Monday, August 31, 2009

August 30, 2009

Posted by Bruce Miller


Richness or significance, especially in evoking an association or strong emotion.

Intensification and prolongation of sound, produced by sympathetic vibration.

Yesterday was a wonderful day. It was the last show of Fully Committed and a packed house once again leapt to its feet in appreciation of and wonder at Scott Wichmann’s talent.

It was also Scott’s 36th birthday. Twenty-six of his family members were there, along with over a hundred friends from Richmond’s theatre community. Love, friendship and respect were palpable.

Immediately after curtain call, Scotty made a heartfelt speech about how special this all was. “I moved here ten years ago,” he said. “I had no intention of staying. I also had no idea of the community I was joining—a community that immediately embraced me and has supported and sustained me. A community like family, that even introduced me to my beautiful wife. This is an amazing birthday because all of you are here.”

After the show, we celebrated with Scotty and each other during a picnic in the Tavern’s back yard. As you all know, yesterday was also Scotty’s last day before joining the Naval Reserve. He checks into a hotel room this evening and hops on a bus tomorrow morning for basic training.

I arrived at yesterday’s festivities leading a van filled with young actors who had just travelled from their homes in New York to connect with the Richmond theatre community for the first time. They are amazing actors, and all of them are Latino. They came here on faith to perform in our upcoming production of Boleros for the Disenchanted.

Our six Boleros actors have to be wondering … What is this Richmond theatre community like? Did I make the right choice to leave my home in New York to come here?

The minute I saw the Tavern, as I was driving up, my heart and head filled with … what? Fifty-six years ago this month, six actors from New York came to Richmond, saw the derelict tavern for the first time, and made the decision to pool every penny they had in the world, buy it, and devote their lives to saving this building and building this theatre.

Before the Richmond Symphony or the Richmond Ballet, before the Virginia Museum Theatre, these New York émigrés founded Central Virginia’s first professional performing arts organization. As they wove their passions and perspectives and talents and intelligences into the very fabric of our community, they changed it forever.

They heard about the Jim Crow laws that made it illegal to admit black audience members into their new theatre. When the county sheriff came to tell them, they offered themselves up for arrest, saying that there was no way in hell they were going to welcome some of their new neighbors into their theatre and home while excluding others. They broke the back of those insane laws by becoming the first Virginians to simply stand up for what was right.

No arrests were made.

How proud Pete, Nancy and Muriel would be, I thought, to know that Barksdale is about to launch Richmond’s first Hispanic Theatre Project. How pleased they would be to welcome these six new New York actors into the home they loved. How thrilled they would be to witness Scotty’s amazing performance, to meet his family, to see the Richmond theatre community gather here again to honor the great spirits that live in this place, in Scotty’s talent and in his heart as he ventures off to join the Naval Reserve.

I saw Phil when I arrived, and shared these thoughts with him.

As he was packing up after the wonderful day and getting ready to drive home to Ashland, Phil's heart and head also filled with a sense of ... connection. He turned the steering wheel of his car, and for the first time in four years, he visited Pete and Nancy’s burial site, located just a few minutes from the theatre. He had thoughts to share.

When he arrived, he looked down at their markers and discovered something that neither of us had remembered. Yesterday was also Pete Kilgore’s birthday. And Nancy’s birthday is Sept. 18, opening night of Boleros for the Disenchanted.

Standing in the dusk in the churchyard, Phil called me on his cell so that I would know.


A subatomic particle lasting too short a time to be observed directly.

I hope to see you at the theatre.

--Bruce Miller

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Case for Confidence

Posted by Bruce Miller
(This is a re-posting of a previously published blog entry.)

"At Barksdale and Theatre IV we remain cautious but confident." That's what I said at the end of the previous blog posting, and that's how Phil and I respond to queries from national arts leaders who bring up the bad news from Wisconsin. With the demise of great colleague theatres such as TheatreVirginia, Madison Rep, Mill Mountain Playhouse in Roanoke, and Charlotte Rep, we expect to entertain questions about our financial health.

The good news is this. For years, our Boards of Trustees have been working intelligently and strategically to ensure that Barksdale and Theatre IV will not follow in the footsteps of these now defunct nonprofit companies. We have engaged in prudent and responsible business planning.

What follows are the five cornerstones that support our confidence, particularly as it relates to the recent closing of Madison Repertory Theatre.

1. The Greater Richmond metro area population as of 2008 is 1,225,626--more than twice the 555,626 people who comprise the metro area population of Madison, WI. This means our population should be two times more able to sustain both the for-profit "Broadway" series co-produced by CenterStage and a nonprofit major professional theatre like Barksdale.

