Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Planning the Future of Richmond Theatre

Posted by Bruce Miller
I would like to post a question.

What do we as a community—artists, audiences and residents at-large—want Richmond theatre to look like in ten or fifteen years? Where do we see Richmond theatre connecting and contributing both locally and nationally?

For the sake of this exercise, don’t try to answer the question for anyone other than yourself. You don’t have to provide the full answer, only your own. Try not to be excessively practical to the extent that you fail to dream. Try to resist being shamelessly extravagant and wind up with dreams that have no chance of ever coming true.

Don’t worry about the current recession or a swine flu pandemic shutting down all places of public assembly.

Imagine a supportive and growing audience (that’s what we have), a vibrant talent pool (ditto), a conservative giving community (alas, ditto again), and declining media coverage (it doesn’t take much to imagine that, does it?). Build on these strengths; find creative ways to fix these problems.

How many theatre companies should there be, how big should they be, what types of plays should they be producing, how much should they charge, how should they promote their offerings?

You can comment anonymously or take credit for your wisdom and creative thinking. You can comment once and then comment again if something new occurs to you. You can focus on the big picture, or talk at length about that one aspect of Richmond’s theatre world that really blows up your skirt or gets your knickers in a twist.

Be kind—we won’t publish anything that is unduly negative toward anyone or any entity. But it’s OK to be constructive and critical. Cast a knowing eye.

Your vision, opinions, ideas and constructive criticisms will inform the ongoing strategic planning process at Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV. But you need not limit your discussion to Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV. In fact, you don’t have to talk about us at all, if you’d rather not.

This is your chance to have an impact and change the world.

I hope we’ll get lots of comments.

See you at the theatre!

--Bruce Miller

Buzzin' and Bookin' to Beat the Band

Posted by Bruce Miller
I admit my relationship with the Barksdale Buzz has been an on-again, off-again affair. The reasons are several, having to do with the pull of other responsibilities both personal and professional, a fierce desire to avoid conflict, my tendency to become bored by routine, and a schoolboy’s response to the flirtations of other IT applications.

I believe it’s an important part of the job of the artistic director of any major professional theatre to communicate regularly and publicly about this most popular of all performing art forms. Like it or not, and I admit that I like it, there is a platform that comes with my position. I enjoy speaking in our Coffee & Conversations and Bifocals monthly programs. I’ve been known to get giddy leading walking tours in NYC or London during our annual theatre trips with Covington Travel.

But enjoying communication doesn’t make it easy or effective. Worthwhile, informed, articulate communication takes time and focus.

Not everyone agrees. Blogs and other new technologies encourage casual and free-wheeling correspondence. Several friends insist my writing is way too stuffy for a blog. But the minute I put on my artistic director hat, and more and more I’m realizing that I’m never allowed to take it off, every word I write becomes writ in stone. Sometimes people make judgements about Barksdale and Theatre IV based on little more than my syntax. Each of these judgments has a cash value, and I have 40 to 80 people counting on me every two weeks for their pay checks.

As I was contemplating all this last fall, the siren call of Facebook began to fill my ears. Facebook is not about writing; it’s about connecting. Perhaps here, I thought, I could continue to promote the two nonprofit theatres I represent without needing to pontificate. I kissed blogger goodbye, or at least farewell, and jumped into F’book like a skinny dipping kid on a hot night at the local swimmin’ hole.

Now, 1,575 friends later, I’m beginning to learn the ins and outs of Facebook. Without ever intending to, I’ve made people frustrated and upset; I’ve hurt feelings. I’ve learned to be cautious and to keep a much lower profile.

With only a couple early exceptions, I don’t play the Facebook games or take the surveys or join the causes or throw sheep at people.

