Saturday, October 31, 2009

Curtain Up, Lights Out, Fun's ON!

Written by Tracy Coogle
Last Friday night was anything but quiet. Sixty-five Girl Scouts, 20 or so chaperones and scout leaders, plus about 15 volunteers and theatre teachers all packed into the historic Empire Theatre for Theatre IV’s first ever professional children’s theatre camp-in.

Barksdale has worked in strategic partnership with Theatre IV, the Children's Theatre of Virginia, since 2001. As a general rule, Barksdale works with teens, adults and seniors; Theatre IV works with children, families and schools. And now scout troops too.

This theatre camp-in was designed as a fun way to introduce young girls and boys to the wonderful world of theatre. The program meets Girl Scout and Boy Scout badge requirements, and (shhhhh….don’t tell the kids it was educational) The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (the performance presented at the camp-in) also address several SOLs.

Friday night was all girls and all scouts. The evening began with all the kids checking in and getting their sleeping assignments. Many brought bag dinners and giggled and chatted excitedly, waiting to enter the theatre.

At 6:45, all 100 of us were seated in the beautiful, 98-year-old Empire for our own private performance of the creepy October classic, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. This is the same show Theatre IV takes on tour around the country. Did you know Theatre IV tours to 32 states?!

Following the performance, the cast answered a barrage of questions from the excited girls, ranging from the theatrical—“How do you change costumes so quickly?”—to the personal—“What’s your favorite food?” I think the cast enjoyed it as much as the Brownies and Girl Scouts..

Following the Q&A, the kids were sent out to the first of five workshop stations: Stage Combat, Lights and Sound, Acting, Mask Making, and Stage Makeup. The teachers at each station were theatre professionals—actors, teachers, technicians and designers. Since Theatre IV is the Children’s Theatre of Virginia, we have a LOT of outstanding resources at our disposal.

After the first three busy, fun-filled stations, the girls all went to their assigned sleeping spaces, rolled out their sleeping bags on the floors, and went to bed. Bedtime was 11, lights-out 11:30. So that I could “keep an eye and ear” on the lobby (I’m a light sleeper when I’m working with kids), I decided the Box Office would be the best place for me to sleep…WRONG!!! City buses come by every five minutes!

We repeat the program tonight, and I’ve already staked out a cozy, out-of-the-way spot in the balcony. Bring on the ghosts and spiders; I don’t care as long as they’re quiet.

This morning (Saturday), my fellow volunteer Stephanie and I set up breakfast tables at 6:00 am. Christina and Slade Billew picked up the coffee (hallelujah), milk, juice and bagels (yum) from Panera, a generous sponsor of our sleep over program.

The girls ate between 7 and 7:45, packed their bedrolls, and then went on to the two final stations.

Two girls were nearly in tears and threatened to quit their soccer teams when they had to leave the theatre early to attend soccer games. One leader said it was “the best overnight camp-in we’ve ever attended!” I responded, “Great…since this is our first, we welcome any constructive comments that we can apply to future camp-ins.” The scout leader stared in disbelief. “No,” she said, “you must be wrong. This can’t be your first. It’s so well run and organized!”

I assured her that this sleep over was indeed our first, and it began as just a fleeting suggestion on a train ride home from New York last March. (Thanks, Bruce & Phil, for humoring my crazy idea!!)

But trying to be objective, I have to say I agree with her. As an observer and “extra pair of hands” volunteer, it was the best-run camp-in I had ever seen. I lead two Girl Scout troops, and co-lead a third—so I have 7+ years of kid camp-in experience!

All the well-deserved kudos go to Christina Billew, our head teacher and organizer. Her children’s education background, acting experience, and the fact that she grew up with Theatre IV made her the perfect staff choice to run this event. None of us realized HOW perfect. I was very impressed with her level of detail, organizing every little aspect of the evening.

We have our second camp-in tonight, and this time, MY troops and three daughters get to attend. I’m really excited to be returning. I love my job!

--Tracy Coogle, CPA and Controller of Theatre IV and Barksdale Theatre, recipient of 40 Under 40 recognition from STYLE Weekly, 2009

A Spritz on Both Our Houses

Posted by Bruce Miller
In My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the mega-hit movie from 2002, the father of the bride uses Windex as a cure-all. “Put some Windex!” he continually shouts as he sprays every ailment from facial blemishes to curvature of the spine.

At last night’s Bootleg Shakespeare production of Romeo and Juliet, Windex’s “medicinal” properties did an about-face. The Smurf-blue solvent stood in as the poison that brought about the final demise of our title characters.

Jacquie O’Connor, in the role of the Apothecary, rummaged through her bag of tricks for the toxicant Romeo requested. She pulled out a bra, a pop culture magazine, and a few other dainties before finally retrieving the powerful venom (in a convenient spray bottle) for which she had been searching.

By design, the actors in Bootleg Shakespeare provided their own props. Anything can and did happen. After the Windex arrived on stage, it was a slippery slope to the climactic reconciliation of Capulet and Montague.

When young Paris tried to prevent Romeo from entering Juliet’s crypt, Romeo dispatched his rival not with a dagger or sword but with a quick spray of Windex to the face. Soon thereafter, Romeo removed the spray nozzle and guzzled the Windex down, immediately responding with the exact grimace and gurgle one would expect should one contemplate a greedy gulp of household cleanser.

Suffice it to say, last night was not your daddy’s Shakespeare.

But it may have been somewhat reminiscent of your great great great…(add however many greats it takes to get you back to the late 16th century) granddaddy’s experiences with the Bard.
Scholars advise us that Shakespeare’s plays at the Old Globe were performed after only minimal rehearsal (Bootleg Shakespeare was rehearsed over the course of one day), and that they almost certainly were not directed (the concept of a stage director uniting a cast’s intentions did not emerge until two to three hundred years later).

Also, all of Shakespeare’s women were played by men. So when all the world was Shakespeare's, seeing the wonderful Molly Hood as Juliet would have been far more jarring than seeing the equally wonderful Fredrick Kaufman as Juliet’s Nurse.

Best of all, there was no reverence whatsoever in last night’s friend- and fund-raiser for the up-and-coming Henley Street Theatre. For one night only, Shakespeare’s work was light on gravitas and rife with spontaneity—which I suspect was VERY much what the Bard himself expected and experienced in merry old London.

And in the middle of everything, was Joe Carlson's magnificent portrayal of Mercutio.

Just like Shakespeare, last night’s event was popular with the masses. Granted, it was free and there was only one performance. Nonetheless, what a thrill it was to drive into the parking lot at Willow Lawn at 6:10 pm and see a line of well over a hundred stretching from Barksdale’s front door half way to Staples.

Now if they'll only return for the sheer delight of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

All of us at Barksdale felt privileged to have had the opportunity to work in cooperation with Henley Street as they brought to Richmond this fun and exciting new venture. If you couldn’t make it last night (or arrived too late to snag a ticket to the sold-out event), you missed a night to remember.

Congratulations to all involved!

--Bruce Miller

Thursday, October 29, 2009

My Visit with Pat Carroll--Our 500th Post!

Written by Carrie Galeski
Visiting with Pat Carroll was the cherry on the sundae during my recent trip to New England. It was a fun trip, visiting friends in Nantucket, playing lots of golf, and also catching up with a favorite cousin in Connecticut. I can’t believe it, but I finally got my fill of lobster on this trip!

It’s always fun spending time with Pat, and this visit was no exception. She had just returned from spending a month in England and was a bit tired. She said the trip to England had been good medicine for her, giving her time to both relax and reflect.

It‘s been a very hard summer for Pat in that she had to face the death of her son, Sean, in August. He died unexpectedly of a heart attack at age 56. Pat’s daughters, Tara and Kerry, were with her during this arduous time, along with her granddaughter, Evan, whom Pat adores.

Pat is writing her autobiography and has been for the past year or so. I can’t wait to read it. As always, Pat has been busy. She still goes out to LA to visit her girls, and is doing voiceovers for Disney, along with any good parts that happen her way.

I hope you got to see the movie Freedom Writers with Hillary Swank. Pat played a wonderful role in this true story, Miep Gies, one of the Dutch citizens who, earlier in her life, had helped to hid Anne Frank and her family in the Secret Annex. Pat is very proud of the film. I was in California several years ago when she was filming FW, and she was so excited about the part then. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth your time.

Some of the time we spent reminiscing about her time at Barksdale. She speaks lovingly of Pete, Nancy and Muriel, Bruce and Phil (whom she met while doing Grace and Glorie with Theatre IV), and all the friends she made in both Hanover and Richmond.

