Monday, November 30, 2009

Thanksgiving Soup

Posted by Bruce Miller
During the first three years of Theatre IV (May 1975 – April 1978), our new nonprofit company netted enough revenue to pay all its actors, directors, designers etc., except for Phil and me. No one was paid much, mind you, but everyone received something. Phil and I worked for three years as 40-hour per week volunteers. We earned our living, mainly, acting and waiting tables at Swift Creek Mill Playhouse (now Swift Creek Mill Theatre) and the Haymarket Dinner Theatre. Each of us worked at whichever dinner theatre cast us in a show.

The Mill was the nicest place to wait tables, and if you arrived early, you could eat Mary’s wonderful cooking for $3 a dinner—a super deal. Mary was the chef at the Mill in those early days, and she was also co-owner Betty Callahan’s aunt. There were always quarter or half loaves of delicious Sally Lund bread left on customers’ tables when the meal was over, and the Mill let waiters take these uneaten remnants home with them. I got fat on many a sandwich made with leftover Sally Lund bread from the Mill.

The Haymarket had fewer perks, but it was the more lucrative place to work as a waiter. That’s because the waiters at the Haymarket collected the cost of the theatre tickets, dinner and bar at intermission. Your customers had the chance to see you on stage in Act I, and then you presented them with a bill that included everything. Frequently they would tip you 10% to 15% on the entire bill, including the cost of the theatre tickets.

Even in the mid-70s, I once made just over $100 in tips one night at the Haymarket.

At the Mill, the only money the waiters collected from the customer was for the bar tab, and customers would frequently leave the 15% tip only on that smaller amount. Plus, you collected that amount before curtain, so your customers had yet to have the opportunity to see your work on stage.

Phil and I acted some at Barksdale and the Barn during those years, but both of those theatres employed mostly waiters who were not actors in the show, so waiting gigs there were hard to come by.

We also worked during the first two summers at Kings Dominion. Kings Dominion and Theatre IV both opened at the same time. The personnel department at KD recruited performers from VCU to work the shows in the park, and cash control officers from the University of Richmond Law School. Somehow we heard about the U of R gig, and went to KD to apply.

We told them we were from U of R, neglecting to mention that we were not from the Law School. They hired us anyway. We’d arrive at work many nights at midnight, after completing our gigs as actor/waiters, and then count money till about 3 or 4 a.m. On weekends, we walked around the park pretending to be tourists, but popping into the back of each store and restaurant we’d pass to collect several thousands of dollars and then walk it back to cash control headquarters. Sometimes we’d be strolling through the park carrying upwards of $20 K in a plastic KD shopping bag.

During the 75-76 and 76-77 school years, we also directed (me) and choreographed (Phil) the shows at Collegiate School (mostly evening work). I’m blessed to have friends today who were my students during those two great years.

Lest you think this all sounds noble, be assured we were having the time of our lives. We were young bachelors, sharing a Grove Ave. apartment which also served as Theatre IV’s office, without the burdens of mortgages, car payments or college funds eating away at our meagre earnings. In many ways, I felt fewer money worries then than I have at any time since.

It was in those early years that I began my fall ritual of making Thanksgiving Soup, a ritual I continue to this day. The recipe was one I was given by my dad, Curt Miller, who grew up dirt poor on a Mennonite farm in Pennsylvania.

Turkey is one of the least expensive meats you can buy, back then in 1975 and still today. Like my dad before me, I cook a Thanksgiving turkey for the main event, and then on the day after, carve off whatever remaining meat is easy to get to, and then boil the turkey carcass and unused giblets to make soup.

Thanksgiving Soup is delicious, and really gratifying if you’re in a waste-not want-not frame of mind. It freezes well, and can provide many a super-cheap and inviting meal for months to come. I’ve often heard that the best way to give thanks is to be a responsible steward of the many blessings you receive. In that case, Thanksgiving Soup is aptly named.