Currently I use Facebook, professionally, as follows. I try to keep up with Theatre IV and Barksdale alum, to let them know they will always be remembered and appreciated. I try to befriend theatre students at VCU, Carnegie Mellon, and the University of Oklahoma, hoping they will audition for us as they grow their professional careers. I try to befriend professional actors in Broadway, Off Broadway and nationally touring shows, wanting to spread the names of Barksdale and Theatre IV widely throughout our national talent pool. I network with “friends” and supporters of other theatres in town, including the upcoming “Broadway” series at CenterStage, hoping that Barksdale and Theatre IV will show up on everyone’s radar screen. I keep in touch with a full roster of civic and business leaders, reminding one and all that Barksdale and Theatre IV are worthy nonprofits that need broad-based community support.

Will any of it work? Who knows. But I’m trying.

And now, perhaps, I’ll begin writing a bit again on the blog. If and when I do, I hope you’ll all begin reading again, and commenting. Most of all, I hope each and every one of you will become a constant player in the Richmond professional theatre scene. It won’t happen without lots of energy coming from lots of people in lots of places.

Hope to see you at the theatre.

--Bruce Miller

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Betting Our Bottom Dollar

Posted by Bruce Miller
Between December 2007 and March 2008, the Boards of Trustees, Phil and I made two big, proactive decisions. We scheduled the elimination of five positions from the staff of Barksdale/Theatre IV, and we announced three Depression Era plays/musicals for our upcoming seasons.

It may not have been clear to everyone at the time, but for those of us whose job it was to keep our eyes on the books on a day to day basis, the writing was on the wall.

The positions we eliminated amounted to approximately 11% of our total administrative workforce (staffers, not actors and other theatre artists). Like all RIF actions, these eliminations were painful. They continue to strain our operations.

The eliminations were also necessary. They reduced annual expenditures by approximately $140,000.

The five positions that were eliminated, two by attrition, included Associate Artistic Director, Special Projects Manager, Marketing Associate, Group Sales Manager, and Receptionist/Bookkeeping Associate. If and when the economy rebounds, we hope to be able to restore each of these sorely needed positions.

The shows we announced related to the Depression, but they were all upbeat and inspirational, and reflected the current zeitgeist. They were Barksdale’s productions of A Sanders Family Christmas at Hanover Tavern and This Wonderful Life at Willow Lawn, and Theatre IV’s production of Annie, which just opened on Friday at our historic Empire.

The public seems to appreciate our decision. These have been three of the four biggest hits of our 2008-09 Seasons (Driving Miss Daisy being the fourth).

Susie Haubenstock’s review of Annie appears in this morning’s Metro section. “In tough times,” the headline trumpets, “this musical is just what the doctor ordered.”

“Think that Annie is just for kids? The 1977 powerhouse musical by Thomas Meehan, Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin is a favorite of young audiences, surely, but rarely in history has it seemed so appropriate for older ones as well. Theatre IV’s current production is big and stylish and full of fun—and loaded with Depression-era nostalgia that’s all too pertinent today. But being Annie, the attitude is sunny, hopeful and positive—a real tonic for us veterans of bailouts and layoffs.”

“The story of those plucky orphans under the yoke of the tippling Miss Hannigan still works like a well-oiled machine. There’s a super-sized cast of 26 people and one irresistible dog, and a sumptuous scenic design by Mercedes Schaum. No skimping here. Robin Arthur’s direction hits just the right note—she’s an ace with the orphans, who are cute but never cloying, and her choreography (especially for Easy Street) is fresh and funny.”

Susie continues to praise the entire cast, the remaining designers, and the production as a whole.

So no matter what your age, if you need a lift from the recession-riddled headlines, trundle on down to the historic Empire and take part in Barksdale and Theatre IV’s own stimulus program. You’ll have a GREAT evening in the theatre, laugh and cheer, and help our nonprofit companies triumph, God willing, over this economy that continues to kick us in the shins.

We need you. Hope to see you at Annie, Well, I Ought to be in Pictures, and all our other upcoming productions.

--Bruce Miller

Monday, April 20, 2009

All is "Well" at Barksdale

Posted by Bruce Miller
One of the strongest influences on my notion of what distinguishes a great theatre from the rest of the crowd comes from the 20 or so years I subscribed to Arena Stage, the granddaddy of all major professional theatres, still going strong in Washington D. C. I began my Arena journey in my junior year of college, 1970 – 71. Two of my professors and mentors were subscribers—Jack Welsh and Ruth Salisbury. They were looking for someone to round out the car pool. If memory serves, Jack fronted me the money and I paid him back bit by bit over the school year.