It’s hard to believe, but it has been more than twenty years since I first became friends with Pat. She was doing Nunsense at the Tavern for the first time, and Pete urged me to go in to see her one morning. Pat was sitting at the infamous “kitchen table” having coffee. She asked me to join her, and…twenty plus years later, I count her as a dear friend who has brightened my life ever so much.

She asked that I give her very best wishes to her many friends in this area.

--Carrie Galeski, former Barksdale Trustee, Barksdale Leadership Award winner 2006

Who Are America's Greatest Playwrights?

Posted by Bruce Miller
When you survey the current and not-so-current lists of “America’s Greatest Playwrights,” as I have always been wont to do, there are 25 names that consistently bubble up to the top of the kettle. In alpha order, they are:

Edward Albee
Horton Foote
John Guare
Lorraine Hansberry
Lillian Hellman
Henry David Hwang
William Inge
George S. Kaufman
Tony Kushner
David Mamet
Donald Margulies
Arthur Miller
Lynn Nottage
Clifford Odets
Eugene O’Neill
Suzan-Lori Parks
Jose Rivera
Sam Shepard
Robert Sherwood
Neil Simon
Paula Vogel
Thornton Wilder
Tennessee Williams
August Wilson
Lanford Wilson

The dozen runners up include Jon Robin Baitz, Lee Blessing, A. R. Gurney, Moss Hart, Sidney Kingsley, Tracy Letts, Terrence McNally, Elmer Rice, Sarah Ruhl, William Saroyan, John Patrick Shanley and Wendy Wasserstein.

All such lists, of course, are open to revision and meant to inspire differences of opinion. This list is deliberately not mine. It's a compilation of what I've found on the web and in other places, representing a broader base of opinions. If you feel so inclined, I'd love to hear from you regarding who you think should be added or deleted.

The five-second version of the Mission of Barksdale Theatre is “to produce in Central Virginia national caliber productions of the great comedies, dramas and musicals—past, present and future." In keeping with that Mission, surely Barksdale should be introducing or re-visiting the works of America’s greatest playwrights on a regular basis.

In subsequent posts, I'll be looking at how we have been doing in keeping this canon of great American work alive for Central Virginia audiences.

Till then, let me remind you that we will be revisiting the work of William Inge in just a few weeks, when Bus Stop opens at Hanover Tavern under the direction of Amy Berlin. Inge has been variously called the “most popular playwright of the 50s,” “the Poet Laureate of the American Midwest,” and “the Chekhov of the Common Man.” By any objective reckoning, he is indisputably in America’s top 20 playwrights of all time.

Richmond hasn’t seen an Inge work on stage in years. Hope you’ll join us in December as we revisit one of the greatest (and most enjoyable) plays of an American master.

--Bruce Miller

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"Bus stop, bus go, she stays, love grows"

Posted by Bruce Miller
I've always loved the pop song Bus Stop by the Hollies. It was part of the soundtrack of my first romance. Ann Bristow and I started dating on Valentine's Day 1966, and by August we had exchanged high school rings and were officially going steady.

Bus stop, wet day, she's there, I say
Please share my umbrella
Bus stop, bus go, she stays, love grows
Under my umbrella
All that summer we enjoyed it
Wind and rain and shine
That umbrella we employed it
By August she was mine

Sondheim lyrics they ain't.

The song has nothing whatsoever to do with the classic American play Bus Stop by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright William Inge. Bus Stop the play will open at Hanover Tavern on November 27, playing throughout the holidays.

The plots of the play and the song, however, are certainly similar. Weather conditions bring boy and girl into close proximity with each other. By the time the bus goes, the girl has decided to stay and romance is in the air.

Ah youth.

Our production of Bus Stop will be directed by Amy Berlin, who last manned the helm for Shirley Valentine. Terrie Powers and David Powers, who have co-designed every Tavern set since our return, are again creating this slice-of-Americana set, with lights by Slade Billew and costumes by Marcia Miller Hailey. Jonathan Hardison, who last acted with us in The Man Who Came to Dinner, will serve as Fight Choreographer. Tiffany Shifflett is providing stage management. Chase Kniffen is our Production Manager for Hanover Tavern.

Amy has assembled a top drawer cast.

Alia Bisharat will play Cherie, the Kansas City "chanteuse" who catches the eye of Bo Decker, a lovesick and decidedly not worldly wise ranch hand played by Jonathan Conyers. Alia and Jonathan are the two fresh-faced lookers in the top right photo.

Bill Brock is Carl, the driver of the bus that unloads our entire cast into a rural Kansas bus stop and diner in the midst of an unseasonably early blizzard. The object of Carl's affections is Grace Hoyland, the owner, chief cook and bottle washer of the roadside diner, played by Jacquie O'Connor.

Grace's teenage waitress, Elma Duckworth, is played to wide-eyed perfection by Emily Bradner. She catches the roving (lecherous?) eye of Dr. Gerald Lyman, an aging professor much too old to be casting his gaze upon teenage girls. Dr. Lyman is played by Christopher Dunn, last seen at Barksdale Willow Lawn in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Keeping watch over this diverse group of wayfaring strangers is the local sheriff Will Masters, played by Michael Hawke (The Full Monty, Mame), and Bo's mentor and best friend, Virgil Blessing, played by Eric Williams (Smoke on the Mountain and Sanders Family Christmas).

I love this funny, heartwarming, holiday play about finding ourselves in the love we find in others. We're now taking reservations for individuals, families and groups. Hope you'll join us for this colorful and charming American classic from 1955!

--Bruce Miller

Monday, October 26, 2009

Trying to be Inclusive

Posted by Bruce Miller
It was about six years ago that the Barksdale Board of Trustees devised its five-year accessibility plan. The overriding goal was to increase attendance and impact by proactively opening the theatre’s doors, hearts and minds to segments of the Central Virginia population that were under-represented in the Barksdale audience.

We’ve always called it a lower-case accessibility plan, rather than an Accessibility Plan, because we knew it would be devilishly hard to achieve success. Long-standing attendance (and non-attendance) patterns are hard to change. We didn’t want to make a huge deal about it, and run the risk of seeming failure. We think of these efforts as a process, a mind-set, a work in progress.

When it comes to accessibility, there is no such thing as “mission accomplished.”

But I'm proud of us. We've taken the task seriously. We’ve worked hard and systematically. Now that the first five-year plan has been implemented, it’s a good time to take a glance backwards and see what, if anything, has been accomplished.

Our goal for year one was to become more attractive to younger audiences. When I say “younger,” I mean anyone under the median age of the American regional theatre audience, which I'm told is 55.

Beginning with the 05-06 Season, we made a commitment to ourselves that at least two of the five shows in our Signature Season at Willow Lawn would be important NEW plays or musicals—fresh and exciting work written within the previous five years.

Our track record reads like this:
05-06 – Syringa Tree, The Full Monty
06-07 – Brooklyn Boy, Intimate Apparel
07-08 – Doubt, The Little Dog Laughed
08-09 – The Clean House, Well
09-10 – Boleros for the Disenchanted, Putnam County Spelling Bee

Has it worked? I have no scientific evidence; we don’t ask people their age when we greet them at the top of the stairs. But judging from the audiences we’ve observed, we answer with a hopeful YES!

We still tend to attract the smart set, and that's the way we like it. But it’s hard to find an evening audience these days when at least a quarter of the crowd doesn’t appear to be younger than me. And as the run progresses, the audience becomes even more youthful. We’re feeling good, and we will be continuing our commitment to new work.

In 06-07 we extended our commitment to African American artists and audiences. Including shows that relate specifically to African American experience (marked with an asterisk*) and shows that included African American actors in non-traditional roles, our track record looks like this:

06-07 – Intimate Apparel*, Mame, Into the Woods
07-08 – Member of the Wedding*, Guys and Dolls
08-09 – Children of a Lesser God, Well* (sorta), Thoroughly Modern Millie
09-10 – Putnam County Spelling Bee, Black Nativity*, Grapes of Wrath, Crowns*

(Black Nativity and Crowns are co-produced with the African American Repertory Theatre and will be produced at the new Gottwald Playhouse at CenterStage.)

Has it worked? Again, we think so. I don’t want to overstate our progress, but less frequently these days will you find an all white audience at Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn, particularly in the evenings. We still have considerable work to do on this front, but we’re moving in the right direction.