The recipe is far from original, I’m sure. But as a family tradition, it means a lot to me. And it always reminds me of the early days of Theatre IV.

Curt Miller’s Thanksgiving Soup

To make the stock, break the turkey carcass into pieces and toss it and the giblets into a big soup pot. Add water until it just covers the turkey carcass. To the pot add 2 chopped carrots, two chopped onions, 2 stalks of chopped celery (leaves and all). Chop everything into large pieces. Toss in 2 cloves of minced garlic, a few shakes of salt, some basil and a bay leaf or two. Bring the whole thing to a boil, and let it continue on a low boil over medium heat, covered, for two to three hours.

Pour the stock through a colander into a large bowl—I usually get about 12 cups of thick liquid. Let it cool for a couple hours, and then skim off the fat (there isn’t that much).

Let the turkey cool, then sort through the bones and pick out all the meat. I usually get another four cups of meat, even after carving off all the easy stuff before cooking the carcass.

Throw away the bones and the vegetables, unless you want to save them for another use.

I usually freeze half the stock—about 6 cups. With the other half, I make my first batch of Thanksgiving Soup.


6 cups turkey stock
¼ of a large onion, chopped small, a generous half cup
3 peeled carrots, chopped into thick pennies
2 stalks celery, chopped into ¼ inch pieces, about ¾ cup
1 ½ cups cooked or frozen green beans
1 cup cooked long grain rice
1 can mushrooms, stems and pieces, 8 oz drained
2 cups cut-up turkey (about half of what came from the carcass)
2 cloves garlic, chopped small
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons flour

In the soup pot, melt the margarine and cook the onions and garlic for about 10 minutes over medium heat, stirring.

Add the can of mushrooms, liquid and all. Add the chopped carrots, celery, and green beans and continue cooking for about 5 minutes, stirring.

Add the flour and cook for another 3 minutes, stirring.

Add the turkey stock, about 12 shakes of basil, salt and pepper, and continue cooking over low/medium heat for about an hour.

Add the cooked rice and turkey and bring to a boil. Once it’s boiling, turn it off and serve.

Makes 6 servings.

--Bruce Miller

Saturday, November 28, 2009

What to Do When You Have No Power?

Posted by Bruce Miller
About three or four times a year we lose power at Hanover Tavern on a show night, causing the cancellation of a performance. Last night was the first time we’ve ever had to pull the plug on an Opening Night. Bus Stop by William Inge is now set for a delayed debut this evening at eight.

Power at Hanover Courthouse is a sometimes thing. Years ago, Barksdale co-founder Muriel McAuley, an avid student of ancient cultures, explained it this way.

Thor (not the Marvel Comics superhero but the ancient Germanic god of thunder, lightning and electricity) flew in his chariot over Hanover on the first of August, 1953. As all you scholars of ancient Germanic mythology remember, Thor’s chariot is powered by two billy goats named Toothnasher and Toothgrinder. As all you scholars of Richmond theatre history remember, August 1, 1953, was the day the six NYC actors who co-founded Barksdale Theatre moved into the Tavern.

The goats looked down as they flew over these hallowed grounds and noticed two sows being dumped unceremoniously into the back yard of the historic property. The two porcine princesses were named Sheba (after the titular pet in William Inge’s first Broadway hit, Come Back Little Sheba) and Tallulah (after the celebrated star who, in Souvenir, laughed so hard during Florence Foster Jenkins’ legendary recital at Carnegie Hall that she had to be carried out of the theatre by friends). Or was that Greta Garbo? Hmmm.

Anyway, the ever optimistic co-founders of Barksdale had acquired two piglets weeks before actually purchasing the Tavern, sure that their dream would soon be a reality. They planned for the pigs to be a thrifty way to “take care of the garbage and provide meat.” However, between the dates of piglet purchase and hog transport, the two sows had grown to 70 lbs each.