I renewed my subscription annually after that, working my way over two decades into the best seats in the house. For many years I continued to subscribe with Jack and Ruth (Phil Whiteway joined our intrepid group sometime in the early 70s). Later Phil and I struck out on my own, eventually recruiting our girlfriends / wives, Donna and Terrie. Dianne Graham was with us for several years. Then Phil and Donna dropped out around the time that PJ was born in the early 80s, and Terrie and I called it quits when she became pregnant with Hannah during the 1989 – 90 Season. After the kids, who had the time or money?

Anyway, one of the things I learned during this double decade experience was that some of the shows I enjoyed the most were the ones I knew the least about. They may or may not have been “great” plays—time is the only judge of that. They were “of the moment,” almost ephemeral, often loosely crafted works of whimsy and/or drama, not necessarily meant to stand the test of time. They were part of the zeitgeist. They gave us lots to talk about on the ride home.

I particularly recall History of American Film and The Marriage of Bette and Boo, both by Christopher Durang, Pueblo, Isn’t It Romantic? by Wendy Wasserstein, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window by Lorraine Hansberry, Moonchildren by Michael Weller, Status Quo Vadis by Donald Driver, Streamers by David Rabe, and Nightclub Cantata by Elizabeth Swados, among many, many others.

I LOVED the fact that Arena, under the brilliant artistic direction of Zelda Fichandler, had the daring to mix it up. Interspersed with the Arthur Millers and Thornton Wilders, with the Ibsens and Chekhovs and Brechts, would be young and current writers who were testing the boundaries and breaking the molds.

At Barksdale Theatre, my artistic decisions are influenced absolutely by Zelda’s aesthetic. I wish we had the resources to do more Millers, Wilders, Ibsens, Chekhovs and Brechts. I’m proud that we have the daring to include in each season new, lesser known (at least in Richmond) works such as our current production of Well by Lisa Kron, and our recent productions of The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl, The Little Dog Laughed by Douglas Carter Beane, Brooklyn Boy by Donald Margulies, Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage, The Drawer Boy by Michael Healey, and Melissa Arctic by Craig Wright.

Only by exploring new work do we grow as artists and audiences.

If you’d like to join us on the journey, we invite you to round out the car pool.

See you at the theatre.

--Bruce Miller

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Ignoring Curse, B'dale Partners on "Darwin"

Posted by Bruce Miller
Among Greater Richmond's major nonprofit arts organizations, Barksdale and Theatre IV lead the pack when it comes to successful partnerships with colleague organizations. For decades we have been proud of our record as the partnership kings. We were doing partnerships long before partnerships were cool.

Barksdale’s current partnership with the Carpenter Science Theatre Company of the Science Museum of Virginia is running full speed ahead. Terrie Powers, resident designer with Barksdale and Theatre IV, designed the set for Endless Forms Most Wonderful, a new play about Charles Darwin written by Douglas Jones (author of numerous touring shows for Theatre IV, as well as Songs from Bedlam, Bojangles and The Turn of the Screw, all of which had their world premieres at Barksdale).

Billy Christopher Maupin, publications manager and marketing associate at Barksdale, is stage manager of the educational science production. Lynne Hartman, who seemingly designs lights for four out of every five shows we do, has created the light design. And most important, Barksdale’s technical team constructed and installed the set; the Carpenter Science Theatre Company has no set construction shop or crew of its own.

We hope this will be the start of a long and beautiful relationship.

Every aspect of Barksdale’s work on the show has come off without a hitch. At least so far…knock on wood. Several other aspects of the production have been the apparent victims of Darwin’s Curse.

Darwin’s Curse is explained on the Internet as follows: “In most games, an enemy has one set of ‘physical’ and ‘behavioural’ characteristics and follows them. In Darwin’s Curse, the powers-that-be randomly assign the enemy with certain characteristics, and then check to see if the design is successful or not. If it was successful, the design is kept; if not, the design goes back to the drawing board. This is what is called Artificial Evolution.”

