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


debra said...

Good for you Bruce. Saying what you think, and signing your name to it, is not easy. Stick to your guns. And don't remove this blog, no matter what anyone says!!!

Robinitaface said...

Thanks, Bruce.

Anonymous said...

In the AEA Annual Report it states that the Median Member Earnings for 2007-2008 was $7,340. The Average Weekly Totals for Members Working was 14.8% so every week 85.2% of Equity Actors were unemployed.

Just wanted to point out that no matter what market you are in, union or non-union, if you want to be an actor you most likely will not earn a living wage just acting.

Anonymous said...

I've got to say it--anyone who says they've been attending theater in Richmond who has nevertheless not yet seen Audra has not been attending much theater.

Mark said...

Or they have seen Audra, and just didn't commit to memory each actor they have seen on stage. Most likely, they have seen her in something and just did not recollect it. Maybe they would if she had an asterisks next to her name, right, Anonymous? You and your feelings towards theater audience members...

Our Anonymous Statistician has a brilliant point: it is difficult to be an actor. I take exception to Anonymous Statistician's interpretation of the AEA annual report, though. S/he seems to read the report to mean that EVERY actor makes $7,340. If you have four working actors making roughly $29,360 a year, and twelve who have not worked at all that year, the average (or mean) is $7,340.

It is not safe to assume that all 12 of those unemployed actors were out there auditioning constantly, either. Some could be women who recently had children, some could be working in film now, some could simply maintain their AEA status while teaching, and on and on.

I am just a little bit amazed by how anti-AEA the Richmond theater community comes across on these blogs. I acknowledge that a few bloggers do not speak for an entire community, but it is worth noting that there is almost no pro-AEA chatter on these boards. Why so anti-AEA? Their aim is to ensure a safe working enviornment and decent wages for actors. Do we not consider this a noble endeavor? Does nobody know what conditions were like in showbiz before AEA?

Why are we Richmondites so anti- AEA? Is it jealousy of larger cities, or only a lack of understanding about what AEA does? If we were all AEA members, earning AEA wages, we could spend more time devoted to theater, and less time making ends meet elsewhere. Would this not serve our audience? Why so anti-AEA?

Anonymous said...

You could add 10 players to your list of local actors who are on the same level as Scott and Audra? Only 10 Bruce? What about all these actors who have done some wonderful work over the years?

Joy Williams, Ford Flannegan, Erin Thomas, Joe Inscoe, Joe Pabst, Laine Satterfield,
Debra Wagoner, Jennifer Massey, Kelly Kennedy, David Bridgewater, Dawn Westbrook
Brett Ambler, Duke LaFoon, Jacqueline Jones, Jan Guarino, Robin Arthur, Robyn O’Neill, Bridgett Gethins, Tom Width, Paul Deiss, Jackie O’Connor, Andy Boothby, Derek Phipps, Harriett Traylor, Tony Foley, Gordon Bass, Janine Russo, Jason Marks, Jeanie Rule, Jenny Hundley, Jody Strickler, John Moon, John Hagadorn, Julie Fulcher, David Clark, Lisa Kotula, Lynn West, Grant Mudge, Liz Blake, Cynde Liffick, Richard Koch, Vicki McLeod, Robert Throckmorton, Rusty Wilson, Steve Perigard, Margarette Joyner, Larry Cook, Katherine Louis and dozens more.

It seems silly to me to try to categorize your actors into “teams” of talent. This is unfair and untrue. I would argue that some of whom you may consider “A teamers” have done some work over the years that would not be considered their best, and that some of whom you may consider your B, C or D teamers have done some outstanding work. It’s not this black and white. It’s about talent, yes, but it’s also about opportunity and the right role for the right person. There is not enough opportunity in Richmond to make all Richmond actors shine consistently. Yes, each Director may have their list of favorite actors and audience members too, but it is subjective at best. Which is a good thing, because if it was not, then only a few would work all the time.

Frank Creasy said...

You're wrapped it up magnificently Bruce.

Anonymous points out actors don't earn a living wage "just acting." Boy, is that the truth. When I was in college doing outdoor drama during the summers, I met some amazingly talented Equity actors from New York working the principal roles. "So what were you doing before this gig?", I'd ask. The answers ranged from selling balloons to waiting tables to real estate. So it occurred to me at that point in my life that even "professional" actors (by whatever standard you measure them) had to work jobs unrelated to acting just to survive. I guess that's where the popular term "survival job" comes from.

At this very moment, some of my dear theatre friends - folks our Bethesda patron would no doubt acknowledge as on par with the best DC talent, whether she's seen them or not - are working full or part time jobs outside the theatre. Their talent and union status clearly is not related in any way to their level of income or source thereof. The percentage of actors who regularly earn their living solely from acting is in the low single digits, and that fact hasn't changed in our lifetimes. Listen to the stories of any of your favorite stars on "Inside the Actors' Studio", and you'll learn about their struggles to get that big break while they saved packets of ketchup and worked various jobs.