In 07-08 we began seriously to address issues of economic accessibility. We expanded our $15/$20 rush ticket program to include all ticket buyers, and we introduced our $10 U-Tkts for university and high school students. These discount programs have grown considerably each year, as more lower income Richmond residents learn that Barksdale Theatre is one of the best values (and cheapest tickets) in town.

In 08-09 we launched our efforts to welcome deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences into our theatre. We upgraded our infrared hearing systems, we produced Children of a Lesser God, and we began offering ASL sign interpreted performances for every production. We are now in year two of this initiative, and despite several bumps in the road, we regularly attract to each production 20 to 30 patrons who specifically ask for the infrared devises and/or visual access to the ASL interpreters. Clear progress.

In the current season, 09-10, we began our Hispanic Theatre Project, produced in association with the Latin Ballet. Boleros for the Disenchanted was very well received by all audiences, and attracted upwards of 60 new Latino families who had not previously appeared on Barksdale’s box office records.

Let me explain. Here again the evidence is anecdotal, not scientific. Throughout the run, I've been talking with our box office staff, house staff, and Ana Inez King, who worked directly with the audience during almost every intermission. Their best guesses indicate that we welcomed to the show 97 couples and/or parties that appeared to be of Latino heritage. And we added about 60 names and addresses to our mailing list representing those 97 parties. (Try as we might, we frequently fail to obtain contact information from walk-ups, rush ticket buyers, individual couples in larger groups etc.)

In an upcoming blog post, I’ll talk specifically about the various efforts we made to connect with Central Virginia’s Latino community, and discuss what our next steps in this historic project will be.

Till then, I hope to see you at the final week of Souvenir. It’s a wonderful show, and closes after this weekend's performances at Hanover Tavern. It's an elegant and fun little comedy with music, and audiences are LOVING IT!

--Bruce Miller

FastForward to Zach Making It Big

Posted by Bruce Miller
The Richmond Times-Dispatch lists Star Birthdays every morning. It appears to be a column they purchase from some news service. Today Zach Knighton is listed as one of the “celebrities” born on Oct 25.

Zach stars in the new hit TV series FlashForward. I don’t think anyone at the T-D knew or noticed that Zach is a native of Virginia Beach, and a favorite son of VCU and the Richmond theatre community. At Theatre IV, he starred as the younger of the two Hardy Boys in the play by that name at the historic Empire Theatre, about 10 to 12 years ago.

At the time, he was definitely one of those actors who come through town and you just know, just by the vibe he brings into a room, that he’s going to find success in places a lot more upscale than the Empire.

Zach has plenty of talent, of course. And good looks. But it’s something more than that. Blair Underwood and Emily Skinner both had it too. It’s some sort of energy, but I don’t know how to explain it anymore than that.

Then, when these actors make it, it’s hard to describe the vicarious thrill you get as you watch their careers take off. All at once that talented kid who used to show such promise as a rising star in your theatre is vying for the attentions of the world. It’s a mix of pride and embarrassment, an odd combination of wanting to shout out “Hey, I knew him when,” and not wanting to seem like you’re desperately clinging to coattails.

When you build your career in a city like Richmond, you soon realize that your role is not to be a star, or make someone a star. Please. In national terms, your role is to build and sustain one tiny but vital stepping stone, so that those fortunate few who are destined for greater renown have a secure place to build their craft, even if just for a moment, on their way up.

And if you’re blessed, they still remember you after they’ve begun to hit their marks in New York or L. A.

Over the holidays last year, I wrote to Zach to tell him I was keeping up with his success. He had made a really strong impression starring in The Hitcher, a film I didn’t see. (I can’t do horror and suspense films anymore or else I’ll never go to sleep.) But I had TiVo’ed and faithfully watched every episode of a fairly mindless TV series Zach had starred in called Life on a Stick. I wrote to tell him I was proud of his success.

And he wrote back: “Hey there Bruce.....good to hear from you. Thanks for watching my silly tv show....I've got a new one coming soon on abc called 'flashforward.' It’s written by the same guy who wrote 'The Dark Knight'.....anyway, I'm pretty excited about it so spread the word. I hope all is well with Theatre IV. I'm always passing through town (being that my family is still in VA). I would love to come talk to the kids sometime! Keep in touch.....zaCh…"

Well. As all the world now knows, Zach had good reason to be excited about FlashForward. On Oct 12, it was announced by the Hollywood people who keep track of these things that FlashForward is the #1 dramatic series of the new season, and the cast was notified that a full season has been ordered by the network. As Zach wrote on his facebook status, “This one’s gonna stick, folks.”

If you haven’t seen FlashForward yet, I hardily recommend it. I’m hooked. I can’t wait for each Thursday to roll around so I can see what’s going to happen next. Best of all, Zach is GREAT in the series. It plays to all of his strengths.

Even if Zach hadn’t written me about the show, I still would have had to watch. Zach’s aunt, Spring Kirby, has been a friend of mine since college, when I cast her in her first and only role as a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz. Spring would have made sure I tuned in, or I never would have heard the end of it.

So Happy Birthday, Zachary. It’s not yet midnight in L. A. All of us in Richmond theatre are really proud of your success. We wish you the best, and know that you will continue to stay the genuinely nice guy we remember.

And when you come back to VA, please let me know. I’m gonna take you up on that offer to have a talk back with some of Richmond’s kids.

All the best, man.

--Bruce Miller

Saturday, October 24, 2009

I Support CenterStage

Posted by Bruce Miller
A fellow named “Scott” wrote a frustrated comment to my recent posting, Déjà Vu All Over Again. I "rejected" his comment, so you won’t see it following my post. I rejected it not because I don't believe Scott has the right to think the way he does, and not because I have no respect for his opinion. I rejected it because it inadvertently misrepresented what I was trying to say in my post. I guess I didn't say it well enough.

Scott wrote strongly against CenterStage and asked the question, "Why didn't theatre people join with me, Joel Katz, Don Harrison and others to fight" during the battles over the new performing arts center’s conception and construction.

The notion that theatre people played dead during the years of planning, left the decisions to others, and sat on the sidelines until now is just not true. Plenty of theatre people worked many, many long hours to support CenterStage, and often that support was in the form of respectful, constructive criticism. Just because we didn’t join in a public fray doesn’t mean we didn’t work long and hard to ensure that our voices were heard as plans developed. We didn't join in the very public fight because we supported the vast majority of what CenterStage was and is all about. I continue to support these things.

I support elevating the profile of the performing arts in Greater Richmond by providing first rate performance facilities.

I support using the arts to positively impact downtown development.

I support bringing the major corporate funders to the table in recognition of the value of the performing arts to our community.

I support having a first-class home for the Richmond Symphony, the Richmond Ballet, the Virginia Opera, Richmond Shakespeare, the African American Repertory Theatre, and the other companies that are now mounting their seasons in the new spaces.

I even support having a "Broadway" series in Richmond—and remember, most of the "Broadway" series is in the Landmark, not CenterStage. And some of the touring "Broadway" shows are "Broadway" as much in hype as in reality, having fewer Broadway performers in their casts than, say, Barksdale's recent production of Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Nonetheless, I always have supported a "Broadway" series; I always will. I have issues here and there regarding operations, but you won’t find me shouting about those issues in public. I think that would be counterproductive. I think there are many Richmonders who want "Broadway" tours coming to town, and who the heck am I to stand in their way.

Scott mentions in his comment how shameful it is that money was directed to a downtown arts center while schools were still in need of repair. I don't agree. There will always be schools in need of repair, and we will always need to work our hardest to address this situation. Of course I support school repair. Everyone does.

Nonetheless, we have functioning schools for all of Central Virginia's students, and exceptional schools for many. I support the continuation of work to make all school facilities exceptional. But until CenterStage we did not have a single functioning performance facility for the above mentioned arts organizations and their audiences. And I believe the roles these organizations play in the education of our children require our community to have at least one major exceptional performance facility.

Much of what Scott said regarding faulty financial models may be true. I don't know. I agree that much work needs to be done to ensure that CenterStage operates on a viable financial model that has no negative impact on the financial health and sustainability of our community's nonprofit performing arts organizations.

But acknowledging that a job is hard and that work needs to be done is not the same thing as demanding that the difficult job be cancelled until all the planets align to guarantee success. If we always waited for everything to be ideal, no one would ever do anything.

My point in Déjà Vu All Over Again was not to blame CenterStage or any other organization or person. My point was and is that we should acknowledge the challenges we face and then come up with some decent ideas to overcome those challenges.