Well, the “enemy”of Endless Forms Most Wonderful must have been successful all right, because his evil machinations repeated themselves week after week during the rehearsal process, coming close to shutting down the show for good!

In week one, Larry Gard, artistic director of the Carpenter Science Theatre Company and the actor playing Darwin himself in the two-actor show, cut his hand seriously with hedge trimmers, requiring a trip to the emergency room and more stitches than anyone would want. Rehearsals and opening were postponed for a week.

In week two, the original stage manager had to be let go after it was determined by security at the Science Museum that he once had been arrested for skinny dipping in his youth. That was when Billy Christopher Maupin stepped in to take over for his fallen comrade. We were all pleasantly surprised to discover that, as of now, Billy Christopher has no arrest record—at least none that anyone has found out about.

In week three, the director, Tim Ireland, wrenched his back and temporarily lost his ability to walk. That was when Douglas Jones, playwright, stepped in to assume the directorial reins. Tim Ireland, we are pleased to report, is now beginning to feel much better.

The day before opening, Kimberly Jones Clark, the female lead in this two-person show (playing Darwin's wife), ripped a leg muscle while doing the splits in a rehearsal for The Great American Trailer Park Musical at the Firehouse. She missed the final rehearsal of Darwin, but made it, barely able to move, to the first performance the following morning.

Partnerships are a valuable component of nonprofit operations during this tough economy. We are pleased to partner with the Carpenter Science Theatre Company on this brave new play, running Wednesdays through Sundays through May 10. We’re mightily glad, thus far, to have seemingly escaped the dreaded D. C.

Now, as long as no one’s security department finds out that I was sent to detention once in the third grade for chewing gum. Sshhh. Mum’s the word.

--Bruce Miller

Monday, April 13, 2009

"Chicago," "nor.mal" and "Well." Oh My!

Posted by Bruce Miller
I'm just winding up another great theatre weekend right here in River City. I had the pleasure of flying solo to the Opening Night of Chicago at TheatreVCU on Friday. Hannah and I made it to the second weekend of nor.mal at Stage 1 on Saturday (I was at the Fairy Tale Ball for last week’s nor.mal opening). Tonight I caught the first dress of Well, which we open at Willow Lawn this Friday.

I love going to theatre in Richmond, and found lots to admire in these three productions.

At VCU, Maggie Marlin co-starred with Kim Exum, lending their triple-threat talents to the showgirl femme fatales, Velma and Roxie. This summer Maggie will be starring with us in the titular role of Thoroughly Modern Millie. Mike Rieman charmed his way into the hearts of America as the song-and-dance attorney, Billy Flynn. And Jake Ashey stole the show as Amos, Roxie’s long suffering husband.

Patti D’Beck’s creative and energetic choreography showed off the strengths of her talented cast. And Ron Keller’s terrific set provided all the visual jazz (and pizzazz) anyone could want. Patti and Ron directed / choreographed and designed last summer’s Guys and Dolls, and will reprise their roles in this summer’s Millie.

At Stage 1, despite nagging laryngitis, Julie Fulcher acted her heart out as a mother trapped in a downward emotional spiral. Knowing as I do that Ford Flanagan (who plays the dad) shies away from dance roles, I’m pleased to say he looked right at home in the “boxing” choreography given to him by Chase Kniffen. Ali Thibodeau and Dave Amadee turned in persuasive performances as the brother / sister teens. Dave is that commodity that is all too rare in professional theatre: a handsome, masculine young man who can act, sing and dance. He has a career ahead of him if he wants it.

Sandy Dacus did her usual masterful job as music director. And Debra Wagoner proved yet again that she has a voice made for musical theatre. The new music created for nor.mal, like a lot of new theatre music, combines dissonance with unusual harmonies and unexpected intervals to create a contemporary feeling. Those who sing this music best have perfect intonation, hitting pitches dead on rather than sliding into them or approximating them. Debra Wagoner gives a master class in nor.mal in how to do just that.