On August 1, the pigs were chauffeured to the Tavern by co-founders Muriel McAuley and Pat Sharp. (Pat would play Cherie in the Tavern's 1958 production of Bus Stop.) Quoting from Muriel’s book, Going On … Barksdale Theatre, The First 31 Years: “Until you’ve driven 30 miles with two trussed up, screaming, crapping pigs in the back of an overheated station wagon, you’ve missed one of life’s unique moments.”

Toothnasher and Toothgrinder apparently looked down, saw, heard and smelled the roly-poly garbage disposals, and collapsed in laughter. They knew full well that the co-founders should have foregone the purchase of pigs for the far more sensible choice of goats. This moment of hilarity caused the chariot to jolt, and in retribution, Thor sent a bolt of lighting thundering down onto an unsuspecting Hanover.

Along with the lighting came a curse, which has been buzzing and sizzling along the power grid ever since.

Our policy is this. If the electricity has been out for at least two hours, and it continues to be out three hours prior to showtime, we will cancel the show. It’s the only way we have a prayer of reaching the majority of ticket holders, all of whom we try to call within 30 minutes of the decision to cancel.

Last night’s call turned out to be a good one. As of this morning at 8 a.m., power had returned to the community of Hanover Courthouse, but there was still no power in the Tavern. As of this writing, I'm pleased to report that everything is finally back up and running.

Cancellation policies have not always been so practical. I remember performing in Old Wives’ Tale at the Tavern, three decades ago almost to the day. It was a fun vampire mystery comedy written by former Richmonder Ed Sala and directed and designed by Pete. I co-starred with the late Carol Chittum, the late Will Keys, the late Anne Goodwyn, and the very much still with us Glenn Crone.

One night the power went out in the Tavern during dinner. Rather than cancel the show, Pete, Nancy and Muriel asked every table to carry their hurricane-globed candle with them into the theatre. The candles were placed around the perimeter of the stage, and we performed the entire show in candlelight. Nancy sat to the side and hummed the incidental music and Pete made all the sound effects (wind, thunder crashes etc) by mouth.

It was one of the most fun and exciting performances I’ve ever been privileged to be a part of. But in these more practical days of fire marshals and liability litigation, it will never happen again.

Now that the lights are back on, I look forward to seeing you at the theatre!

--Bruce Miller

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

... and things that go bump in the night

Posted by Bruce Miller
True story. At least I think it’s true. Sometimes I inadvertently make this stuff up. Someone please help me out if my memories fail to jive with reality.

About 30 years ago, right here in River City, an older woman (watch, it will probably turn out that she was in her mid- to late-50s, younger than I am now) died a week or so after falling off the stage into an orchestra pit in a darkened theatre.

Here name was Margaret Eddington. She and her buddy Jean Alfred used to volunteer at theatres all over town. Or maybe they were employees somewhere. I’m not sure. I guess I knew Margaret either from the erstwhile Children’s Theatre of Richmond, or Rec and Parks (at the Mosque, now Landmark), or Dogwood Dell—maybe all three.

Which brings me to the subject of ghost lights—our third theatre superstition of the week.

Almost every theatre I’ve ever worked in has had a ghost light. We have one at Barksdale at Willow Lawn and another at the historic Empire. And now that I think about it, I ought to run out this week and buy one for the stage at Hanover Tavern and another for the Theatre Gym (the new name as of two weeks ago for the former Little Theatre).

Ghost lights are basically night lights, or safety lights, but you’ll seldom if ever hear them referred to by that name by a theatre insider. The names “night light” and “safety light” have no drama at all, so why use ‘em.

Ghost lights also have their own unique look. Most of them roll on and off-stage on a built-in three-wheeled base. Traditionally, they have no on-and-off switch. To turn one on, you either plug it in or tighten the bulb; to turn it off, you do the opposite. They tend to have long cords, no shades, a single bare bulb of pretty high wattage, and sometimes a capsule-shaped steel cage built around the bare bulb to protect it.

Where does one even buy these things—at Home Depot? Pleasant’s? An occult shop?