2. According to IRS forms 990 for the year 2008 (the most recent year available):

Barksdale and Theatre IV had combined annual revenue of $5,049,376; Madison Rep had annual revenue of $2,023,579.

74% of Barksdale and Theatre IV's annual revenue was earned through ticket sales and tour fees, and only 26% came in through contributions. Only 53% of Madison Rep's annual revenue was earned through ticket sales, and 47% was dependent upon contributions.

Barksdale and Theatre IV ended fiscal 2008 with a positive fund balance of $1,761,395; Madison Rep ended fiscal 2008 with a negative fund balance of -$424,688.

3. Theatre IV fully owns and is able to borrow against the multi-million dollar historic Empire Theatre.

4. Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV have developed highly diverse revenue streams, earning significant funds from ticket sales at three major venues and extensive touring throughout Virginia and 32 surrounding states.

5. During all the years when Barksdale and Theatre IV were asked to assist with various efforts to develop Richmond CenterStage, the Richmond leaders of CenterStage pledged not to compete with Theatre IV with regard to our core business--story-based plays and musicals for children and their families. CenterStage pledged not to book in our competitors' productions of major titles in which Theatre IV has invested millions of dollars, the productions we regularly revive from our repertoire. These major titles include Annie, A Christmas Carol, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Disney's Beauty and the Beast, Disney's High School Musical, Peter Pan, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, Seussical, The Sound of Music, and The Wizard of Oz.

Conversely, Barksdale and Theatre IV have acknowledged CenterStage's need to mount an annual "Broadway" series for adult audiences, and to book in non-competitive, television-based children's programs such as Sesame Street Live, Dora the Explorer, etc.

If CenterStage honors its promises, we believe that Barksdale Theatre, Theatre IV and CenterStage's "Broadway" series will all thrive in our mid-sized market. Surely that is the goal. If CenterStage's leaders are true to their word, we will have a win-win for the entire community.
As I said, we remain confident, but we are not throwing caution to the wind. We continue to do all we can to ensure the success of CenterStage, while working hard also to build up the financial health of Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV, Richmond's major professional theatre.

--Bruce Miller

A Cautionary Tale from Wisconsin

Posted by Bruce Miller
(This is an updated and amended version of a previous post.)

During recent meetings with Peggy Baggett, Executive Director of the Virginia Commission for the Arts, and Amy Dorfman, Program Director for the Shubert Foundation, Phil and I were asked to respond to the sad news coming from Wisconsin—the closing of Madison’s only professional theatre, the much loved Madison Rep (their bare stage is pictured above and to the right).

Madison is the capital of Wisconsin, a city renowned for its appreciation of the arts. Madison Rep had been nobly serving its capital city for 40 years. In some circles—not all—the Rep’s closing is discussed in relation to the 2004 opening of the new and restored Overture Center, the impressive performing arts complex that includes and surrounds the historic Capitol Theater in downtown Madison.

Word-of-mouth indicates that two of the reasons that led to the closing of Madison Rep were these:
1 In terms of ticket sales, Madison Rep found it difficult to compete with the heavily marketed and highly commercial “Broadway” series at the Ovation Center.
2 In terms of contributions, Madison Rep found it increasingly difficult to raise the funds they needed once the financial troubles of the Ovation Center began putting increased pressure on Madison’s giving community.

Honestly, I don’t know if these word-of-mouth speculations are true or not. No one who has shared them with us is opposed to the Overture Center. No one is trying to place blame or accuse anyone of bad intentions. Everyone, including me, is trying merely to examine the situation to figure out what went wrong. Armed with this knowledge, everyone hopes to prevent a reoccurrence of Wisconsin’s bad news in other states across the country.

I thank Robert Chappell, spokesperson for the Overture Center (pictured to the left), for correcting me when I included some slightly off kilter information regarding the Overture Center in a previous iteration of this posting. I thank him also for adding his perspective, which I quote below.

Here's how Mr. Chappell explains the Overture Center's connections to other Madison performing arts facilities: The "Capitol Theater opened in 1928. In the mid-1970s, the city bought it and built the Madison Civic Center around it. The Civic Center opened in 1980. Also within the Civic Center was Isthmus Playhouse, which became home to Madison Repertory Theatre. In 1998, the arts community and city government decided that the Civic Center would expand and become the Overture Center for the Arts. In 2004, 'Phase 1' of the Overture Center opened, followed by 'Phase 2' in 2006. Part of 'Phase 2' was the renovated Capitol Theater and a renovated Playhouse, which continued to be home to the Rep."