There are plenty of folks smarter than me working on this problem of professional growth in Richmond theatre(or at the very least, have more knowledge and time vested in improving it than me, or our anonymous commenters). So clearly there's no silver bullet.

You make a number of great points, Bruce, and the thing that sticks out to me is the discussion around the professionalism of folks who are NOT on stage, and how that can elevate or detract from the performances. Sure, we can fuss about wigs and sets and sound...but in my humble opinion, for theatres with very modest budgets, I'm of the opinion that the first investment offstage should be in professional directors. A great director brings out an actor's best performance, and pulls together a cohesive vision of a production of a play. Starting from that vantage point, an audience can (again, my simplistic view) begin to identify with a theatre company and its' core production values. The direction, quality of individual performances drawn by the director, and types of plays presented create an artistic identity for a company. Hopefully, that leads to patron and sponsor investment that can raise production values overall.

You have to start somewhere, they say, and there have been great starts...some stops...and lots of progress in certain quarters in Richmond theatre. I'm with you on the positive attitude train Bruce. Let's bring the passion and the vision and work to get the money trail to follow along.

Bruce Miller said...

Do I Value AEA?

If I haven't been clear, let me be so now. I support AEA. Barksdale at Willow Lawn works under a seasonal SPT (Small Professional Theatre) contract with AEA by choice. At Hanover Tavern and Theatre IV we employ a significant number of AEA actors on Guest Artist contracts, again, by choice.

I think our SPT and GA contracts enhance our ability to employ the best actors, and reinforce our commitment to paying actors at national standards. I wish we could employ more AEA actors and afford a higher level AEA contract.

I have a couple beefs with AEA's health insurance policies, but otherwise AEA is A-OK by me.

Please consider this to be pro-AEA blog chat.

Bruce Miller said...

A Team, B Team

I agree with the commenter who thinks A-teaming and B-teaming is counter-productive. Those were the wrong terms for me to use in my blog post.

There are lots of talented actors in Richmond. It would be nuts for anyone to divide them into teams. I shouldn't; I don’t.

I used the terms A-team and B-team as shorthand. I don’t have a file somewhere, even in my head, that divides actors into levels of expertise. Despite allegations to the contrary, I don’t sit at auditions and think, “Oh boy, the next auditionee is on the A-team!”

Do I have actors I particularly like? Sure. Will my list of favorite actors be different from someone else's list? I hope so. My list of favorites is forever changing. So, I suspect, is everyone else's.

Having said that, do I believe that some Richmond actors are more skilled and experienced than others? Of course I do.

I'm among the gazillions who believe that Scotty and Audra (and others whom I will not name) are extraordinarily gifted. I think they're as good as any actor in the nation.

I single them out not because they are my favorite two--they are certainly among my favorite twelve--but because they were mentioned by name by our Bethesda friend.

Should my "favorite twelve" be my "favorite fourteen" or my "favorite eighteen"? I don't know, maybe. Sure. I'm not going to make that list or even try to keep count. It doesn't matter.

Do I think there are twenty-five, thirty or forty actors working in Richmond at the level of Scotty and Audra? No, I don't. That's not to say that I don't admire each of the 48 actors mentioned by name in the earlier comment. I do. I also admire quite a few other fine actors not included on that list.

In the right role, each of these other fine actors, named and unnamed, will be better in auditions and performance than anyone else. I’m all for Richmond celebrating her MANY talented actors.

It was not only “silly” but also stupid of me to give the impression that I or anyone should divide Richmond's outstanding actors into teams. I stand corrected. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Okay, Mark. Could you explain how you envision AEA making theater in Richmond better for audiences? I see how it would make it better for actors.

debra said...

I think some of the Equity/non-Equity thing has more to do with something my husband Joe said on another blog. Joe has worked under Equity contract but opted not join. Mostly, because we live in Richmond, joining the union seemed to us a mistake. It would eliminate our options at other theatres in the area b/c they simply could not afford to pay us.
I had the option to join one or two times early on and I also decided not to. I'm still on the fence about it.Now, as my work more frequently takes me out of town, I'm thinking--- Being in a union would then of course afford me some security of wage, working enviroment etc. So, I guess, I'm saying never say never.

BUT, what sticks in my craw, and in Joe's too, is the idea that having that union status means that somehow you are more qualified to be up on that stage than your fellow-possibly non-union--actors. That Equity must mean, "more talented" "more skilled" more deserving". Well, that's just crap. Period. And as a non-union actor who has been working in regional theatre since I was 19 years old, I can't help but resent it. I've worked too long and too hard in this business to be written off because I don't have that little asterisk by my name in the program.

Having ranted, let me say again, that I have nothing against any one in the AEA, or anyone who joins the union, or the IDEA of a union. I never joined because it never seemed right for me at the time. But I've never ruled it out as a possibility someday.

