Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Stage 1 Did Everything Right

Posted by Bruce Miller
Don’t get me wrong. By design, no theatre company is perfect. The minute art becomes perfect it ceases to be art. So when I suggest that Stage 1 did everything right, I’m talking about process, not product.

As most if not all of you have heard by now, Stage 1 Theatre Company is closing its doors. There is no mystery here. Chase Kniffen, founding artistic director, comes right out and says it. Stage 1 is closing due to insufficient financial resources.

This should surprise no one. Nonetheless it does. “How can other companies continue,” some ask, “while Stage 1, which has produced four hit musicals in a row, finds it necessary to fold its tent?”

The answer is simple. From day 1 Stage 1 has operated at a level of professionalism that exceeded that of other fledgling companies. I'm not talking professional intent; I'm talking money.

Stage 1 had its own theatre with enough lighting and sound equipment to stand toe to toe with companies far more established. Chase hired actors, designers and music directors from Richmond’s top tier. If a score called for five musicians, Chase hired five musicians. He aspired to create first class sets and costumes, and produced some memorable designs (and outstanding shows) even while the nonprofit company was still completely wet behind the ears.

I challenge anyone to name any other Richmond theatre company that has worked at this level during its first season, or its second. Or third. The only ones I can think of are Swift Creek Mill, which when it opened in 1965 was a privately funded commercial operation, and perhaps the Renaissance Theatre, which I know only through hearsay. The Renaissance was created in the late 50s when two of Barksdale's original founders split off to start their own company, which burned brightly for two seasons before closing in financial disarray.

The Virginia Museum Theatre (1955) and StageCenter (approx 1970) both started at a high level of professionalism in most departments, but neither paid their actors. VMT was funded by no less a resource than the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, and StageCenter was funded in full by the recent inheritance of Tom Crane-Baker, one of its cofounders. When that inheritance ran out, so did StageCenter.

Professional theatre is what Chase knows. It challenges and inspires him; he is committed to it. From his own accounting, he has little interest in working within the artistic limitations that come with a shoestring budget.

Good for him! One can argue (I certainly do) that Richmond needs more shoestring theatres far less than it needs more major professional productions that will finally give our theatre community as a whole the national standing it's always longed for and never quite achieved.

Stage 1 and all who had the privilege of being involved with it lit up the Richmond theatre scene with ambition, youthful energy, passion and talent. And Stage 1’s driving forces achieved everything they set out to achieve. They broke no promises. When it became obvious that what they had created was a $300,000 theatre with a $200,000 budget (I’m sort of making these numbers up, but I’ll bet I’m close), they had the wisdom and maturity to call it a day.

Nothing is lost. The energy and drive and vision of Stage 1 will continue to live on and ignite the Richmond theatre scene for years to come.

I know, easy for me to say. A new venture is no more; a promise-in-the-making has been put to rest. I in no way mean to belittle the broken hearts which always accompany such difficult decisions.

But as a community of support let's not misperceive that a flame has been extinguished. All that talent is still here. The brightest days lie ahead.

Lessons to be learned? Who knows, who cares? Theatres aren't about answers; they're about questions.

As the incomparable Peter Brook wisely said, “Every audience has the theatre it deserves.” Those of us who care about professional theatre in Greater Richmond need to pull in the same direction. We need to buy tickets. We need to make contributions. We need to lobby our local and state governments to measure up to national standards regarding public support for the arts.

And as that lover of life Edna St. Vincent Millay rapturously penned, “My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night. But, ah, my foes, and, oh, my friends…It gives a lovely light.”

Let us all celebrate the lovely light that was and is Stage 1, and rejoice that all of its candles are still within our midst.

(Photos: Robyn O'Neill in Summer of '42, Brett Ambler and Durron Tyre in tick, tick ... BOOM!, Cooper Timberline in Children's Letters to God, Julie Fulcher and Ali Thibodeau in Normal, Ali Thibodeau and Chase Kniffen at Ragtime: In Concert)

--Bruce Miller


Anonymous said...

Yes, give credit where credit is due, but let's not forget Peggy Thibodeau and the Shuffles Dance Center. There was a creative spirit and artistic impetus established in the space long before Chase and Stage 1. Thanks Peggy.

Bruce Miller said...

Anonymous is absolutely right, and I stand corrected. Stage 1 would never have happened without its founding managing director, Peggy Thibodeau, a true asset to Richmond's professional theatre scene.

Anonymous said...

You mention Richmond needs less shoestring theatres, but, I would like to point out Mr. Miller that you and Mr. Whiteway yourselves at one time were running a "shoestring" theatre. You were not always at the level you now are, so how can you possibly discourage the idea for others? I seem to remember you started small and grew and grew. Did you envision back then what your organization is like now? Probably not. One could argue that while Mr. Kniffen pulled out all the stops for his season, it was indeed not sustainable and was but only one season. Yes, the shows he produced were of wonderful artistic value, but many could do the same if they were willing to spend the kind of money he spent and take on the debt as well. The true mark of someone doing "everything right" is when you are able to not only have artistic integrity, but you also can keep a business afloat while growing and going forward.
As a devoted patron and season ticket holder of Barksdale (and others as well), I am sorry we lost another theatre, but it is obvious that everything was not done right, or Stage 1 would still have its doors open.

Bruce Miller said...

To the last anonymous commenter...

Thanks for stating your opinion. I suspect you and I don't disagree about much.

You misunderstood and misquoted what I said. You write that I "mention Richmond needs less shoestring theatres." Please read again what I wrote. I said, "One can argue (I certainly do) that Richmond needs more shoestring theatres far less than it needs more major professional productions that will finally give our theatre community as a whole the national standing it's always longed for and never quite achieved."

I didn't say that Richmond needs less of any type of theatre. I don't believe that Richmond needs less theatre, shoestring or otherwise.

You are absolutely right that Theatre IV, the company I co-founded 34 years ago, started with absolutely nothing. I know it is popular to say that all ambitious young theatre artists should start their own theatres on a similar wing and prayer. I don't disagree.

If it is in your heart to start a theatre, then you should start a theatre.

But I've reached a point in my career where I root for the upper-dog just as much as others root for the starving artists. Rooting for the upperdog is not viewed as admirable, but I believe that's because few of those doing the rooting have first-hand knowledge of how difficult it is in Richmond, VA 2009 to sustain a multi-million dollar theatre operation, a multi-million dollar theatre facility, and a professional staff of 40+.

Having managed both--a shoestring theatre and a multi-million dollar theatre--I believe that managing the big successful theatre is, in many ways, more difficult. The stakes of every decision are higher. The weight on the shoulders is more.

And I further believe that every small theatre in Richmond has much greater chances for success if there is a major professional theatre that is thriving on top.

Sticking up for big professional theatres is in no way the same thing as wishing for the demise of smaller theatres. I work my hardest to support all of Richmond's theatres.

When I say Stage 1 did everything right, I'm saying that their decision to demand a professionalism that only money can buy was the right thing for them to do--because that is the level of theatre to which they aspired.

And when it became obvious that that level of professionalism was not financially sustainable, I believe that Stage 1 directors made the right decision when they decided to close the company.

I disagree with those who characterize either of these fundamental decisions as failure or foolhardy. Both decisions were positive, I believe, and both decisions advanced the cause of professional theatre in Central Virginia, for everyone's benefit.