Do places other that theatres use them? I don’t know. And if and when they do, do they refer to them as ghost lights?

Let’s face facts—theatre folk love their traditions. And if those traditions come attached to superstitions, all the better.

A ghost light has a very practical purpose. Before leaving the theatre for the night, the stage manager always plugs in the ghost light (or tightens the bulb) and rolls it out to center stage. Only then can the stage manager leave the building.

In practical terms, the ghost light is there to protect the dear Margaret Eddington’s of the world as they creep back on stage in a darkened theatre to retrieve a forgotten prop.

For the superstitious, ghost lights are uniquely theatre-centric. They are there … and I’ve heard both of the following explanations given, but I greatly prefer the first:

1. to continue to light the stage after all the Lekos, Fresnels and PARs have been extinguished, so that the ghosts of the theatre, who emerge only after the muggles have left the building, can once again enjoy their moment in the spotlight; or

2. to ward off evil spirits who otherwise would surely wreak havoc by sawing half-way through stage braces, hiding props, and removing the safety locks from trap doors once the stage manager is no longer watching.

I’ve heard many a story about the ghosts in Hanover Tavern, which surely must have them, being more than 200 years old. Jacquie O’Connor, I believe, has had a close encounter of the third kind.

I too have encountered a ghost or two in my time, but I’ve yet to do so in a Richmond theatre.

If I could only remember which Richmond theatre dear Ms Eddington was in when she took her tumble. Surely there must be a ghost there. I’d love to see her again just to get my facts straight.
Till then, I hope to see YOU at the theatre!

--Bruce Miller

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Play That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Posted by Bruce Miller
This whole "theatre superstitions" thing is old hat for many of you, I know. But for those who participate in theatre more as a spectator sport, here's a second taboo you may want to consider. For centuries, it has been considered to be in very bad form to say "Macbeth" when you are inside a theatre.

According to time-honored tradition, you must not say that name on stage, unless of course you are rehearsing or performing a line from the actual play. You're not supposed to say the name backstage, in a rehearsal hall, dressing room, costume shop, green room or lobby.

You may say "Macbeth" in the administrative offices of a theatre, but only if they are in a separate building from the theatre itself.

When you feel you absolutely must discuss the character or the play Macbeth, you have to leave the theatre before doing so. If a quick exit is not practical, you may stay put, but you have to refer to the character as “The Scottish Lord” (or “The Scottish King”) and call the play “The Scottish Play.”

Trust me. You can use these euphemisms instead of the real name, and every theatre pro in the world will know exactly what you mean.

If you forget—and I’ve seen this happen many times—and you actually speak “Macbeth” inside a theatre, you must immediately leave the facility, spin around three times widdershins (counterclockwise), spit over your left shoulder, utter a curse or a “peaceful” line from Shakespeare (preferably from Hamlet), knock three times on the theatre’s door, and then wait to be invited back inside.

If you fail to honor this antidotal ritual to the letter, then all hell will break loose and it will be entirely your fault.

You’ll hear any number of reasons for this superstition, but the one you’ll hear most often is this. When Shakespeare wrote the scenes for the three witches (the weird sisters) in Macbeth, he researched diligently and included several actual curses that he had obtained while visiting a coven outside London. Witches were serious business in Shakespeare’s day. King James, for whom Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, actually authored a book that was used throughout the 17th century to identify witches for imprisonment or worse.

When the witches from the coven that Shakespeare had visited learned that he had included exact quotes from their sacred incantations in his script, they were highly offended. They issued a curse on the name Macbeth that continues to this day.

It’s easy to understand why some people believe that Macbeth is cursed. There have been several high profile instances when tragedy has struck immediately following or in conjunction with a production of The Scottish Play.

Tradition has it that in the very first production of Macbeth (approximately 1606), the young boy playing Lady Macbeth became ill. Shakespeare stepped in to play the role himself, intending to fill in for only a performance or two. The next day, the boy who had been cast as Lady Macbeth died.