I hate rejecting comments, but I don’t want to run comments that assume I mean one thing when actually I do not.

I support CenterStage. I support Sycamore Rouge and Henley Street and Barksdale Theatre at Hanover Tavern. But I also want all of us to take an objective look at the facts and work together to make things better.

I don't want now, nor have I ever wanted, to join in the fight to oppose CenterStage. On that particular point, Scott and I simply have a difference of opinion.

I respect his opinion, even if I don’t agree with it. I hope he and others of like mind can and will respect mine.


--Bruce Miller

Essie Simms, Alan Flannagan, Lynn Keeton and "We the People"

Posted by Bruce Miller
It was a good afternoon at Westminster-Canterbury.

First, the latest news about Essie Simms. Phil and I had a chance to drop off some flowers at Essie’s room in the health care section of W-C today. There is still a “no visitors” sign on her door, but when the nurse told Essie we were there with flowers, Essie asked if we would step in for a few minutes.

In terms of appearance, Essie looked the best we’ve seen her. In terms of speech, she was talking in entire paragraphs—short paragraphs—but still her communication was improved since previous visits at St. Mary’s. She had a smile on her face, but stated that she was still feeling “pretty punk.” She appeared still to be unable to open her eyes.

She asked us to thank those who have been sending cards and including her in their prayers. She seemed to want to continue to hear from people, to want to be cheered up. She seemed a little down that her recovery was progressing so slowly. So please keep those cards and letters coming.

Essie appeared to be very tired, so we visited with her for only about three to five minutes before allowing her to rest.

We were at Westminster-Canterbury to present a 35-minute performance of We the People, a musical revue featuring authentic 18th century songs tied together by a historical narrative. The program was directed by Chase Kniffen, and beautifully performed by Chris Stewart, Ali Thibodeau, Aly Wepplo and Eric Williams, with Sandy Dacus recorded on piano.

We the People was performed twice for W-C residents and their guests, once at 4 p.m. and once at 7 p.m. Barksdale’s appearance was funded by Neil and Sara Belle November. A fun time was had by all.

We presented We the People for the first time in the summer of 1975, as a program created to celebrate the nation’s Bicentennial. At that time it was called Jubilee. In the audience for this afternoon’s performance were Alan Flannagan and Lynn Keeton, a husband/wife team of Richmond actors who just moved back to town after decades of success in New York. Lynn was in the original production of Jubilee with Phil, Dianne Graham, Steve Rosser and myself in the summer of 75. When Steve Rosser and Dianne Graham left the show to return to the University of Richmond, Alan and Lynn West took their places, and the five of us toured the show for many months.

It was great to see Al and Lynn today, and truly weird to see them at this performance of We the People. Both Al and Lynn were at W-C to visit with Lynn’s Aunt Florence, who has been a W-C resident for the last year.

I visited also with my own mother, who is 93 and lives with advanced Alzheimers. It was GREAT to see her face light up when she saw Phil, whom she hasn’t seen, I imagine, for over a year.

So welcome back to Richmond, Alan and Lynn. It will be great to bring you back into the fold after your years of Broadway success. Essie, get well soon. We really miss you. And everyone, remember to be kind to your elders. Every ounce of attention we give is returned many times over within their appreciation.

I’m proud that Barksdale is so actively involved with Central Virginia’s growing senior citizen community. It's a privilege.

--Bruce Miller

Déjà Vu All Over Again

Posted by Bruce Miller
What we need is a bright idea. Or three or four.

In my humble opinion, Richmond theatres will face a challenge in the months and years ahead. I know that Barksdale and Theatre IV face that challenge right now, and I fear it’s more widespread than that.

Challenges are insurmountable only when we fail to recognize them. I've always believed that individuals and communities are better able to address challenges if they acknowledge them directly and work in a united way to address them.

I think the number of nonprofit theatres and the numbers of plays produced by these nonprofit theatres have grown faster than the number of Central Virginia ticket buyers and contributors committed to supporting these worthy ventures.

When this happens, everyone suffers. No one wins. Certainly not the theatre artists looking for work or the theatre audience looking for artistic quality. In the long run, having lots of theatres and lots of shows is good only when there are resources enough to allow every theatre and every show to succeed on its own terms.

I could be wrong about all this. Maybe all you other theatres in town are doing great.

But if we are a little overly crowded right now, it's not a first-time thing.

If you go back to 2001, the Richmond theatre scene was crowded with TheatreVirginia, Barksdale Theatre, Theatre IV, and Swift Creek Mill (known for many years in days gone by as the Big Four). Then we also had the Firehouse, Richmond Shakespeare, African American Repertory Theatre (in its infancy, I think), Richmond Triangle Players, Chamberlayne Actors Theatre, HATTheatre, the Carpenter Science Theatre, and Theatre at Bolling Haxall House. The other big game in town was Broadway Under the Stars—for profit and not local, but nonetheless acting as the 500 lb gorilla. Mystery Dinner Playhouse was also here as a for profit entity.

Forgive me for overlooking, I suspect, one or two others.

In those crowded times, if memory serves, all of the theatres—each and every one of us—struggled to survive.

Then, in 2001, Barksdale hit the financial skids, precipitating the Barksdale / Theatre IV partnership that exists today. In 2002, TheatreVirginia went belly up. And shortly thereafter, I don’t remember the year, Broadway Under the Stars collapsed, leaving its subscribers high and dry. For a couple comfortable seasons, professional theatre in Richmond seemed right-sized, and every theatre in town seemed to do well.

Doing well, of course, inspires doing more. And so we slowly began to add again. Sycamore Rouge, Richmond Ensemble Theatre, Essential Theatre, Barksdale at Hanover Tavern, Henley Street Theatre, Stage 1—all admirable efforts with much to recommend them. Firehouse, Richmond Shakespeare, Chamberlayne Actors Theatre and African American Rep all began to grow—considerably. And then this year, the return of the 500 pounder—the “Broadway series” at CenterStage.

None of this growth is bad. All of it is good. But if it presents new challenges, shouldn't we recognize and figure out how to address them as a community, not as one theatre vs another?

From all that I have heard and seen, we've now entered another period where many if not mosts casts in town are playing to houses much smaller than they deserve—no matter how good their show. I haven't heard from any nonprofit theatre that's meeting its fund development goal--although you may know something I don't. I have heard from several theatre managers who are wondering how on earth we’re going to hang in there without cutting back on our salaries, our AEA contracts, our artistic quality, and/or our risk taking.

Of course, that’s the last thing we should be doing. Cutting back is often the kiss of death.

Three of the new nonprofit theatres that began since 2002 have already closed their doors, due in each case to financial pressures.

One good sign this time around is this. Theatres all over town have begun to partner—creating one production where there otherwise would have been two. Barksdale and Theatre IV are working together on Sound of Music (one show that stands in for last year’s Annie and Millie). Richmond Shakespeare and African American Repertory Theatre are co-producing Othello. AART and Barksdale are co-producing both Black Nativity and Crowns. And Barksdale is co-producing Grapes of Wrath with TheatreVCU.

All this partnering would not have happened six or seven years ago. For those who don't realize it, take a look back. The spirit of cooperation among Central Virginia's theatres today is MUCH greater now than it ever was prior to 2002. I may be misguided--I know there are those who think I am--but I think this is a huge step forward.

When markets become over-crowded, one or two of three things inevitably will happen. Central Virginia's theatres will discover new ways to co-produce and reduce the total number of productions, and/or we will find effective ways to increase overall ticket sales and contributions, and/or we will see another round of theatres begin to go out of business.

Several of us have ridden these waves before. They’re not fun. Maybe this time, we can all work together and find a way to make a win-win-win … say it nine more times.

Till then, for Pete’s sake, buy a ticket to a play produced in Central Virginia. Any play. Please?

--Bruce Miller

Many Good Thoughts on "Much Ado"

Posted by Bruce Miller
I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Much Ado About Nothing this evening, produced by Richmond Shakespeare at the spanking new Gottwald Playhouse. I’m ashamed to admit there have been more Richmond Shakespeare productions I haven’t seen than ones I have. Having thus disclaimed, let me say that this was my favorite Richmond Shakespeare production thus far.

