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.