott’s bar overlooking Broadway, and we’ll re-connect with some of Barksdale’s Broadway alumni during a special breakfast in the Rainbow Room at the top of 30 Rock (the 56th floor of Rockefeller Center).

There's even an NYC welcoming dinner at the Playwright's Tavern.

There are still a few slots available in our group of 40. We already have enough people going to guarantee the trip. But if you’d like to join us, or if you know someone who may like to join us, we’d love to hear from you. It's going to be great fun!

You can learn more at

Interested in even more information? Contact our tour leader at Covington International Travel, Dee Dee White, at (804) 747-4129, or email

We’ll all yell “Martha Newell” when we set our first feet on the Great White Way. If you don't know why, we'll explain. Hope to see you there and then!

--Bruce Miller

Happy New Year! Happy Birthday!!

Posted by Bruce Miller
It’s New Years Day! Time to wish a very Happy Birthday to young Mr. Kniffen and my late grandmother, known to one and all in the Bon Air block of my youth as Gagy. That’s Gagy with a broad A please, and a G not a J at the beginning of the second syllable. Ga as in Gandhi / gy as in the second syllable of baggy. Gagy.

Her proper name was Gertrude Parsons Bale, but I don't remember anyone calling her Gertrude. My older brother created "Gagy" when he was 10 months old, if family legend is to be believed. And it is.

I’ve known Chase since he was a little kid acting at Theatre IV when he was less than half the age he is now. If my math works (sometimes it doesn’t), he turns a whopping 24 today. Chase and Peggy co-founded Stage 1 when he was 23; Phil and I co-founded Theatre IV when I was 24 and Phil was 22.

It may sound a little weird, but the affection and respect I have for Chase (pictured to the right with Gray Crenshaw) is somewhat different from what I feel toward most others in the circle of our theatre community. It’s at least half “parental,” at least half peer-to-peer. Jennings Whiteway ranks just ahead of him in this track, of course, and the young Crenshaws and Sinnenbergs follow him only slightly. They all grew up acting at Theatre IV from an early age. Their parents are all my friends. I humor myself to think that they are my friends too.

The notion of being friends with someone 34 years your junior doesn’t seem odd when you’re 58. When I think back to when I was in my 20s, I don’t know if it would have occurred to me to be “friends” with someone three and a half decades older than I. Hmmm.

My grandmother was born in 1886 in Charleston, South Carolina, only twenty-one years after the end of the Civil War. Al Jolson and Ma Rainey were born that year, as well as Ty Cobb, Ed Wynn and David Ben-Gurion. Grover Cleveland, the second and last man to be elected President while still a bachelor, was married that year in the White House.

Today would be Gagy’s 123rd birthday. The photo to the left is one I took of her in the spring following her 82nd birthday in 1968, a few weeks before she died and I graduated from high school.

I lived in the same house with my grandmother for the first 18 years of my life and the last 18 years of hers. Having a grandparent live with you was not as unusual back then as it may be now. Not to diminish the wonderful parenting I received from my mom and dad (especially my dad), I can honestly say that I was more or less raised by my Gagy.

We weren’t a family of means, by any means, and didn’t fit the Leave It to Beaver model of the 1950s, with a mom who stayed home and tended the house. My dad was a feed salesman for most of his career, selling Larro products to farms throughout Virginia. My mom worked at least half-a-day everyday for most of my life, first as a church secretary at Bethany Place Baptist and later as a secretary for New York Life.

My mother was a native New Yorker and Broadway lover. My dad had been president of the drama club (with six members, two of whom were his siblings) at tiny Bunker Hill High in Inwood, WV. But it was Gagy who had earned her living in the arts.

My grandfather, Gagy’s husband, had been an executive at Standard Oil, but he lost most of his money in the crash of ’29. A year later, while still young, my grandfather became ill and died unexpectedly while the family was vacationing in Canada. He fell victim to the same Group A strep infection that would kill Jim Henson decades later.

While struggling as a single mom in Staten Island, my grandmother had to make ends meet. So she fell back on the skill she had learned growing up as a proper young lady of the south. Playing piano. Apparently she was pretty good. She worked her way up to being the piano teacher on Staten Island, and eventually increased her earnings by becoming the principle piano practice teacher at Carnegie Hall. Three days a week, she’d take the ferry to Manhattan and supervise the piano practice of the wealthiest young women of New York. One of her star pupils was Katherine Hepburn, who had moved to NYC in 1928 at the age of 21 to appear in the Broadway production of Night Hostess (see photo above and to the left).

Just like the shoemaker’s children who ran around barefoot, my mother never studied piano. And so when my parents married shortly after WWII (they had met at a church social in NYC when my dad’s ship came to port), my dad, his bride and her mother all moved together to Richmond so that he could manage the General Mills Feed Store in what is now Shockoe Bottom.

Their house was a tiny cottage backing up to the railroad tracks on Dorchester Road in Westover Hills. We had chickens in a coop in the back. Because of lack of space, my parents didn’t bring my grandmother’s piano to Richmond.

After moving to Richmond, to the best of my knowledge, Gagy never played again. She always blamed it on arthritis. I was never sure. What I do know is that Gagy was fiercely supportive of my high school interest in theatre.

Fate blessed me with:
· a seventh grade teacher, Bernard Schutte, who had actually lived as well as acted at Barksdale Theatre at Hanover Tavern, who introduced me to theatre,
· the world’s best, strictest and most fun high school drama teacher, Marian Waymack,
· a grandmother who encouraged me every step of the way, inspiring me with stories of Carnegie Hall and the world’s great performing artists,
· a mom who was completely in love with Broadway and took me “back home” to New York nearly every year,
· a dad who would do anything for me and his family, and wanted only for me to be who I needed to be, and
· a University of Richmond theatre professor, Jack Welsh, who was a drill sergeant for the arts and demanded an intellectual pursuit of this art form as well as an artistic one.

The year of my high school graduation, Gagy died. Just a year after college graduation, Phil and I co-founded Theatre IV. Shortly thereafter, we met a young kid, crazy for theatre, named Chase Kniffen.

Celebrating birthdays reminds us to celebrate lives. I’m happy and privileged to join in celebration of two individuals who influenced me positively in the beginning and middle of my years.

--Bruce Miller