Here’s what I enjoyed:

Shakespeare presented with a full rather than a truncated cast;

the “major role” talent and stage presence of Chris Blake, lavished on a tiny part;

the sincerity and beauty of Liz Blake—perfect for Hero;

seeing Ryan Capps back on stage in Richmond (our gain, Philadelphia’s loss);

Jonathan Conyers demonstration, in the major role of Claudio, of his unique ability to be manly and adorable at the same time—I’m looking forward to Jonathan as Bo in Bus Stop, coming up next at Hanover Tavern;

Stacie Rearden Hall’s beautiful singing voice;

Sarah Jamillah Johnson, a drop-dead-gorgeous Beatrice with admirable mettle;

the haunted intelligence that Billy Christopher Maupin brings to Don John, even if his boyish good looks sometimes seem at odds with his intensity (enjoy the bgl while you can, B. C.);

the power demonstrated by Thomas Nowlin as he reprises his post-wedding Friar speech (Thomas appeared in the same role, to equally good effect, at the Virginia Shakespeare Festival in Williamsburg last summer);

seeing Alan Sader on stage again—it’s been too long, Alan;

the quick wit, and physical and facial dexterity of T J Simmons, who as Benedick makes Shakespearean dialogue seem like he’s making it up in the moment;

the commanding presence of Dave White;

the musical talents of James Wingo;

Grant’s and Molly’s deft direction, making it easy to understand and enjoy nearly every word.

Honestly, I thought the entire cast was good. I liked it when the house lights finally went out during Claudio’s lament after Hero’s supposed death. It says more about me than about the technique, but I’m never really at ease when the house lights are left on. Unfortunately, it was also during this quiet, darkened scene that we in the audience could hear the bass and percussion coming, I suppose, from the opera performance in the Carpenter Theatre next door.

What I really, really loved was seeing within the audience of about 100 at least 50 high school and/or college students, hanging on every word, and a diverse crowd that made you feel like you were at the United Nations.

The entire evening was spirited, intelligent, filled with talent, fuelled with energy, and flavored by 25 years of experience. Three cheers and many congratulations to Grant and his team for an excellent show!

--Bruce Miller

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Firehouse Rises to Top of Artsie Tally

Posted by Bruce Miller
Ya gotta give kudos where kudos are due. Depending on how you measure it, the Firehouse currently holds a resounding lead in the two-year race for Artsies (the annual awards presented by the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle – RTCC).

The good folks at Firehouse (Carol, Morrie et al) are revered colleagues and friends. We bow to their current supremacy, even if we are all the more determined to catch up with them next year.

But, for the moment, it is quite true that Firehouse has been awarded exactly twice as many Best Play and Best Musical Awards as any other theatre in Central Virginia. The scorecard reads like this: Firehouse – 2 (last year’s Henry Moss and this year’s Eurydice [which I’m finally learning to spell correctly]), the Mill – 1 (last year’s Urinetown), and Barksdale – 1 (this year’s Millie).

Thank God for Millie – that’s all I’m saying.

Of course, there are other ways to keep score. We have a slight lead in terms of the number of talented theatre artists who’ve worked on Barksdale shows and been honored with their own Artsie. But even using that method of tabulation, the Firehouse, the Mill and Richmond Shakes are all nipping at our heals.

And the artists themselves get to take home those chotchkies. The only ones we can keep on our mantle in the conference room are the ones (make that “the one”) we won for Best Play or Best Musical.

So, with my ego appropriately tamed, let me shout out congratulations to all of Richmond’s many fine theatres for their nominations and wins. And congrats to the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle for working hard to recognize a diverse body of great work. IMHO, that’s exactly what you should be doing. We’re honored to be in such outstanding, award-winning company.

--Bruce Miller

If you haven't heard yet, here's the 2009 roster of Barksdale's wins. Our greatest thanks and congratualtions to the honorees.

Best Musical: Thoroughly Modern Millie

Best Direction - Musical: Patti D'Beck, Thoroughly Modern Millie

Best Actor - Musical: Zak Resnick, Thoroughly Modern Millie

Best Supporting Actor - Musical: Timothy Ford, Thoroughly Modern Millie

Best Supporting Actress - Musical: Ali Thibodeau, Thoroughly Modern Millie

Best Musical Direction: Paul Deiss, Thoroughly Modern Millie

Best Choreography: Patti D'Beck, Thoroughly Modern Millie

Best Actress - Play: Robin Arthur, The Clean House

Outstanding Achievement in Costume Design: Sue Griffin, Thoroughly Modern Millie

Outstanding Achievement in Set Design: Ron Keller, Thoroughly Modern Millie

Outstanding Achievement in Hair / Makeup Design: Sue Griffin, Thoroughly Modern Millie

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

We Interrupt Our Regular Programming...

Posted by Bruce Miller
I love WCVE-FM and public radio. Honestly, it’s the only radio station I listen to—even during pledge drives. I sometimes try to turn my dial to other stations rather than listen to the heartfelt pleas for contributions, but I’m never very successful. I find myself always coming back to my comfortable, rewarding radio home.

The pledge are necessary, I know. I can’t help but wonder what would happen if in the middle of Boleros for the Disenchanted, Shining City, Boys’ Life, Souvenir, Irma Vep, Mahalia, The Ugly Duckling, I’m Not Rappaport, The New Century, or Much Ado … the Managing Director stepped out from the wings and stopped the show.

“We interrupt our regular programming,” she might say, “to ask you, our listeners, to donate the money we need to survive. We only do this every six months during our pledge drives. But we won’t stop interrupting our shows until we raise the funds we need.”

I’m being facetious, of course. It’s apples and oranges. But still, were we to try something like this, our poor managing directors would be pummelled with every balled up playbill and loose arm rest in the house.

Live theatre isn’t something you can put on hold while you ask your audience for money. The connection is too immediate and intense. You can’t turn it on and off. Breaking that connection mid-performance would be unthinkable.

And yet any of us who work in this crazy business know full well that the funds needed to keep our nonprofit professional theatres alive are just as necessary as the funds needed to support public television and public radio. Public radio commentators lament that less than 15% of their funding comes from government grants. At Barksdale, we receive less than 2% of our funding from local, state and federal funds.

So here’s a modest proposal—I hope it won’t be perceived as too subversive by my friends at WCVE-FM. And if it is, not to worry. Nobody out there takes this blog seriously.

What if each theatre in town had a fund set up to pay for “sponsorships” on WCVE-FM? I'm talking about an official fund with which WCVE is directly connected. “Sponsorships” are those little 20-second promos that say something akin to “All Things Considered is brought to you today by Henley Street Theatre, now presenting Shining City, a bold and fascinating new play by Conor McPherson, starring Joe Inscoe and Larry Cook.” If such special funds existed at the theatres, when theatre lovers wanted to support WCVE-FM, they could donate their $60 or whatever to their favorite theatre rather than directly to the radio station. As the money is donated, the theatres could call in the funds raised to the radio station, so WCVE could still keep up with their pledges.

All the money donated would then be used to promote the nonprofit theatre on WCVE-FM. The money would go to WCVE (so it would be a win for them) AND the money would also support the nonprofit theatre that needs to pay dearly for those “sponsorships." The donor would be supporting both public radio AND the Richmond nonprofit theatre of their choice. A win-win.

The money raised might actually be greater; donors like win-wins.

It’s worth a moment’s thought.

--Bruce Miller

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Shining Actors

Posted by Bruce Miller

I saw Shining City tonight. I loved the way Henley Street (or whomever) has upgraded the space. I love the new risers and raked seating. I didn’t see True West last season (I heard it was great). But I’ve seen many other shows at Pine Camp. Shining City was by far the most satisfactorily produced play I’ve seen there. Sets, lights, sound and overall ambiance seemed indeed to have been kicked up a notch.

I loved James Ricks’s pre-show speech—very casual, friendly, confident, charming and short. Those speeches are tough and few people do them well. James's speech was great.

I can’t say enough about the talents of Joe Inscoe. He’s world class—as good as anyone you’ll see anywhere. What an amazing actor. He’s a Broadway star right here in Richmond. I’m being completely serious.

If I ever go to see a therapist, I hope he’s just like Larry Cook. Larry's was a very comforting presence. I thought he was great.

Same thing for Jacob Pennington, except different profession.

I think Lyddall Bugg is a talented actress, and I’m sorry I didn’t become more familiar with her work when she toured in Huck and Tom and the Mighty Mississippi for Theatre IV.

Bo Wilson is one of the smartest guys in Richmond theatre and an astute director. I need to ask him to direct something at B'dale someday.

Henley Street is growing impressively. New artistic director James Ricks has hit the ground running. I applaud his talent, vision and ambition.

