Saturday, October 24, 2009

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


Thespis' Little Helper said...

AND, although they are collaborations and not full co-productions, there is Boleros with the Latin Ballet and R&J with Henley.

Barksdale is really taking huge leaps in the effort to collaborate and coproduce this season, which is awesome. I hope that this pattern continues, as the benefits (even in addition to those fore-mentioned) are innumerable.

Thompsonmk said...

It's also very sad that most of the times my kids are the only ones in the audience. If parents don't start exposing kids to theatre at a young age who will be left to go to the shows? We are (my son) and I going to see Souvenir tonight! Can't wait!

philcrosby said...

Bruce --

Don't forget the one factor over which none of us has any control -- despite all of our valiant efforts, our audiences will ultimately decide what they want to see.

I remember when I worked for Great Lakes Theater Festival in Cleveland ... we did a production of Mother Courage with recent Oscar-winner Olympia Dukakis, a fabulous supporting cast and the timeliness of Operation Desert Storm in the background. I will never see as good a production of Mother Courage in my lifetime.

But it was still Mother Courage and it played to half-houses every night.

In Richmond Triangle Players little niche, "New Century" has been playing to full or almost-full houses since our second weekend. Granted, we never claim to have the biggest potential audiences in the world, and HATTheatre is as cozy and intimate as they come. But considering all the other hassles we have had with launching a capital campaign in this stinky economy, we are hitting the goals we set for ourselves.

It's very possible that we are the anomoly -- the exception that proves the rule if you will.

And I think colloboration -- when it's right and true -- only strengthens all the parties involved. We at RTP had a wonderful experience with you all on Laramie Project and look forward to any further opportunities that might arise.

Not Ionesco said...

I think it must go beyond one show collaborations. I think some mergers are in order. Troupes without a playhouse should be actively exploring a merger with a company that does.

Although it might seem blasphemous to some people, we need to introduce cutting edge theatre into Chesterfield County. There's a huge potential audience out there that has been "written off" as rubes and blue-noses.

Anonymous said...

I'm just curious when you really started singing a new song. Once upon a time - before the demise of TVA, and before Barksdale fell into financial ruin - you were often heard to speak of how Richmond could sustain 4 or 5 theatres the size of TVA. You bemoaned the fact that many considered TVA the only "professional" theatre in town because they were a LORT house. You assumed you were cast in the role of the underdog, and played it well - despite the fact that TIV's annual budget consistently placed it in the top tier of performing arts organizations in the Commonwealth.

Now it appears, since you stand at the helm of the biggest ship in town, you have had a vast change of heart. Apparently, everyone else should cooperate or bow out (Stage 1), to leave room for you.

No doubt this will offend, but which is it - are Barksdale and Theatre IV the only theatres capable of serving the theatrical wants of the Richmond community (and by extension the only theatres deserving of public support), or is this town big enough to maintain a wide variety of offerings?

And please don't talk about your collaborations again - they make for very pretty marketing & pr campaigns, and we all know it.

Christina Newton said...

While competition is certainly an issue and happens for many reasons ( including that people want to put forth their own visions and unfortunately not work with others), the fact is that ticket prices are too high. I know too well how expensive events and performances are to produce, but performing arts organizations need to provide affordable means for the wider public to attend their events, especially in the current economy.

Personally, I would love to attend every performance that our symphony, opera, and theatre and dance groups produced, but I can't afford to attend them. With ticket prices averaging $35, that means my husband and I are looking at a $70 night out, not taking into consideration dinner or even drinks during intermission. These prices are likely to be out of reach of my colleagues working in the arts community too, which I find ironic and disappointing as we're the perfect audience these organizations are seeking. Further, these prices are certainly going to appear high to an audience unfamiliar with these art forms and events. This week alone, I wish I could attend tonight's R. Crumb lecture at CenterStage, Gogol Bordello at the National on Wednesday, and Terance Blanchard at the Modlin Center on Friday, but I'm not attending any of them because we can't afford to. Unfortunately, I hear that ticket sales are down for all, which means a slim house and likely unhappy performers. Will they come back to RVA?