In 1672, during the first production of Macbeth played outside England, a Dutch actor playing Macbeth was so in love with his female costar, he actually murdered her husband, who was playing Duncan, during a live performance.

In 1773, a production of Macbeth ended the career of revered English actor Charles Macklin (a street named in his honor branches proudly off Drury Lane in the Holborn area of London today). Already in his 70s, Macklin decided to play Macbeth, but this time with a difference. He dressed the cast in traditional Scottish attire, including kilts and highland plaids. Prior to this novel idea, which was way ahead of its time, actors dressed in contemporary English clothing, no matter what the locale or century of the play. Reviews were decidedly mixed, and when Macklin brought a handful of the notices onstage with him to argue his case before the second night's audience, he was hissed offstage by the unimpressed crowd. A riot ensued. His production of Macbeth, now considered a landmark due to its introduction of costumes, closed within the week and ended his career.

In 1808, John Philip Kemble opened the new season at Covent Garden with Macbeth, starring himself and his renowned sister, Sarah Siddons. Eight days later, the theatre burned to the ground, costing Kemble nearly every penny he had.

In 1809, Covent Garden was reopened after being rebuilt at great expense. The new management tried to recoup its losses by raising ticket prices. This prompted the Old Price Riots, which continued nightly both inside and outside the theatre, suspending performances for nearly 3 months and practically bankrupting the new management. The production that was suspended? Macbeth, of course.

In 1849, dueling productions of Macbeth in New York City, one starring British actor Charles Macready and another starring American actor Edwin Forrest, caused the Astor Place Riot, at the time the deadliest civil disturbance in U. S. history. At least 25 people died and 120 more were seriously injured. For the first time in history, the National Guard was called out and they fired shots directly into the crowd to "maintain the peace."

In the early 1900s, the great Russian director Konstantin Stanislovsky was staging a production of Macbeth at the Moscow Art Theatre. When the actor playing Macbeth forgot a line, he approached the prompter's box for a cue, and heard nothing. After the actor again signalled that he needed a line, and again none was given, the actor looked into the prompter's box and saw the aged stagehand clutching a script, and quite dead. Never one to tempt fate, Stanislovsky cancelled the rest of the run on the spot.

In 1936, a 20-year-old Orson Welles directed Voodoo Macbeth for the Federal Theatre Project. Critic Percy Hammond was unimpressed by the all-Black cast and the Haitian setting. The voodoo witch doctors hired by Welles for the play put a public curse on Hammond, who unexpectedly died several days later.

In 1937, a 30-year-old Laurence Olivier was almost killed during a rehearsal of Macbeth at the Old Vic, when a heavy stage weight fell from the flies and missed his head by inches.

In 1942, a production of Macbeth starring John Gielgud (pictured to the right) was shaken when three cast members died—the actor playing Duncan and two of the weird sisters—and the costume and set designer committed suicide.

In 1953, Charlton Heston was playing Macbeth in Bermuda when, on Opening Night, the onstage castle caught fire and Heston himself suffered severe burns in his groin and leg area because his tights had been cleaned using kerosene.

In 1998, the Broadway revival of Macbeth starring Christopher Plummer lost three directors, five Macduffs, six stage managers, two set designers, and two lighting designers—all before Opening Night.

Need I say more.

So, if any of you are planning an upcoming production of Macbeth, please don’t talk about it at Barksdale or Theatre IV.

Otherwise, hope to see you at the theatre!

--Bruce Miller

Friday, November 13, 2009

"Break a Leg!" "Grrrrrrrrrr!!"

Posted by Bruce Miller
Happy Friday the 13th--a perfect day to think a little about superstitions in the theatre.

Over the years, I've heard of 10 to 20 irrational but nonetheless traditional beliefs that seem to have been passed down from one theatre artist to another over the centuries. There are certainly three that are observed with regularity right here in River City. Let's talk about the best known first.