--Bruce Miller

PS Some anonymous commenters tell me I see plays at Virginia theatres other than Barksdale for terrible reasons. They say I'm trying to be like a plantation master proving that all the other theatres are beneath Barksdale and needy of my largesse. They say I write about the things I like at other theatres mostly to damn through omission those things I don't like. They say I want to make the other theatres look and feel small.

God help me if that is how this is coming off. None of that is my intention.

I go to other theatres to be supportive of other theatres. I think it's important for me to be supportive, and I take that responsibility seriously. I write about other theatres also to be supportive--of the theatres themselves and the artists who work there. If any artistic or managing director would prefer that I not come to their theatre and/or not write about their theatre on this blog, just let me know. You all know how to reach me. Thanks.

Some commenters still think I hate the Richmond critics; they believe I viewed the recent Artsie awards with derision and contempt. I don't and I didn't. If I come off that way, chalk it up to my being a horrible writer who can't make his opinions clear. I'm nothing but respectful of the critics, and actually quite fond of the several of them I know. I LOVED the Artsies. I've said it, I've written it, and I mean it.

Last but not least, when I recently wrote nice things about some Richmond theatre artists who didn't win Artsies, some commenters suggested I must really have it in for Joe Doran, Ron Keller, Audra Honaker, Ali Thibodeau, Marta Reiner and Jeff Cole (the Jeff part came from a response I wrote to a 'Rick Gray comment). You can believe me or not, but the truth is I actually care a lot about Joe, Ron, Audra, Ali, Marta and Jeff. I'm actually pretty crazy about them. I admire their talents. They are my friends.

That's all for now. Thanks.

--Bruce Miller

Applause for Those Who Didn't Win

Posted by Bruce Miller
I loved the Artsies as much as the next theatre-nut, probably more. I think everyone who won was super-deserving and I offer my hardiest and most heartfelt congratulations.

I especially congratulate the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle for putting so much time, effort and love into this endeavor. It’s a great way to celebrate the diversity of talent and effort in the Greater Richmond theatre scene. And it was a heck of a party.

I’m proud that Theatre IV donated the magnificent Empire for the event, and doubly proud of our staff who made this historic albeit rundown facility twinkle and shimmer and buzz.

In addition to the deserving winners announced Sunday evening, I like to offer my appreciation to some other theatre artists, some nominated and some not.

All the winners who won on Sunday evening and are mentioned below deserved to win. I mean to take nothing away from their wonderful achievements.

Outstanding Achievement in Lighting Design
Joe Doran is fantastic (and a good friend and a heck of a nice person). So is Lynne Hartman. She was nominated for The Clean House, but she could just as easily have been nominated for Children of a Lesser God, Thoroughly Modern Millie or any one of several other shows. I love and will always be inspired by her exemplary work.

Outstanding Achievement in Set Design
Ron Keller is an uber-talent (aagfaahoanp – see above). With significantly smaller budgets, the other nominees also did amazing work. Let me single out one who deserves lots of praise. Lin Heath. Show after show, year after year, Lin quietly creates wonderful sets at Chamberlayne Actors Theatre with tiny budgets and no paid staff. His set for All My Sons was an intimate valentine to post-WWII America that worked in beautiful counterpoint to the betrayals revealed in the play. Lin is an under-recognized (but not under-appreciated) artist. He amazes me.

But let’s leave the Lynne/Lin’s, and move on to the Ali/Aly’s.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role – Musical
Ali Thibodeau is a singing / dancing / acting dream, and she was incredibly wonderful in Millie. Aly Wepplo is also young, beautiful and talented. I know I have no objectivity about Ms Wepplo, since I directed the show I’m about to mention. Nonetheless, I thought Aly Wepplo was fantastic in Sanders Family Christmas. Her performance and the show received no nominations, but I loved watching the amazing connections she and the rest of the cast made with the audience night after night.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role – Play
Marta Rainer absolutely blew me away in Rabbit Hole and I've been wooing her for Barksdale ever since. Jan Guarino also blew me away in The Clean House. Jan has been so beloved by the Richmond audience for so long that it’s easy to take for granted how incredibly talented she is. She is a cornerstone of our theatre community, as is the un-nominated Kelly Kennedy. So I just want to tell both Jan and Kelly that I love their work.

Best Actress in a Leading Role – Musical
Audra Honaker is a force of nature and everyone knows how much I love her. People make fun over how highly I think of Ms. H. I think this year, Maggie Marlin also deserves great acclaim. Maggie carried Thoroughly Modern Millie on her capable shoulders. Her co-stars all were award-winners, and her show won Best Musical, but it was Maggie who WAS Thoroughly Modern Millie, and triple-threated her way into the hearts of the Richmond audience. I hope Maggie knows that our award-sweeping musical would have been nothing without her amazing, heartfelt star turn.

Ford Flannagan and Landon Nagel. I thought they were both incredible in The Widow’s Blind Date at the Firehouse. And I thought Ford also was excellent in Normal at Stage 1 (along with Dave Amadee). I thought Landon, Erica Siegel, Richie Gregory and the not-nominated Michelle Schaefer were all terrific in Children of a Lesser God. And in Children’s Letters to God, I thought the ensemble of kids was completely winning—even if they didn’t win on Sunday.

And as for that other ensemble of Joy Williams, James Bynum and Garet Chester--those three pulled off two hit runs in two different facilities, thrilling thousands.

Best Musical
Of course, I’m thrilled that Millie won. I completely agree. And now I’m going to be so bold as to mention the fact that Barksdale produced a very worthy World Premiere musical last season—Mona’s Arrangements by Bo Wilson and Steve Leibman. If this had been the Tony Awards, Altar Boyz, Annie, Trailer Park, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and tick, tick…Boom! would all have been competing for Best Revival, and only Mona’s Arrangements would have been eligible for Best Musical.

Producing a World Premiere is a BIG DEAL, so I mention it here. I thank Bo and Steve for their amazing work. I’m so proud of the entire Mona’s Arrangements team. I hope Richmond theatre will continue to grow to the point where it makes sense to offer an Artsie for Best Original Play or Musical.

Just like the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle, there are hundreds of other performances I loved. Space and time don’t allow mention of them all. But there is plenty of room in the comments for your thoughts.

Thanks again to the RTCC for their great evening on Sunday. See you at the theatre.

--Bruce Miller

Monday, October 19, 2009

Essie Simms is in the Hospital

Posted by Bruce Miller
Essie Simms, a dear friend to many of us, is in the Intensive Care Unit at St. Mary’s Hospital. She is recovering from what may have been a fall related to her diabetes. It does not appear that she has had a stroke. She has been “stabilized,” but remains in serious condition.

That’s all that I can tell you about her condition and prognosis. That’s all anyone would tell us.

Essie has to be Richmond’s most steadfast theatre supporter. She goes to see EVERYTHING. And I do mean EVERYTHING. And if she likes the show, she goes twice, or many times more than twice. And she always buys a ticket.

Essie has seen every Barksdale production since our very first show--Gold in the Hills in 1954.

I learned from a contact at Westminster-Canterbury early yesterday evening that Essie had been taken via ambulance to St. Mary’s Hospital. She was found unconscious on the floor of her room after neighbors reported that she hadn't picked up her Saturday or Sunday papers.

Phil and I visited Essie this morning in the ICU, only to find her unresponsive and semi-conscious. The good news is this: when I returned to visit Essie this afternoon, she was speaking a few words, although she still couldn’t open her eyes. She called me by name.

Julie Fulcher, who has been like a daughter to Essie for years, has been with her most of the day today. Audra Honaker also stopped by this afternoon for a visit. When I asked Essie if she’d like me to come back and visit again tomorrow, she said “Yes, please.”

The ICU discourages visitors, so I’m not meaning to encourage them. Visitation is limited to family only. But the truth is, we are Essie’s family—her only family. And we certainly don’t want her to be alone during this recovery.

If you are very close to Essie, and I know many of you are, please comment to this post and we’ll put you on a list of folks who are willing to visit Essie to make sure she has an appropriate amount of company during her recovery. Julie mentioned that she’d like to put together such a list, and I offered to help.

In the meantime, please keep Essie in your thoughts and prayers. She's a tough cookie, and I don't think she's through with us yet. Thanks.

--Bruce Miller

Artsies and The New Century

Posted by Bruce Miller
Everyone seems to have had a grand time last night at the RTCC Awards presentation at the historic Empire.