Chase loves this new and complex musical, and deserves special congratulations for daring to bring such a challenging work to Richmond audiences.

We at Barksdale deserve some of those same congratulations. Well by Lisa Kron is not your usual comedy. Ms Kron is an established memoirist—an acclaimed master of the one-woman show. In this first Virginia production of her new Broadway hit, she plays fast and loose with the form, inviting her mother to join her onstage, and hiring several guest actors to play the roles of people from her past.

Watching the show is like peeling back the layers of an onion. It’s fun and funny, with a quirky sensibility. Jenny Jones Hundley and Jody Strickler are gonna be great as Lisa and her mother. And before the evening ends, there will be more than a few sniffles as mother and daughter resolve their issues with warmth and humor.

Next weekend I hope to make it out to Pulp, Altar Boyz (Mill version), and, of course, the opening of Well. Hope you too will make the effort to support professional theatre in Richmond. Call a box office, buy a ticket or two, and then go spend some time where the acting is.

Hope to see you there.

--Bruce Miller

Saturday, April 11, 2009

U-Tkts Help Students Escape the Box

Posted by Bruce Miller
Beginning Wednesday, April 15, we will launch at Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV a new ticket discount program designed to enable and encourage more college and university students to attend our productions. The tickets, to be called U-Tkts (for University Tickets), will cost $10 each. Normal ticket prices at Barksdale are $38 for a non-musical and $40 for a musical.

Students can reserve U-Tkts in advance over the phone or in person for any performance, pending availability. A student may purchase two U-Tkts to be used by himself/herself and a guest. The guest may be a student or a non-student. A student may not purchase a pair of U-Tkts and give them to a pair of theatergoers who are not students. Students must show a valid student ID at the box office when they pick up their U-Tkts.

It practical terms, U-Tkts will be on the honor system. If you’re not a student, please don’t try to cheat the system just to save a few bucks. We all know how tough the economy is right now. Neither Barksdale nor Theatre IV can afford to lose revenue.

The first shows to be covered by our new U-Tkts program are Well, opening at Barksdale Willow Lawn on April 17, and Annie, opening at the historic Empire Theatre on April 24.

Information about the new U-Tkts program will be distributed next week to all colleges and universities within a 60 minute drive of one of our theatres. The colleges and universities include Hampden-Sydney, J. Sargeant Reynolds, John Tyler, Longwood, Mary Washington, Randolph-Macon, U of R, UVA, VCU, Virginia State, Virginia Union, and William & Mary.

The U-Tkts program was designed with input from 14 university theatre students from throughout the community who responded to questions posted on Facebook.

TenSpot tickets ($10 tickets for high school students) have been in place for the last year and are made available to any high school student who joins our high school connections group, Barksdale Theatre Workshop. More info about this program will be posted soon.

As Greater Richmond’s leading professional theatres, Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV remain committed to being accessible to all theatre lovers, regardless of financial means or physical disability.

--Bruce Miller

Friday, April 10, 2009

Rostov's Coffee & Conversations this Tuesday at Willow Lawn

Rostov's Coffee & Conversations programs are free and open to the public and take place on the second Tuesday of each Month from 9:30 am until 10:30 am in the lobby at Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn, except as noted. No RSVP is required.

Tuesday Apr 14, 9:30 AM
Casting the Net - Audition Policies and Practices

Moderator -
John Moon: actor (The Clean House), director (This Wonderful Life), member - Barksdale Board of Trustees

Panel -
Chase Kniffen: artistic director (Stage 1), director (nor.mal)
Bruce Miller: artistic director (Barksdale Theatre), director (Children of a Lesser God)
Ginnie Willard: production manager (Barksdale Theatre), stage manager (Thoroughly Modern Millie)

Rostov's Coffee and pastry bar opens at 9:15 a.m., program begins at 9:30 a.m., program ends at 10:30 a.m. Free - a cash jar is placed on the coffee and pastry bar to accept donations, average donation $1 to $3