Heralded as a major economic development initiative for downtown, the Overture Center was championed by Madison’s business and civic leaders. The Overture Center has been bringing "Broadway" to Madison since the early 80s when its precursor operated as the Civic Center.

In 2005, the Overture Center refinanced its construction debt when a trust fund that "was supposed to pay for construction debt lost value after 9/11." In 2009, three Wisconsin banks threatened the foreclosure of the Overture Center if the debt owed by the Overture Development Corp. was not repaid soon.

The “Broadway” series in Madison is a cornerstone of the Overture Center’s business plan. Large marketing budgets, with major dollars coming from locally generated contributions, were developed to buy TV and other advertising for the “Broadway” series. As more Madisonians began attending the “Broadway” series, attendance at Madison Rep began a gradual decline.

"Those two things are unrelated," Robert Chappell commented to me. "The Broadway series brings quite a different audience than the Rep did. The Rep produced primarily straight plays, with an occasional musical. Overture's Broadway season was and is exclusively musicals."

Many of you who read this blog may remember that TheatreVirginia’s subscription decline from 12,000 in the early 90s to just over 2,000 in 2002 was inversely proportional to the rise in subscriptions to Richmond’s Broadway Under the Stars. Madison Rep had 2,400 subscribers when it closed; TheatreVirginia had 2,300.

Faced with declining ticket sales and disappearing contributions (based in part, some say, on the increasing calls for funding of the new and financially strapped Overture Center), Madison Rep recorded accumulated deficits of $140,125 in 2004-05, $357,279 in 2005-06, and $465,850 in 2006-07. A major Save the Rep campaign in 2007 reduced the accumulated deficit only minimally, resulting in a 2007-08 accumulated deficit of $424,888, more than 20% of annual operating budget.

After reading the first sentence of that last paragraph in the earlier iteration of this post, Robert Chappell commented: "We feel strongly that we (the Overture Center) do not compete with our resident companies for contributions, and in fact go out of our way to support their fundraising efforts."

In the fall of 2008, the recession hit and caused additional declines in ticket sales and contributions at Madison Rep. Accumulated debt rose to over a half million. In March of 2009, the nonprofit company closed its doors forever.

Many performing arts centers enter into non-compete agreements with the symphonies, ballet and opera companies that rent their facilities, but seldom with the major nonprofit theatres in their communities. Statements have been made in Richmond that a successful “Broadway” series will increase ticket sales to local theatres. “A rising tide lifts all ships” has been repeated many times. This is a catchy and sometimes relevant slogan, but I don’t know of any experienced arts leader who honestly believes it applies in these cases, at least in the short to mid-term.

I'm grossly over simplifying the complex Wisconsin story. This is a cautionary tale, after all, and not meant to be a work of journalism. I don't mean these meanderings to reflect poorly on the Overture Center, Madison Rep or any entity, about which I know only what I read and hear. If you live in Wisconsin, please don't think I'm trying to represent myself as any kind of expert with regard to your local issues.

Having said this, I believe our honest conversations with national arts leaders about the closing of the Rep have been and will continue to be informative and helpful. Those who don't examine history are doomed to repeat it. Conversations about the troubles at Madison Rep challenge us in constructive ways.

At Barksdale and Theatre IV, we are not blind to the comparisons between Madison and Richmond. Nonetheless, we remain cautious but confident. Tomorrow, I’ll discuss why.

See you at the theatre!

--Bruce Miller

Thursday, August 27, 2009

My Regards to Broadway - Part II

Posted by Bruce Miller
Any sane person would see three NYC shows in as many days and call it a night—for financial reasons if nothing else. Even at the TKTS booth—which now offers more 30% off and 40% off discounts than the previously standard 50% off—you still wind up averaging $80 to $90 per ticket. Even Off Broadway—which in the good old days of my thirties and forties could be counted on for some real bargains—you still can expect to lay out between $60 and $70 for a popular hit.

But we insane theatre junkies don’t know the meaning of moderation. And so my show attending saga continues.

On Saturday afternoon, Hannah and I caught a matinee of Avenue Q, which despite its long and successful run we had yet to see. Terrie and Curt did the sensible thing and went shopping at the street fairs in Greenwich Village and elsewhere.

Hannah and I agreed on our opinion of AQ. We both found it overrated and a little too reliant on frat boy humor for our tastes. But in the interest of full disclosure, let me quickly say that the audience that surrounded us seemed to think it was hilarious. Every ribald turn of phrase generated a laff riot.