Anonymous said...

In response to the thought that Richmond might be anti-AEA, I don’t think its necessarily AEA, but an overall anti-union vibe sweeping the country. There was a time in American history when unions were essential to having basic human rights in the workplace! When the railroad barons and steel giants had 10 yr olds working 12 hour shifts, and people where dying daily at work. However it seems that over the last 50 years the Federal Government (with the help of Unions) has passed laws that have corrected most of these injustices for every working American, union or non. Businesses now have basic laws to follow to ensure people have a safe, respectful workplace with a minimum wage. Do injustices still occur, of course. But the role of the Union has focused over the years to one topic, money.

Why does a sub-standard American made car cost $30,000? Ask the United Auto Workers. Why does a nose bleed seat at a ball game cost $50 and a soda $6, talk to the MLB Players Association, who have fought for decades against a salary cap and even fought against steroid testing. Why does a Broadway show, even a crappy one, cost over $100? Talk to the 13 different unions & guilds (and a few movie stars) a producer has to deal with to mount a show!

If Barksdale, Firehouse, & Swift Creek became full blow “Professional” Theatres with LORT contracts they would all go belly up within a year. Why? Because in order to meet the requirements the unions demand and meet payroll, a ticket to last summers Guys & Dolls would have cost $75 instead of $40. With no notable increase in quality, just a few more asterisks in the program. Guys & Dolls was a fantastic $40 show, it would be a mediocre or even bad $75 show. Audiences would dry up and so would the Theatres, ending the income for all artists in Richmond who now make a few extra bucks a year doing what they love.

Unions have had their place in the development of our society & economy. The changes they have helped to bring about we should all be eternally grateful for. However there are times when they can do more harm than good, even have a direct role in destroying the industry they are supposed to help maintain. The United Auto Workers got their bail out, but I think we can all agree that a Cultural bail out will never happen in this country.

AEA has helped, and continues to help, many blue collar artists raise families and enjoy health benefits (even if they are crappy benefits), but in Richmond AEA could be a detriment to the humble group of artists who believe deeply in creating art for the love of it, not for the paycheck.

mmmhawke said...

Thanks Debra - Some of us choose not to be in AEA. I joined Actor's Equity in 1978 to work at GEVA Theatre in Rochester. When making my living as an actor in New York it made sense. Here in Richmond - not so much for me for now...
I would work far less were I to be reinstated, and I would have far fewer opportunities to work with a lot of great non - AEA actors. I understand why some people want to be in AEA, but in my opinion, most theatre audiences around this neck of the woods could care less about that label in terms of status.


Anonymous said...

Mark Persinger here...

Bruce - Thanks so much for your efforts to develop, support, and expand theatre in Richmond. I certainly think that everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I welcome new points of view and constructive criticism. But I, like you, have become convinced that some of the bloggers on this and other local theatre blogs do have axes to grind or personal agendas to promote. It seems their motivation has much more to do with tearing down Richmond theatre than in offering advice to help make it better.

I have been fortunate to work with many of Richmond's theatre companies both "professional" and "community" and have developed many close friendships among the hundreds of actors, directors and crew I have worked with. I'm proud of all of these productions and the hard work and tireless effort put forth by all involved. Richmond theatre is NOT perfect, but we have much to be proud of.

It is also worth mentioning (based on my knowledge) that the standard Broadway AEA contract starts around $1500/week or $75000/year. That might SEEM like a large amount of money, but given that most of these contracts are 6 month contracts (if the show runs that long) and that these actors live in NYC, one of the most expensive cities to live in, it is pretty obvious that most Broadway AEA actors could hardly be called "rich". The bottom line is a difficult business to run successfully (as is any business) in almost any market.

Rick St. Peter said...

Greetings all...I'm late to all these conversations but if you want to understand how little impact AEA has on an audience's perception of quality, you need only to look at how ineffectual AEA picketing of non-union "Broadway" tours has been over the last few years. Audiences, in my opinion, don't know the difference and really don't care. The AEA picketers did not deter a single person from attending these shows and almost all the roadshows these days have gone non-union. What does bug me, and one of the thing that drives me nuts in Lexington, is these nonunion 3rd and 4th string tours calling themselves "Broadway" tours and charging audiences $70 and above ticket prices, while I have audiences complain about our $25 tickets prices. There is always a perception that if something comes from somewhere else, it has to be better than what we have here, otherwise why would people take the time to bring it here...and boy aren't we lucky to have it. Cast it from out of town, slap a "Broadway" title on it, charge 3 times the ticket prices and you can fool some of the people all of the time. I think that outweighs any perception of AEA vs non-AEA...and if you can have the 9th runner up from season 2 of American Idol right before they go into Celebrity Rehab, get ready to sell out!! In all respects....

Rick St. Peter

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