Throughout the ages it’s been considered bad luck to wish an actor “good luck” before a performance. If you want theatre artists to have a successful Opening Night and/or run, superstition requires that you wish them ill fortune rather than good. Whether in London, New York, Richmond, or anywhere else in the English-speaking world, the accepted way to wish an actor bad luck (when you really want them to have good luck) is to say “break a leg.”

I’ve heard many explanations as to why this particular phrase for bad luck was chosen as the standard. My favorite explanation goes back to the Elizabethan age and the Blackfriars Theatre, the first indoor venue for Shakespeare’s plays.

In 1597, during Shakespeare’s prime, Richard Burbage (that's him to the right) inherited the Blackfriars from his father. Richard Burbage was the principal actor with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (Shakespeare’s company), the wildly popular troupe that performed with great success in the Globe. For years the Blackfriars had been home to the Children of the Chapel, a juvenile performing company. In 1608, Burbage and several partners took over management of the Blackfriars, kicked out the kids, and opened the elegant theatre in the winters for use by the King's Men—the new name given to Shakespeare's company after King James ascended to the throne in 1603.

The big difference between the Globe and the Blackfriars, other than the fact that the Blackfriars was an indoor venue, was that the audience at the Blackfriars was often considerably more well-to-do than the groundlings who paid a penny to get into the Globe. When a show met with approval at the Blackfriars, delighted patrons tossed coins onto the stage during curtain call, aiming at the feet of the actors who pleased them the most. When this happened, the showered-upon actors humbly dropped to one knee to accept the accolades (and scarf up the tokens of appreciation), therein “breaking” the line of their legs.

With this kowtowing for coinage custom in mind, a well-wisher says “break a leg” to fulfill the requirement of wishing bad luck, all the while knowing that there is a double-meaning to the phrase, a positive subtext that actually means “I hope the audience loves your performance enough to throw money at your feet causing you to break the line of your leg to pick it up.”

No one throws money anymore, more’s the pity. But once in a while someone throws flowers, which springs from the same tradition. Of course, when we produced The Full Monty, women in the audience often threw panties. Seriously.

Another theory regarding the etymology of the phrase “break a leg” comes from the Yiddish Theatre that was so popular in New York’s Lower East Side in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In those early days, the Yiddish Theatre District that centered on Second Avenue in what is now the East Village equalled Broadway in both quantity and quality.

A favorite phrase for good luck in Yiddish is “Hatsloche un Broche,” meaning “success and blessing.” Knowing that wishing good luck was verboten backstage, Yiddish actors resorted to the similar sounding German phrase “Hals- und Beinbruch,” meaning “neck and leg fracture.”

The wishing-of-bad-luck superstition seems to cross all barriers of language and ethnicity. On the Opening Night of Boleros for the Disenchanted, our Latino actors, in keeping with Spanish theatre tradition, wished each other "¡Mucha mierda!"—which translates roughly as “Lotsa shit!”

In Stanislovski’s day, the great actors of the Moscow Arts Theatre wished each other "ни пуха ни пера" (ni puha ni pera). This literally means "neither down nor feathers." It was the traditional Russian blessing uttered to a hunter before he trekked into the woods, rifle in hand. Apparently Russian hunters fell into the same category as actors, and the only appropriate way to wish them “good luck” was to wish them something horrible. Wishing them “neither down nor feathers” was the same as saying “I hope you come home from the hunt empty handed.”

Sure enough, when an acclaimed Russian company was in residence in our historic Empire last fall performing The Humpbacked Horse, hardy calls of “ni puha ni pera” rang out prior to curtain from the dressing rooms and the darkened corners of backstage.

Whether you are a hunter or an actor, Russian or English, tradition states that you never say “thank you” when someone appropriately wishes you “bad luck.” In Russian, they reply “к черту" (k chertu), which literally means "go to the devil." At the Comédie-Française, when someone wishes you “Merde!” on Opening Night, you are supposed to respond with a robust growl. In Italy, after hearing the blessing “In bocca al lupo,” which means “In the mouth of the wolf,” an actor's recommended response is “Crepi!” or “Crepi il lupo!”, which translates as “May the wolf die!”