Hannah loved 9 to 5 so much she went to see it a second time with Terrie on Saturday night. And both of the Miller women LOVED it.

Curt and I scored a pair of great Saturday night specials for Jersey Boys, paying cash to one of the street brokers. Since we bought them at the last minute, I was able to talk the vendor down to a hundred bucks each, as opposed to the printed price of $126. Street brokers normally sell at the printed price. Can you believe it, talking about a $100 ticket as if it were a bargain?!

But, the Miller men LOVED Jersey Boys. I loved reliving the songs of my youth, and Curt—my rock star in the making—thought the story was pretty cool. Male bonding Broadway style.

Sunday matinee Hannah and I went to see the revival of Hair. More than in most instances, I realized how much you really needed to have lived through the time period of the show in order for it to make any visceral sense. I think Hannah appreciated the music but sort of wondered what the fuss was all about. I actually found myself shedding a tear when Claude contemplated burning his draft card during What a Piece of Work is Man. Been there, brother. Just like you, I didn't burn mine either. And the final coup de theatre at the end of the show blew me away.

Lucky for us, we saved our favorite show of the theatre marathon for last. Our Town, Barrow Street Theatre, Off Broadway. What a GREAT revival. You’re in a teeny tiny theatre, and the action takes place all around you and about three feet from your elbows, and there is very little scenery or lighting or sound. And yet the acting, direction and brilliant script absolutely transport you to Grovers Corner. As fate would have it we saw director/actor David Cromer's final performance as the Stage Manager (in pic to left), and were privileged to be in the audience for all the heartfelt speech making after the final call.

We laughed, we cried, it was better than Cats.

So that’s it in a nutshell. Parts I and II. Seven shows in five days.
And here’s the kicker. I’ve only been home a couple weeks, and already, I can’t wait to go back.

See you at the theatre!

--Bruce Miller

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

My Regards to Broadway - Part I

Posted by Bruce Miller
No NYC trip is complete, or even conceivable for me, without spending time at the theatre. Two weeks ago, I arrived in the Big Apple on Wednesday morning and headed back to Richmond the following Monday. In between, I conducted two full days of auditions, participated in a couple meetings, took in some sights with my family, and saw seven shows.

I know. I’m a theatre fool.

Wednesday afternoon Phil and I got TKTS tickets to see Mary Stuart, a wonderful Broadway transfer from London’s Donmar Warehouse. Mary Stuart is a masterwork by 18th century German playwright Friedrich Schiller, sometimes referred to as “the German Shakespeare.” This production features a newly adapted script by Peter Oswald, and two magnificent performances by Janet McTeer (Mary Stuart) and Harriet Walter (Queen Elizabeth I). Mary Stuart is directed by Phyllida Lloyd, who also directed the polar opposite Broadway smash, Mamma Mia.

Phil and I both were tired when we saw Mary Stuart, having left our homes at 4 a.m.. Perhaps that is why we thought Act I was a little too “scholarly,” “talky,” “dry” … I don’t know the right word. We both thought Act II was riveting.

Wednesday night we went to bed early in anticipation of our Thursday auditions.

Thursday night the two of us got TKTS tickets to Ruined, the new Pulitzer Prize-winner from Lynn Nottage, author of Intimate Apparel. It was a beautiful production at Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center Stage 1 space. If you sit in certain seats in this venue, the leg room is excruciatingly cramped. I’m not exaggerating. I’m 6’ 1”, and when I sit bolt upright, my 16” femur, measuring from hip socket to patella, is about two inches longer than the space provided. I was in some pretty extensive pain in Act I, so I moved into some unsold seats in Act II, where I could put one knee to the right of the seat in front of me and one to the left. Then, literally 10 seconds before the lights went out, a tall woman who was apparently having similar difficulties scurried into the empty seat right next to me. So I watched all of Act II with my body facing front and both my legs pointed 45 degrees to the right. More excruciation.

Which is a shame. Nottage’s breathtaking play is about the life and death struggle encountered by women in the Congo. My cousin died in the Congo as a college-age missionary, so I was very interested in Nottage’s moving and compassionate account. It was hard to enjoy the play with shooting pains traveling up my legs and spine. If I ever go to this theatre again, I’m going to have to ask to sit in an adult row.

Friday my family arrived on the train. Phil, Hannah and I went to 9 to 5 while Curt and Terrie headed off to Mary Poppins. Again, we got all the tickets at a discount at the TKTS window.

The three of us who 9 to 5ed it LOVED the show. The stars and ensemble were wonderful—Hannah and I are particularly partial to Allison Janney. West Wing and all that. Joe Mantello directs the piece within an inch of its life. And you’d have to be a stuffed shirt not to love Dolly Parton’s music.

