Saturday, May 23, 2009

Harnessing Honaker

Posted by Bruce Miller
First of all there’s the pronunciation. You put the emphasis on the first syllable—just like you would expect. But the first syllable rhymes with “bone,” not “don.”

Then there’s the matter of the second and third syllables. You say them just as if you were talking about an “acre” of land, with the “a” getting more emphasis than the “ker.”

So it’s Hone’-ake’-er, with each syllable getting slightly less emphasis than the one that preceded it. Like homemaker. Not Hahn’-ah-ker.

I’m talking of course about Audra Honaker, who is now starring in Barksdale’s I Ought To Be In Pictures at Hanover Tavern (see pictures above and to the right and below and to the left).

About her performance, critic Celia Wren wrote in the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “If America could harness the vim that actress Audra Honaker brings to her latest gig, the country’s energy problems would be solved.” That’s the first sentence of the review.

In STYLE Weekly, Mary Burruss issued similar compliments: “Hackman and Honaker hit dramatic heights. Honaker delivers a strong performance.”

If Richmond has stars--and I think we do--she's one.

So who is this theatrical powerhouse whose talent and energy are capable of lighting up a stage and a nation?

1. She’s the youngest of that elite group known as “the most talented professional actors in Greater Richmond.” No group’s really known as that, but you know what I mean. I’m not talking the top 50; I’m talking the top ten. I don’t use these words lightly. (That's Audra in Seussical to the right, and in Brooklyn Boy below and to the left.)

2. She’s one of the two or five actors in town so enjoyed and remembered by the theatre-going public that her name above a title can actually sell a significant number of tickets.

3. Like most of the greats, she’s a quadruple threat: she can act, sing and dance, and she’s very good looking.

4. She has a healthy self confidence. But her most endearing quality is that she honestly seems to have very little sense of her elevated place in the pecking order. I don’t think she knows there is a pecking order. And if she ever finds out there is one, I don't think she'll give a peck. She accepts roles in the ensemble just as happily as she accepts leads. In her spare time you can find her spray painting props, power washing sidewalks, laundering costumes, and tending to abandoned kittens. Whatever around the theatre needs doing, Audra is happy to do it. All these things I’m saying, she’d never say herself … or even think.

5. Like all the greats, she works all over town. Barksdale, Stage 1, Swift Creek Mill and Theatre IV (in alpha order) are all regular employers. (That's Audra with Drew Seigla, as Little Red and Jack, outside Willow Lawn on the sidewalk for Into the Woods.

6. She is equally adept at comedies, dramas and musicals. She has the instincts of a seasoned performer. She always takes direction eagerly. I’ve never once seen her roll her eyes as if she knew better.

7. She takes quickly to accents and with little or no effort can sound as eloquent and British as anyone could want. But in real life, she speaks with an unselfconscious Hopewell drawl that is easy to imitate as the Audra-voice. She probably (and proudly) has the most frequently impersonated accent in town.

8. She’s SMART. I should have put this as the first comment, because it may be the most important. (That's Audra to the left with Jan Guarino in the world premiere of Mona's Arrangments.) Audra's blog, and I won’t give you the address because it’s completely unselfconscious and I don’t want to freak her out, is laugh-out-loud-funny and warmly enjoyable. Other than boy genius Matt Hackman, Audra’s usually the first one off book. She sight reads vocal music like a pro, and is almost always the first one off score.

9. She’s nice, thoughtful and is friends with just about everybody. Seriously, does anyone know someone who knows Audra and doesn’t like her a lot?

So now for the shameless self-promotion part, except it’s not really self-promotion, it’s Barksdale promotion. Come see Audra in I Ought To Be In Pictures, playing now through June 21, and Audra may be missing a couple shows the last week, so come soon. Audra plays the wonderful role that won a Tony for Dinah Manoff (Best Supporting Actress, 1981) and should win Audra her second Richmond Theatre Critics Circle Award next fall. (Audra won Best Actress last fall for her star turn in Once Upon a Mattress at the Mill.)

I Ought To Be In Pictures is a funny and sweet play. Audra, Matt and Lisa are wonderful in it. Hope to see you at the theatre.