For me it was a little like hosting a party for 500 people in my home. We almost immediately had to restock the toilet paper and paper towels in the ladies room. (Thanks Erin and Jackie for the heads up.) I sat through the entire evening praying that no one would fall into the pit. (Note to self: next year, make sure that railings are on BOTH sides of the stairs leading to the stage.)

The mics seemed to work almost perfectly (give or take about 2 seconds of feedback), which was a miracle considering there was virtually no rehearsal. The stars twinkled with maybe a little too much enthusiasm. (Was it just me or did they start twinkling even faster whenever Audra Honaker came onstage?)

Many thanks to all who helped to make it happen without a major hitch.

Prior to the Artsies, I headed out west for The New Century and the Triangle Players. Here’s what I liked:

* Getting to see HATTheatre for the first time. I know, I should be embarrassed and I am. HATTheatre has occupied its intimate headquarters since sometime in the 90s. I’m ashamed this is the first time I’ve made it to the western border of Henrico County to enjoy the space. I love seeing new theatrical digs in Greater Richmond—even if they’re “new” only to me.

* Experiencing first hand and for the first time the expert comic timing of Annie Zannetti. This woman is a pro at delivering a punch line for maximum effect. She absolutely knows what she’s doing. I look forward to the honor of working with Annie sometime in the future, should I be so lucky.

* Every word that came out of Jackie Jones’s beautiful mouth. Not only do I love Jackie Jones, I also preferred her section of the play, entitled Crafty. It was sweet, and warm, and funny. This says more about me than it does about the rest of the play or the performances.

To be honest, I didn’t “get” about 25% of the rest of the play. I know; I’m old and unusually un-hip. Every time I trick myself into believing I’m “with it,” I discover I’m not. I sort of hate to admit it, but with the exception of Crafty, the playlets in The New Century are more “insider” and “New York” than I am. I didn’t really understand about a quarter of what they were talking about. All right—maybe a fifth.

A catchphrase much bandied about at Richmond Triangle Players is “if we didn’t do it, who would?” In the case of The New Century, and many other Triangle productions as well, I think they’re right. And that's all to the good.

Other theatres in town have produced more “mainstream” theatre with gay themes. Barksdale and Theatre IV have presented The Boys in the Band, The Normal Heart, The Fifth of July, Love Valour Compassion, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, The Laramie Project (co-produced, Phil Crosby reminds me, with RTP), and The Little Dog Laughed. The Firehouse has done Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The New Century, in my opinion, is a little more “niche” than any of those plays. If Triangle Players didn’t do it, I expect no other theatre in Richmond would.

I also loved the exuberance of my buddies Michael Hawke and Matt Hackman, who threw caution to the wind and gave everything they’ve got to their two roles.

If you love gay comedies, don’t miss The New Century. It’s loaded with laughs, leather and lasciviousness. It's not for everybody, but what theatre is? I applaud Richmond Triangle Players for making professional theatre in Richmond broader and more inclusive.

--Bruce Miller

Thursday, October 15, 2009

In Memoriam: Jack Parrish

Posted by Bruce Miller
Sharing the sadness that so many in the Richmond theatre community are feeling this evening, I’m sorry to report on the passing of Jack Parrish (pictured to the right with Cathy Shaffner standing and Jan Guarino in Money Matters). Jack was an outstanding Richmond theatre artist and a longtime friend to many of us who’ve been walking these boards for a while. After a lengthy battle with lung cancer, Jack only recently went into hospice care and died this afternoon.

I met Jack in the early 70s when I was rising in the ranks of the theatre program at U of R and Jack was similarly placed in the theatre program at VCU. One of my favorite Jack memories from those early days was when he starred in a wonderful VCU production of As You Like It, I think during one of the FanFare summers. FanFare was VCU’s erstwhile summer theatre operation.

Jack moved out of town after graduating from VCU, worked a few years in New York, landed some soap opera work, and then worked mainly in regional theatre. He played Dexter Haven in The Philadelphia Story, Uncle Ernie in The Who’s Tommy, Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, and many other dashing roles (Jack was good at dashing). He appeared at prestigious professional theatres including The Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Asolo Theatre in Florida, and Mill Mountain Playhouse in Roanoke.

Jack returned to Richmond in the late 80s, maybe early 90s, to star at Theatre IV as the dashing spy in the classic Civil War melodrama, Secret Service. His other major Theatre IV roles were as The Man in the Yellow Suit in Tuck Everlasting, and as an unforgettable Captain Hook in Peter Pan.

At Barksdale, Jack starred in Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, The Little Foxes, The Crucible, James Joyce’s The Dead, Scapino!, the world premiere of Money Matters, and Anything Goes.

Shortly after his foray into Cole Porter, Jack moved to Lexington KY to share a city with his great friend, Rick St. Peter, and to lead the theatre program at a local university. He returned to Richmond during the summers to star in the Henry plays at Richmond Shakespeare, having to leave his role two summers ago when he was first diagnosed and began chemotherapy.

Jack also was an acclaimed director, rallying the forces of several of Theatre IV's touring productions. His contributions to Richmond theatre are immeasurable, and he will be greatly missed. Our deepest sympathies go out to Jack’s wife, Kathy, their son, Clay, and the rest of his family.

With love and respect, Barksdale will dedicate The Grapes of Wrath, our upcoming co-production with TheatreVCU, to Jack’s abiding memory.

--Bruce Miller

Recognizing Remarkable Achievement

Posted by Bruce Miller
It’s awards season in River City, and the theatre community is celebrating.

Last night at a cocktail party and dinner at the Omni, STYLE Weekly presented its 40 Under 40 Awards. Phil was there and will be reporting in a subsequent blog entry.

Just down the road at the Singleton Center at VCU, Richmond Magazine presented its 12th Annual Theresa Pollak Awards, co-created in 1998 by Harry Kollatz Jr. (he of the hats and the irrepressible personality) and Susan Winiecki (Editor-in-Chief of Richmond Magazine) as a way to honor artists in all fields.

Theresa Pollak (1899 – 2002), whom I had the privilege of knowing only in passing, was herself an internationally acclaimed artist, and the founder of both the VCU School of the Arts and the U of R arts department.

Four theatre cornerstones were honored with Pollak Awards last night, and large numbers of theatre enthusiasts came out to applaud their achievements. Ginnie Willard, Production Manager right here at B’dale and TIV, was recognized in the Theatre category. Michael Gooding, co-founder and longtime manager of the Richmond Triangle Players, was recognized in the Arts Innovator category. Jennie and Larry Brown, directors of SPARC for a dozen or so years prior to their recent retirement in 2009, were honored in the Lifetime Achievement category.

Ginnie, Michael, Jennie and Larry could not be more deserving. It was an honor to attend the elegant Richmond Magazine event last night, along with fellow members of the Barksdale family (Judi Crenshaw, Bennett Fidlow, Audra Honaker, Jacquie O'Connor, Robyn O’Neill, Paul DePasquale, Bruce Rennie, Mark and Peggy Resnick, James Ricks, David Robbins, K Strong and others). We all enjoyed the opportunity to cheer on our friends and congratulate them over a glass of wine during the post-event reception.

Reji Carreras earned bragging rights for being one of the few people--perhaps the only person--to make it to both events. She wolfed down the fancy chicken at the Omni, spread her congrats to the 40 Under 40, then raced over to the Singleton Center just in time to catch Jennie and Larry Brown's eloquent acceptance speeches. Then, at the cocktail party, she again showered congratulations on the 12 over 12 who were proudly clutching their Pollaks. Lest anyone had any doubt, that's a committed arts supporter.

And the awards keep comin’. This weekend the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle Awards will be presented at the Empire. I hope to see you there!

--Bruce Miller

You Gotta Have Heart

Posted by Bruce Miller
I learned last night that John Porter, my good friend and one of our fair city’s most respected theatre critics, suffered a heart attack a few days ago and remains in the hospital. If someone knows which hospital, please comment and let me know. That’s John, pictured above in his days as a staff leader at TheatreVirginia.

My good friend Joe Inscoe preceded John to the cardiac care center about a month ago, enduring a minor heart attack, thank God, and rising from his hospital bed a day or two later to return to the rehearsal hall in preparation for Shining City. As we all know, the Joe must go on! From all accounts, Joe is now moving full speed ahead.

My good friend and Theatre IV’s longtime insurance broker, Kemp Matthews experienced chest pains a week or so ago, took a stress test and was rushed to the hospital, mid-test, for an immediate catheterization procedure, during which stints were placed in his clogging arteries, preventing a heart attack which appeared imminent. I remain thankful for the miracles of modern medicine.