And yet 9 to 5 is closing this week or next, after significantly less than a year's run. It’s a shame that Broadway no longer has room for musicals like this. It was fast, fun, filled with character, nicely written and beautifully crafted by men and women who really know what they're doing. In reminded me of shows like Seesaw, How to Succeed…, Promises Promises—big brassy musicals that were professionally assembled and determined to entertain. Not great classics, to be sure, but real crowd-pleasers constructed by people at the top of their game. The audience that was there with us at 9 to 5 that night LOVED the show. It’s too bad it’s not going to be around after Labor Day for more folks to enjoy. It deserves a much longer run.

Tomorrow—Part II

Monday, August 24, 2009

Living the Broadway High Life

Posted by Bruce Miller
One fascinating aspect of our meetings with the Shubert Foundation is that we sometimes meet with Amy Dorfman in the elegant living room of J. J. Shubert’s legendary penthouse, located high above Sardi's restaurant and directly across 44th Street from the Shubert Theatre and Shubert Alley. Amy’s offices are located a floor or two below the penthouse, but grant recipients occasionally get to talk about their theatres with Amy while surrounded by some of the elegance created and enjoyed by the brothers Shubert in their glory days.

J. J. Shubert was the youngest of the three Shubert brothers, all of whom were born in Poland and emigrated as children to the United States, ultimately settling with other Polish families in Syracuse, N. Y. While still in their 20s, the three Shubert brothers managed to pool their meager salaries and somehow gain control over several theatres upstate. They ultimately moved their growing theatrical producing and real estate business to New York City. The middle brother, Sam Shubert, died in a tragic train wreck in 1915, leaving older brother Lee Shubert and younger brother J. J. Shubert to manage and grow the thriving Shubert empire.

In his non-fiction account, The Boys from Syracuse—The Shuberts’ Theatrical Empire, biographer Foster Hirsch describes the unusual circumstances under which J. J. Shubert’s extravagant penthouse was constructed.

“At the beginning of 1925, J. J. was at the peak of his success. Although J. J.’s operettas and revues brought in substantial amounts of money, for which Lee of course was grateful, Lee also resented and envied his younger brother’s track record. Despite a public charade that all was well between them—a charade Lee had been orchestrating since they had moved into their offices above the Shubert Theatre in 1913—their mutual animosity had continued to fester. In the summer of 1925, while J. J. was on one of his regular shopping expeditions in Europe, Lee moved his brother’s office across the street into a new Shubert building at 234 W. 44th Street (pictured below and to the right). This sudden and aggressive act was clearly a signal to J. J. that, despite his success as a musical impresario, Lee was still the firm’s CEO.

When he returned, J. J. at first was enraged, but then he realized that Lee had in fact given him the opportunity to create a duchy of his own. J. J. bullied the architect of the new building—John (J. J.’s son) claimed that J. J. physically threatened the man—into adding six more stories into his design so that the building would be higher than the Shubert Theatre. He had the architect build a penthouse, which included a living room almost the entire width of the building, a dining room with a stained glass skylight, a library, a master bedroom, dressing rooms, two baths, a kitchen, servants’ quarters, and a terrace facing 44th Street.

When the architect protested that there would hardly be enough room for a terrace, J. J. persisted, adding that the terrace needed only be wide enough for a couple of chairs and an awning. ‘I want to be able to sit out there and look down on my brother across the street,’ he said.

Once J. J. moved into the building (known as the Sardi Building in honor of the ground-floor restaurant it houses), the split between the brothers had a physical manifestation. For the rest of their lives, they worked across the street from each other, employing a go-between, usually John, to carry messages back and forth. Rarely, if ever, did either man venture into the other’s domain.

‘J. J.’s apartment was garish beyond words,’ playwright Ruth Goetz recalled. ‘It was designed on a grand scale, and was elegant, I suppose, according to the taste of the time.’ Garson Kanin said that ‘Mr. J. J. had a charming apartment with lovely rooms.’ Whether the décor was ‘garish’ or ‘charming’ was, of course, in the eye of the beholder; what the penthouse signified unmistakably, however, was that its owner was a man of consequence. Heavy and ornate, the style was distinctly baronial, with Louis XIV furniture, a wrought-iron door from a Venetian palace, Syrian furniture inlaid with nacre and ivory, and a fountain.”
I admit that my focus during the meeting was on our conversation with Amy. She always asks all the right questions as she seeks to understand the current artistic and managerial conditions of our theatre. So I never noticed any fountains, French antiques or Syrian inlays, although they may well have been right before my eyes.