--Bruce Miller

Monday, May 18, 2009

Best of Broadway / Benefits of Barksdale

Posted by Bruce Miller
Rehearsals for Thoroughly Modern Millie began this evening. An eager cast of 22 assembled under the knowing eyes of director / choreographer Patti D’Beck, musical director Paul Deiss, and stage manager Ginnie Willard. I welcomed everyone. Off the top of my head, I'm thinking that nine of the Millie cast members are new to the Barksdale family, including two of the leads. Other than seeing them at auditions, I met these nine for the first time tonight.

One of the leads who is NOT new to Barksdale is Zak Resnick (pictured above and to the right). Zak arrived at rehearsal tonight directly from his drive down from Carnegie Mellon School of Drama in Pittsburgh, the prestigious university theatre program from which he just graduated. His car was still packed to the roof with everything he owns.

There must be something special about Richmond’s relationship with C M. Other Richmond theatre notables who went to Carnegie Mellon and then vaulted almost immediately into their professional careers include Tony nominee Emily Skinner and Hollywood superstar Blair Underwood. Like Zak, both Emily and Blair shared their talents with Theatre IV, Barksdale and other Richmond theatres before making it big on the national scene.

Like Emily and Blair, Zak seems destined for great things. Many Richmonders remember Zak for his memorable portrayal of Rapunzel’s Prince in our 2007 summer musical Into the Woods. But in New York, Zak is known by his growing fan base as one of the Broadway Boys, a six-man super group comprised of Broadway’s hottest tenors. (Six sing at any one time. There are actually 25 or so talented young men who have been selected for the ensemble.) “A fusion of funk, soul and gospel, the Broadway Boys create an out-of-control energy that makes you want to just get up and dance,” states Amy Birnbaum of the Jujamcyn Theatre organization. “Their arrangements of Broadway and pop tunes give way to a myriad of sound, color and grit. An experience you can’t afford to miss!”

You can hear and see Zak and the Boys singing "Defying Gravity" at Zak is the guy to the far left of the screen (stage right). The camera-work is a little shaky, but you'll get the gist.

Taking time off this summer from his develop-ing NYC career as a Broadway Boy, Zak will be playing the male lead of Jimmy in our production of Thoroughly Modern Millie at the historic Empire Theatre. Last Monday, just before leaving New York for Pittsburgh, Zak took Broadway by storm one more time before heading south. After being selected as one of the 16 rising stars to be featured in this year’s Leading Men benefit concert for Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS, Zak performed onstage last Monday side by side with fellow “leading men” including Jonathan Groff (Tony nominee for Spring Awakening), Nick Adams (currently achieving major celebrity buzz in the Broadway cast of Guys and Dolls), and Michael Kadin Craig (now starring Off Broadway in Altar Boyz). Lest you miss the import of being included in this august group, let me remind you that previous Leading Men concerts have featured the talents of current stars including Matt Cavenaugh, Cheyenne Jackson, Aaron Lazar, Matthew Morrison, Hugh Panaro and Christopher Sieber.

You can catch Zak’s star-to-be turn on YouTube, singing "The Streets of Dublin" from A Man of No Importance. The last time I heard Zak sing this song was in the cabaret that the cast of Into the Woods performed on Barksdale’s Willow Lawn lobby stage to benefit the Richmond Theatre Artists Fund. This time he sounded just as great, but he was introduced by Tony nominee John Tartaglia (Avenue Q, Shrek The Musical). I loved hearing John announce to the packed Broadway audience that Zak would be appearing this summer at Barksdale Theatre in Richmond, VA.

Those of you who listen to the Broadway channel on SIRIUS satellite radio will be interested to know that Zak was accompanied by none other than Seth Rudetsky.

As the Broadway in Richmond series reopens this fall with David Copperfield’s magic show at the new CenterStage, it’s good to remember that more Richmonders get their Broadway at Barksdale than anywhere else. If you really want to catch Broadway stars past, present and future, head on downtown this summer for Thoroughly Modern Millie, and catch the Best of Broadway with the Benefits of Barksdale.

See you at the theatre!

--Bruce Miller

"I Ought To Be In Pictures" Opens

Posted by Bruce Miller
Neil Simon's I Ought To Be In Pictures opened on Friday, just in time to make up for the fact that Annie and Well were closing on Sunday. Thoroughly Modern Millie begins rehearsal this evening. Ah, the circle of life!

It's been fun working the past four weeks on Pictures. Fun because I was able to spend evening after evening with Audra Honaker, Matt Hackman and Lisa Kotula--three funny, smart and kind-hearted friends. I've said it for years. The greatest blessing of my job is that I get to work with wonderful people.

