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)