But when does an organization consider options to fill the house, such as discounts, rush tickets before the show, or even comps to nonprofits or other groups that wouldn't usually be able to afford tickets? When I worked years ago at TheatreVirginia, it was standard practice to fill the house through these types of options, and we were delighted to do so. And they never hurt subscriber sales because subscribers are willing to pay for top seats and dates, while single ticket purchases understand their deal means they get what tickets are left.

Maybe these options are still out there and I just don't hear about it, and I'd be more than happy to know about them as would others! Without some changes in sales policies and outreach, I fear that too many more great performances are going to go unnoticed and unappreciated by our community, and too many great arts groups are going to go the way of all things.

Bruce Miller said...

Hi Christina. I'm so glad you brought this up. At Barksdale, you can always purchase rush tickets 90 minutes before curtain for $15 or $20, depending on the show...a lot less than your $35 average. Lots of people do, but clearly the word hasn't gotten out to everyone.

Furthermore, we've always had the policy of turning no one away because of inability to pay the full ticket price. We ask folks who'd like to come but can't afford to buy a ticket to write to us and tell us the ticket price they can afford. Then, when sales are sluggish, we invite them to buy a ticket at the price they've said they can afford. Anyone interested can email me at We operate this pay-what-you-can policy on the honor system.

Again, thanks for bringing this important matter up.


Bruce Miller said...

Well, Anonymous. Clearly I've offended. I'm sorry.

Anyone who knows me knows that for many years before Barksdale's financial troubles in 2001 and TheatreVirginia's troubles in 2002, I held and expressed one opinion regarding these matters. That opinion was and is this. Richmond has the resources to support one major professional theatre in the same way that is has the resources to support one major symphony, one major ballet company, and one major opera company (that it shares with Greater Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia). I said it so many times people got sick of hearing me.

I never believed and never said that Richmond could support four or five theatres the size of TheatreVirginia. I've always said exactly the opposite.

I've also always said and believed that Richmond can support any number of smaller theatres that don't have the financial responsibility of maintaining major facilities and a large paid staff. I'm not opposed to smaller theatres. But I am supportive of having a major theatre--which, by the by, we still don't have.

I know this opinion is hugely unpopular and makes me sound like the biggest self-centered jerk in town. So be it. No one has to listen to me. Few do.

But when I preached this message in days gone by, I put my livlihood where my mouth was. Phil and I met with the Board of TheatreVirginia in something like 1999, when we were all suffering. With my Board's approval, I suggested that Theatre IV and TheatreVirginia join forces to address the problem. I thought that by working together we could be stronger.

Without my Board's knowledge, I offered to resign as artistic director of Theatre IV, if that would sweeten the deal. I suggested that TheatreVirginia take over our extensive touring children's theatre operation. If TheatreVirginia was interested and wanted me to stay, I offered to take up some support position assisting George Black--maybe as Education Director.

TheatreVirginia wasn't interested. But the offer was made.

It wasn't about me then. It isn't about me now. It's about finding a way to sustain professional theatre in Richmond. And until you've tried to do it year in and year out, you have no idea how difficult it is or isn't.

In my opinion--I won't amuse you by using the word "humble"--we won't do it by pulling in five different directions. We'll do it when the majority of those who care about professional theatre pull in the same direction.

You think all our co-productions are marketing and pr gimmicks? You're entitled to your opinion just as I'm entitled to mine.

The only difference is, I sign my name to my opinion, no matter how "unpopular" it may be.

The point of my post--and clearly I need to stop writing these--is not to do away with CenterStage or Henley Street or Barksdale Theatre at Hanover Tavern. It's to find new ways of working together--pulling together--so that together we can succeed.