But as you’re leaving J. J.’s magnificent living room, you can’t help but notice the wrought-iron door from the Venetian palace. It sits directly beside the real door that is used today. Not only is the iron door huge—it looks like it weighs several tons—but it is also an artistic masterpiece, featuring a delicately crafted bas relief.

Today, The Shubert Foundation is just as influential in the nonprofit world of regional theatres as The Shubert Organization was and is in the for-profit world of Broadway. Long may both institutions continue to work their magic.

--Bruce Miller

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Meeting with the Shubert Foundation

Posted by Bruce Miller
Phil and I go to New York two or three times a year, and during each of these business trips, we try to address several institutional objectives. Last week’s NYC excursion included our annual visit with Amy Dorfman, Program Director of The Shubert Foundation.

Amy is as informed an arts leader as you'll meet. I’m acquainted with few individuals who know more about professional theatre in the United States, in terms of either art or management. Sometimes Amy visits us here in Richmond and sees one of our shows. More often we visit her in New York. During each of these visits, Phil, Amy and I have the chance to catch up on what’s happening among regional theatres nationally and in our respective necks of the wood.

The Shubert Organization, a for-profit entity, manages the largest commercial theatre empire in the nation. Since the deaths of the founding Shubert brothers, The Shubert Organization has been fully owned by The Shubert Foundation, a nonprofit entity. It is a very unique model. Today, 100% of the profits earned by the Shubert Organization go to fund the good work of the Shubert Foundation.

According to the Foundation Center Online, in fiscal 2008 the Shubert Foundation had total assets of $323,089,815, placing it somewhere in the middle of the 200 largest foundations in the nation. Total giving by The Shubert Foundation in fiscal 08 amounted to $16,930,435.

The Shubert Organization owns and/or operates 17 Broadway theatres—the Ambassador, the Barrymore, the Belasco, the Booth, the Broadhurst, the Broadway, the Cort, the Golden, the Imperial, the Longacre, the Lyceum, the Majestic, the Music Box, the Plymouth, the Royale, the Shubert and the Winter Garden—and one Off-Broadway theatre, The Little Shubert. Outside New York, the Shuberts own both the Shubert Theatre in Boston and the Forrest in Philadelphia, and manage the National Theatre in Washington, D.C.

In the last three decades, The Shubert Organization has dedicated its energies and resources to a long-term campaign for the revitalization of the American theatre. Its many projects have included the refurbishment of all Shubert playhouses, devoted participation in civic and community affairs, and a continuing effort to rehabilitate the Times Square Theatre District.

The principal goal of The Shubert Foundation is to support nonprofit, professional resident theatre and dance companies in the United States. The Foundation provides grants “only to organizations that have an established artistic and administrative track record, as well as a history of fiscal responsibility.”

The roster of Shubert Foundation grantees includes the most accomplished nonprofit professional theatre and dance companies in the nation. Barksdale and Theatre IV are proud to be recipients of Shubert funding.

Tomorrow, I’ll write about the history of the Shubert building in which we meet. Just like many things involving the Shuberts, it’s filled with drama.

--Bruce Miller

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Return of the "Artsies"

Posted by Bruce Miller
We were very pleased to wake up this morning to learn that Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV have been recognized with several nominations for RTCC Awards (“Artsies”). RTCC stands for the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle. The six members of this august body include Mary Burruss, Susan Haubenstock, Julinda Lewis, John Porter, David Timberline and Joan Tupponce.

Phil called me at home this morning after reading the encouraging news on Dave Timberline’s blog - Phil and I are among the many who support the critics in their efforts to bring more attention to professional theatre in Richmond. Efforts like this take a LOT of work, and I’m very grateful to Dave, Joan, John, Julinda, Mary and Susan for volunteering all the time and brainpower required to pull off such a major initiative.

Like any and everyone else (including each critic, I’m sure), I think some of the nominations are a little crazy, and some of the omissions are downright criminal. But I know of no better way to get the job done, and no other group of people willing to invest the energy to make it happen. So what the heck, let’s all roll with the punches and be happy that attention is being paid.

Among musical nominations, the runaway winner this year was Stage 1, with a very impressive 16 nominations. Barksdale and Theatre IV followed, with 12 nominations each. Swift Creek Mill and the Firehouse scored an impressive 8 and 7 nominations respectively. Last year the big musical winner was Urinetown at the Mill, so it’s nice to see the kudos being spread around a little this year to other worthy productions and theatres.
Among non-musicals (and I’m counting Pulp as a non-musical, songs and all), Barksdale received 16 nods, with the Firehouse standing proud with 8, and Henley Street following closely with 7. Five nominations went to the Mill, 3 each to Richmond Shakes and CAT, 2 to Sycamore Rouge, and one each to the Triangle Players and African American Repertory Theatre--testimony to the breadth of theatrical excellence in our community.