It's been fun to work with a play written in 1980 and update cultural references (the names of popular movie and television stars, cars, baseball heroes etc.) so that the play continues to be set, as the author has written, "in the present." The one popular movie star who needed no updating after 29 years? Jack Nicholson.

It's fascinating to see how a comedy plays when its 29-year-old bones are all dressed up in 2009 duds. (I'm using "duds" in the context of "clothing," not in the context of "a bomb that fails to explode." Yikes!) Is there some friction when dialogue written three decades in the past rubs up against cultural references from the present? You bet there is. Fun!

In theatre, it can't be only about recreating--or creating in the case of Bo and Steve's wonderful Mona's Arrangements--the comedies and dramas of today (Well, The Clean House). It can't be only about honoring the great plays of the past (Children of a Lesser God, Driving Miss Daisy). Sometimes it's fun to mix the past and present together and see what happens.

I was honored that Celia Wren, a great national theatre writer who happens to live in Richmond, reviewed Pictures for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Here are the quotes we're pulling from her terrific review:

“Funny, Poignant Play!

If America could harness Audra Honaker, the country’s energy problems would be solved!

Super-Competent, Shrewdly Choreographed

Hackman exudes the right kind of world-weary cantankerousness

Smart! Agreeable! Droll!

Kotula displays apt wistfulness

Exactly the Right Place

God is in the Details!”

--Celia Wren, Richmond Times-Dispatch

I hope you'll find the time to come out to Hanover Tavern to check in on this lesser known Neil Simon comedy. It's fun and sweet and I'm proud of it.

See you at the theatre!

--Bruce Miller

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Standin' By My Girl

Posted by Bruce Miller
No matter what show Theatre IV chooses to produce, some parents and teachers are going to be offended. I don’t mean one or two. I mean 25 to 50. Every year, a growing number of those who are offended insist that their personal viewpoint is “moral” and that those with differing viewpoints are “immoral.” With the assurance of those who know they are right, they insist that their perspective is the only one that matters.

I’ve been in my job 34 years. It didn’t used to be this way. Adults used to be more open-minded and accepting of diversity. They viewed each show as a whole. If they loved nine tenths of it, they focused on that and went away happy. They never called me and demanded their money back because of the tenth they didn’t like.

They never were astonished that the public was not forewarned about this “objectionable” content or that. They never had the arrogance to demand that all future productions be rewritten to suit their personal perspectives. “And I know it’s against the law to rewrite,” I was told yesterday by a teacher, “but it’s time Judo-Christians (sic) took a stand and stood up for what’s right.”

In the old days, if adults objected to one particular aspect of a show, they seized the opportunity to talk with the children in their care about their personal beliefs and preferences. They made teachable moments out of content they considered to be non-desirable. They didn’t assume or expect the world to be in sync with each of their personal feelings and beliefs. They accepted that it was their responsibility to discuss issues with children.

They chose not to try to “protect” their children from any and all “objectionable” content. Instead, they felt good knowing they were with their child, and talking with their child, as the child encountered such content in the world.

From 1975 until about 1995, I rarely if ever heard complaints from parents about content and language. And the shows we did then were no different from the shows we do now.

In the mid- to late-90s, we entered into the current “just say ‘no’,” “I’m mad as heck and I’m not going to take it anymore,” “zero tolerance” period. Nowadays, most of the angry letters, emails, phone calls etc I receive come from parents and teachers in their 20s, 30s and maybe early 40s.

As a general rule, adults born before 1970 remain open-minded and eager to expose children to the world. But there’s a vocal, frequently angry minority of younger adults born after 1970 who seem to believe and insist that the entire world should fall in line with their personal perspective. They don’t care what anyone else believes. They don’t want to discuss values with children; they want to force their values on the world before allowing their child to enter into it.

They object to Winnie the Pooh because A. A. Milne “doesn’t make it clear enough that Mr. and Mrs. Rabbit are married.” They object to Treasure Island because “no one warned us that there would be all those pirates and rum.” They object to Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Sideways Stories from Wayside School and The Wizard of Oz because they “celebrate satanic forces.” They object to The Best Christmas Pageant Ever because the minister uses the word “sexy” when describing the subject matter preferred by some of the older Herdman children. "How am I supposed to explain ‘sexy’ to my eight year old?!” one mother asked me.