God speed to these three irreplaceable men with great, albeit clogging, hearts. We’re all in our late 50s, early 60s. I guess it’s our time. They are in my prayers—especially John. Hang in there, buddy.

--Bruce Miller

Friday, October 9, 2009

"Souvenir" Earns Finely Tuned Assessment

Posted by Bruce Miller
Dave Timberline has written a wonderful review of Souvenir for STYLE Weekly, under the perfect headline, A Diva’s Delusion. Do STYLE critics get to write their own headlines, or is their editor simply more in tune?

I encourage you to read Dave’s complete critique at I know. I need to learn how to make a link. It’s on my list.

Here are the review quotes we’ll be pulling:

Entertaining and Extravagant
Played to tuneless perfection
The lesson is that passion can provide joy
Fine playing and singing
Generates plenty of guffaws!”

--David Timberline, STYL:E Weekly

Dave’s review is informed, specific and well written. I appreciate Dave and his work.

In his review, Dave repeats a story about an accident that took place in the audience on the night he saw the show, a story he had related earlier in depth on his wonderful blog. People have asked me if I mind so much attention being paid to this incident.

Here are my honest thoughts. I do NOT mind Dave relating the story on his blog or repeating it in his review. He's writing about one of the things that makes live theatre so extraordinary--that irreplacable sense of moment. My only reservations about either mention are as follows.

Barksdale and Theatre IV (and many if not all theatres) have a long history of welcoming everyone into our artistic homes. We are, in fact, proactive in our efforts to do so. On rare occasions, distractions occur when differently abled individuals fall or become inadvertently noisy during performances. Both a fall and disrupting noise occurred on the night Dave attended. The fall literally stopped the show. (Kudos to the consumate professionalism of Debra Wagoner; she managed the situation perfectly.)

I think it is honest and appropriate for Dave to comment on this distraction, but I do not want any comments to embarrass our audience members or staff, all of whom did everything they could do address a challenging situation. Knowing Dave and his generous heart, I know that he doesn’t want to embarrass anyone either. I also know he doesn’t want to discourage our efforts to welcome any and all patrons into our theatre.

It’s a fine line we walk when we try to be inclusive and create a distraction-free environment at the same time. As I mentioned earlier, most times it comes off without a hitch. But in one performance out of a hundred, we learn lessons on how to better manage things in the future. Dave happened to attend one of those rare performances, and it is appropriate for him to report on his experience.

Changing subjects, I will discuss in a future blog post how I select the words I pull from a review, and why I didn’t feel comfortable pulling great phrases like “A bravura performance!” and “Uncontrollable laughter” from Dave’s excellent review.

Till then, see you at the theatre!

--Bruce Miller

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Buck Beer Night at Barksdale

Posted by Bruce Miller
This Saturday, Oct 10, Phil and I will be hosting a Buck Beer Night after the evening performance in the Barksdale living room—a.k.a. the lobby at Barksdale Willow Lawn. We know it’s last minute, but what the heck. We’re inviting the casts and crews of all the October shows in town. We’re also inviting the critics. By “inviting,” I mean I’m writing this blog post, and tomorrow I’ll send out some emails. If you’re involved in one of those shows, please help spread the word.

Boleros goes down at around 10:40, so we’re inviting folks to show up around 11 p.m. We’ll pay for the first round of beer or wine. After that, it’s a buck a beer. We’d give it away, but our Boards won’t let us. We’re also providing some Padow’s ham rolls, cheese and other snacks.

In the old days—yes, Phil and I are old fuddy-duddies, or is it fuddies-duddy? hmmm—Pete, Muriel and Nancy would invite actors from whatever show was playing downstairs to come upstairs to their living room at Hanover Tavern to raise a glass to … whatever anyone felt like raising a glass to. Simultaneously, about 60 miles south, Buddy Callahan—producer and tavern master at the Mill—would host periodic Buddy Beer Nights in front of the bar in the Mill Room.

This is just like that, except we’re inviting all the folks at all the theatres to come if they want to. And all the critics. No need to RSVP. JUST COME! Or at least know you’re welcome.

As Jay’s funeral reminded many of us today, life’s short and we should live it to the fullest. Sometimes you gotta take the time to relax with friends, establish new bonds, etc. Phil and I will never be Pete, Muriel, Nancy, Buddy or Betty, and we’re not trying to be. We’re just being us.

The Richmond theatre scene is different today. It’s much larger, for one thing. Currently there are twelve shows running, just closed or getting ready to open: The African Company Presents Richard III, Boleros for the Disenchanted, Boys’ Life, I’m Not Rappaport, Mahalia, Much Ado About Nothing, The Mystery of Irma Vep, The New Century, Psycho Beach Party, Shining City, Souvenir, and The Ugly Duckling.

So spread the word. Come if you can. No underage drinking please—our bartender will be checking IDs.

See you at the theatre!

--Bruce Miller

"Ugly Duckling" Earns Beautiful Review

Posted by Bruce Miller
Julinda Lewis has penned a nicely written review of The Ugly Duckling, the theatrical divertissement now delighting pre-K through 2nd graders at Theatre IV's Empire Theatre. I'm not saying this simply because the review is favorable. I think it's a well written review, and I appreciate it.

You can find the full review at, or you can read the quotes we'll be pulling, which are as follows:

“Rollicking Good Comedy!
Bright and child friendly
Sweet and charming ~ Clear and confident
A combination of classic and contemporary
An enjoyable evening of theatre
Very Agreeable!”

--Julinda Lewis, Richmond Times-Dispatch

Many thanks to all of Richmond's critics for their hard work and dedication. I'm looking forward to the "Artsies" next week.

--Bruce Miller

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Sherrier Showers "Souvenir" with Praise

Posted by Bruce Miller
Dan Sherrier has written a glowing review of Souvenir, the elegant little comedy with music now playing at Hanover Tavern, starring Debra Wagoner and Jonathan Spivey. Here are the review quotes we'll be pulling:

“Especially Fun!
Two Excellent Performances
Funny! Audience rolled with laughter!
Powerful ~ Comedic ~ Impressive
True Talent
Barksdale’s Souvenir Delights!”

--Dan Sherrier, Herald-Progress

If you would like to read the review in its entirety, you can find it at

Barksdale has always been a cultural cornerstone of Hanover County. It's gratifying to read such glowing words in Ashland's own weekly paper.

Souvenir runs through Nov 1, and is dedicated with love and remembrance to the memory of Jay McCullough.

Hope to see you there!

--Bruce Miller

Something Old, Something New

Posted by Bruce Miller
We decided to try something different this year on Theatre IV’s mainstage season at the Empire. Change is good.
Our audience for this series includes children age 3 to around 12—and their families. In the past, we’ve offered four shows for everyone. We’ve asked the wigglers to stretch to reach the shows with more developmentally advanced content; we’ve asked the children approaching adolescence to remain comfortable with shows clearly directed to their younger siblings.

This year we’re offering six shows and allowing subscribers to choose the three or four best suited to their child’s age and maturity. For the pre-schoolers and primary grades, we have The Ugly Duckling (which opened last Friday at our historic Empire Theatre), The Song of Mulan, and Jack and the Beanstalk. Upper elementary types may find more enjoyment in A Christmas Carol, Buffalo Soldier, and The Sound of Music. Families are free to mix and match to their hearts’ content.

The Ugly Duckling is one of our oldest and most successful shows for the squirm and learn set. It was written and composed about 30 years ago by Richard Giersch, a former Richmonder now living in Northern Virginia. Throughout the decades, it’s been one of our most parent-and-teacher-requested titles for K-3.

For me, watching The Ugly Duckling is like being visited by the Ghost of Children’s Theatre Past—an oddly satisfying experience. There’s audience participation (everyone is invited to stand in front of their seats and join in dancing the Funky Eagle), humans in animal suits, a moral lesson that is clear as day--even a chase scene. It’s a revival of a classic form, to be sure. Nothing like this would be written today.

It even asks children to have an attention span of more than 60 seconds and listen to extended narrative. How well I remember when extended narrative was the norm. But those were before the days of the explosion of rapid-fire children’s television.

So if you’d like to see an old fashioned play in our new format, please join us for The Ugly Duckling, running two more weekends, in Technocolor, starring Gordon Bass, Eric Pastore, Ali Thibodeau, Duron Tyre, and Aly Wepplo under the direction of Jan Guarino,

Hope to see you and your little ones at the theatre!

--Bruce Miller