Last year’s big winner in the non-musical category was the Firehouse production of The Late Henry Moss. (The photo above shows the on-stage view of last year's inaugural Awards Ceremony at the Firehouse.) Again, it’s nice to see the Critics Circle working hard this year to include lots of (even if not all) worthy nominees.

The Awards Ceremony will be held this year at our historic Empire Theatre on October 18. Tickets are only $10 and available at the Empire box office – 344-8040. All profits from the event will be donated by the Critics Circle to the Theatre Artists Fund.

Everyone is invited, and it should be a huge and great celebration. I hope you’ll all make time to attend and cheer on each of Richmond’s theatrical winners.

--Bruce Miller

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Touching Base with Jason Butler Harner

Posted by Bruce Miller
There are some advantages to being in this business for a long time—34 years, in my case. One of those advantages is that you tend to bump into old friends on the street almost every time you visit New York. Another advantage is, given enough time, a reasonable number of your old friends become successful.

If you’re really lucky, you bump into some of your most successful friends when you’re with your teenagers.

I was lucky last weekend.

One of the shows Hannah and I really wanted to see during this trip to the Big Apple was Our Town, the critically acclaimed revival that’s been packing ‘em in for the last several months at Off Broadway’s Barrow Street Theatre. When Hannah read the Thornton Wilder masterpiece in school, it made it onto her list of favorite plays. But until this trip, she’s never had the chance to see Our Town performed on stage.

Because this critically acclaimed revival is a huge Off Broadway hit, it doesn’t appear at the TKTS half-price booths. After discovering this, Hannah and I decided it was worth it to trek on over to the box office and buy tickets at full price. We hopped the #1 train downtown to Christopher Street, and emerged in the heart of Greenwich Village.

As we walked down Barrow Street toward the theatre, I saw the familiar face of Jason Harner, known professionally now as Jason Butler Harner. Jason is a VCU theatre grad who starred in one of Theatre IV's Theatre Gym productions more than 15 years ago. He had his nose buried in a script, and looked up just as we approached, immediately flashing that startled smile you wear when you unexpectedly bump into a person you haven’t seen in a decade or two.

I’m happy to report that Jason is still just as nice and friendly as ever. I introduced him to Hannah, saying something stupid like, “This is Jason Harner, who is a really famous actor now.” “I’m not a famous actor,” he protested, modestly. Granted, Jason may not be a household name, yet. As for fame, I’ll let you be the judge.

The reason Jason was standing there with his head buried in a script was because he’d just received the nod to take over the role of the Stage Manager in Our Town, and he had only three more days before his first appearance (which was last night, actually). The role had been played brilliantly by the revival’s director, David Cromer. Cromer was leaving the show to begin work on his upcoming Broadway production of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs.

The chronology that led up to Jason's latest success reads as follows. Jason graduated from VCU in 1992. He served an apprentice year at Actors Theatre of Louisville, and then received his MFA in Acting from the Tisch School of the Arts in 1997. Immediately after graduation, he appeared in his first Off Broadway play, Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, directed by Mary Zimmerman for the New York Shakespeare Festival at the Delacorte in Central Park.

Fourteen additional Broadway and Off Broadway credits follow, along with numerous regional productions, including:

2000 – the American premiere of Stoppard’s The Invention of Love, American Conservatory Theatre, San Francisco;

2003 – the American premiere of Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, Lincoln Center;

2003 – Hamlet in Hamlet, Dallas Theatre Center;

2004 – Obie Award for Hedda Gabler, Off Broadway;

2004 – Tom in The Glass Menagerie, opposite Sally Fields, Kennedy Center;

2005 – The Ruby Sunrise, Oskar Eustis’s debut as Artistic Director, The Public Theatre;

2006 – The Cherry Orchard opposite Annette Bening and Alfred Molina, Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles;

2006 – Ivan Turgenev in Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia opposite a small fraternity of our nation's most promising young actors, Lincoln Center; and

2007 – Hildy Johnson in The Front Page, Williamstown Theatre Festival.

And what has Jason been up to since The Front Page? He played serial killer Gordon Northcott in Clint Eastwood’s film Changeling, which also starred Angelina Jolie. Jason’s standout performance generated so much critical buzz that he was considered a frontrunner for an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor. He also appeared in the HBO miniseries John Adams as Treasury Secretary Oliver Wolcott Jr.