They object to the euphemisms that the father in A Christmas Story uses as a substitute for vulgar language. They are livid when Peter Pan (written in 1904) uses the word “ass” even though he's clearly referring to a jackass or donkey. And they are beside themselves with righteous rage when in Annie (written in 1977) Daddy Warbucks and President Roosevelt's cabinet members use the words “damn” and “hell” a handful of times when discussing the Great Depression.

The most recent objection I received, and this from a student who was writing with her class under the direction of an offended teacher, mentioned the pain caused by Annie herself singing that she liked to imagine her parents collecting things “like ashtrays and art.” "Why," I was asked, "did you have to use the word ashtray?"

I guess I’m old fashioned. I believe it would be unwise for me or anyone to rewrite classics like Annie and Peter Pan to be in step with a vocal minority. I think it’s regrettable that teachers encourage children to write to nonprofit leaders and ask them to knowingly break the law. I think in an age when Christian conservative icons like President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney openly used words far more vulgar than “damn” and “hell” in the Oval Office and on the floor of the U. S. Congress, it’s actually helpful to see Annie and afterwards talk with children about language and the pressures placed on adults in power.

Regarding adults in Annie using the words “damn” and “hell” a dozen times (I think it's 10 "damns" and two "hells"): “It is immoral,” I’m told, “for you to expose my children to this terrible behavior.” Not a single one of these adults has mentioned any discomfort with their children being exposed to the behavior of the character Rooster, who alludes to the fact that he’s going to take Annie away and dispatch her with a knife. That behavior, apparently, fails to meet the “terrible” threshold of saying “damn” and “hell.”

Anyway, I’m whining. We try our hardest to offer positive, uplifting experiences to children, families and schools. It depresses me that an increasing number of adults would prefer to see us not do Annie at all than see us abide by the law and present Annie, an American classic, the way it was written.

--Bruce Miller

Friday, May 1, 2009

Access - A Key to Success

Posted by Bruce Miller
One of the many wonderful things about theatre is that almost everyone likes it, from the Ivy League intellectual to the high school dropout. Of course not every Tom, Dick and Harry is going to be blown away by the same production. The show that is treasured by Tom and Dick is likely to be trashed by Harry and his lovely wife Harriet. But you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who, if he or she were to keep at it for a while, wouldn’t find one show or another to love.

Jill may prefer Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia while Jack gets his kicks from The Great American Trailer Park Musical. But with theatre, each boy and girl who makes it up the hill is going to find, in pretty short order, those particular shows that rock his or her world.

So it’s been for centuries. Theatre prompted many a spirited gathering at the well in days BC just as it encourages vigorous water cooler conversations today. Theatre is not elitist and never has been. It’s populist. And theatre companies, especially nonprofit theatre companies, belong not to the select few, but to the community-at-large.

It follows then that each nonprofit theatre has a responsibility to be accessible to the broadest possible audience—welcoming everyone, excluding no one. This is an easy tenet to write into a vision statement or embrace as a core value. But on a day-to-day basis, a commitment to accessibility is devilishly hard to put into action.

At Barksdale, we are addressing accessibility through five focus areas:
opportunity for leadership,
diversity of programming,
reduction of financial roadblocks,
elimination of physical barriers, and
commitment to broad-based marketing.

In 2005, Barksdale's Board of Trustees created and adopted a multi-year Accessibility Plan to help us organize our efforts and assess our progress related to our commitment to inclusion. We are now well on our way to enacting that plan. I invite you to join us in determining the extent to which our efforts have been successful or misguided, beneficial or detrimental to the overall strength of your theatre.

Over the next several days, I’ll be writing blog posts about what policies and practices we’ve put into place in each focus area, and what the results have been. Coming up first, we’ll discuss Opportunities for Leadership. Be thinking about that issue, and please comment on the upcoming postings if you feel so inclined.

Like all planning efforts, accessibility planning is always a work-in-progress. Hopefully we are learning from both our successes and our failures, and making changes accordingly. Your input is not only most welcome, it is invaluable as we attempt to build a theatre on the intellectual foundation of an entire community, not merely the opinions of a chosen few.

So, please read and respond to the previous post as well as this one. Until my next entry, I hope to see you at the theatre!

--Bruce Miller