Several of the actors who have moved on from Richmond to national and international success continue to keep in touch with colleagues back here in River City. Jason remains as kind-hearted, open and friendly as ever. It’s my hope that one day we’ll find the right project to lure him back to Barksdale for another performance.

Till then, we wish him all the greatest success with his ever expanding career.

--Bruce Miller
(Photo captions: first photo / right - headshot; second photo / left - with our friend Doug Beane, author of The Little Dog Laughed; third photo / right - with Richard Kind in The Front Page; fourth photo / left - with Pamela Gray in Craig Wright's Orange Flower Water; fifth photo / right - with Maggie Siff in The Ruby Sunrise; sixth photo / left - from the film, Changeling

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

NYC Auditions - "Boleros for the Disenchanted"

Posted by Bruce Miller
Last Thursday and Friday, Phil and I conducted two days of auditions in NYC for our upcoming production of Boleros for the Disenchanted, the wonderful new play by Oscar-nominated writer Jose Rivera (pictured to the left). We will be producing Boleros this fall in association with the Latin Ballet of Virginia.

We flew up on Wednesday on our much-loved JetBlue—the Official Airline of Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV. If you haven’t flown JetBlue to New York’s JFK lately, you really should consider giving it a try. With roundtrip tickets for only $64, more legroom than any other US carrier, 36 channels of DIRECTV (still free), 100 channels of XM Satellite Radio (also still free), no baggage charge on your first piece of luggage, and delicious beverage and snack service (again, still free) … what’s holding you back?

All right, enough with the commercial.

We saw a total of 92 actors (mostly Latino) for the six actor cast. We auditioned AEA actors at the Equity Studios on Thursday (see sign above and to the right), and non-AEA actors at Ripley-Grier Studios on Friday (pictured in photos to the left). Many thanks to Scott and Lisa, our wonderful audition monitors.

Boleros kicks off our three-year Hispanic Theatre Project. We will be producing one play during each of the next three seasons that directly relates to Hispanic culture. Act I of Boleros takes place in Rivera's homeland, Puerto Rico. I’m eager to find Latino actors who effectively connect with the characters in the play.

Federal employment law forbids asking a potential employee about his or her ethnicity. The statement I was allowed to make, according to our attorney, was this: “Discuss with me any connections you may have with Latino culture.”

Responses varied from “I spent the first 18 years of my life in Puerto Rico” to “I haven’t missed a Cinco de Mayo celebration since I was 13” to “I sent out my famous paella recipe with last year’s Christmas cards.”

Phil and I saw some terrific actors. I am hoping to complete reference checks tomorrow and begin making offers. My goal is to assemble the most talented and authentically Latino cast that Richmond has ever seen. If luck is with us, I believe I’ll do just that.

Hope to see you at the theatre when Boleros opens on Sept 18. We're very excited about having the opportunity to introduce you to this wonderful and important new play.

--Bruce Miller

Lounging in the Middle of Broadway

Posted by Bruce Miller
Phil and I flew up to NYC for auditions last week, and my family joined me for a too short weekend vacation. It was my first trip to the City in several months, and my first chance to experience firsthand Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to transition Broadway from a street of crowded taxis to a more relaxed pedestrian mall.

Since mid-May, Broadway has been closed to traffic from 42nd Street to 47th Street, and the five blocks of vehicle-free asphalt are now crowded with lawn chairs, work tables, benches etc., enabling both natives and tourists to move around freely, or sit and eat, work, relax and/or people watch.

Personally, I loved it. The sidewalks were getting so crowded that the extra elbow room made everything feel much more relaxed. People of all ages, shapes and sizes were spread out doing whatever they chose. Even the Naked Cowboy had more room to share his gifts with the masses.

It seems counterintuitive, but the main reason for the Mayor’s plan is to reduce traffic congestion in Midtown. Officials believe that this new design will actually improve overall traffic flow. Broadway slashes diagonally through the otherwise organized grid of rectangles made by 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th Avenues and 42nd, 43rd, 44th, 45th and 46th Streets (etc). Traffic engineers believe that traffic will actually become more manageable once the diagonal slash is removed from the mix.

The one cabbie I encountered HATED it, and insisted that the engineers didn’t know their T-squares from telephone poles. Since the new traffic pattern has been in place since mid-May, his opinion must be informed. But from a pedestrian perspective, the new design felt very user friendly.

Have you been to the City this summer? What did you think?

--Bruce Miller