With so many Opening Nights fast upon us, we should all be getting our blessings, curses and guttural rumblings ready. And when you shout one out to a beloved theatre colleague, be prepared to hear a response something akin to a friendly, grateful growl.

Coming soon, superstition #2—The Scottish Play.

Till then, see you at the theatre!

--Bruce Miller

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Donuts, Delusions and Delights

Posted by Bruce Miller
William Inge is the greatest 20th century playwright of the American Midwest. It’s true that fellow “Great American Playwright” Thornton Wilder was born in the Midwest (Madison, Wisconsin), but Wilder grew up in China and California before settling in New England. His Midwestern influences were few.

Inge on the other hand was born in a small town in Kansas and, except for a brief college stint in Tennessee, remained in the Midwest for the first 35 years of his life. While working as a theatre critic for a newspaper in St. Louis, Inge met fellow St. Louisian Tennessee Williams. It was after befriending Williams and seeing The Glass Menagerie, Williams’s first major play, that Inge was inspired to become a playwright himself.

Inge’s first play, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, is dedicated to Tennessee Williams.

In all of his plays, Inge wears his American homespun heart on his sleeve. Each of his major works focuses on everyday men and women of America’s heartland. His characters are less tortured than those of Eugene O’Neill, less poetic than those of Tennessee Williams, and less iconic, heroic and/or anti-heroic than those of Arthur Miller.

Inge casts his light on the common men and women who are more often overlooked by other Great American Playwrights, and finds in them a dignity and humanity—an American-ness—worthy of our time and consideration.

Bus Stop is a perfect introduction to the plays of William Inge. It takes place in 1955 in a modest roadside diner (bus stop) during a howling blizzard that closes down the highways east of Kansas City, at least for the night. When the northbound bus pulls in seeking refuge, a diverse group of passengers pile into Grace’s Diner seeking coffee and donuts, human contact and love, and, well, grace.

Inge set the play during the last snowstorm of March. Due to the timing of this production, we’ve set ours during the first snowstorm of December. Grace and her niece Elma have decorated the diner, simply, for the upcoming holidays. Without wanting to stretch a point, it occurred to me during last night’s run through that the low income wayfarers requesting warmth around Grace’s two-burner stove are at least somewhat reminiscent of that traveling couple who nearly 20 centuries earlier asked for shelter from another innkeeper.

Bus Stop is a comedy, a holiday heartwarmer, and a representative work of a playwright who was the most popular Broadway dramatist of the 1950s. With Come Back, Little Sheba, Picnic, Bus Stop and Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Inge produced one Broadway smash after another. The Broadway run of Bus Stop was such a success that it was immediately turned into an Oscar-nominated movie starring Marilyn Monroe, Don Murray and Eileen Heckert. After the film’s commercial success, Bus Stop was expanded into a TV series in the early 60s, with Inge himself serving as a script consultant.

I hope you’ll join us for this chance to reconnect with “an American Chekhov,” “the poet-laureate of the Midwest.”

See you at the theatre!

--Bruce Miller

Sunday, November 8, 2009

"Bus Stop" is Barksdale's Next Classic

Posted by Bruce Miller
Let’s revisit the tantalizing subject of the Greatest American Playwrights as a lead-in to my next post on William Inge, the author of Barksdale’s upcoming Hanover Tavern production of Bus Stop. Anyone’s personal list of great playwrights will be highly subjective, of course. So I’ve compiled a consensus list drawn from about 20 or so other lists I’ve found hither, thither and yon.

There seems to be rough agreement about which names to include in the top five American dramatists. In alpha order, they are Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and August Wilson. The middle three are carved in stone. The two more contemporary bookends are the only playwrights who appear on virtually everyone’s list of the top ten.

In trying to identify the next five, I find myself on much shakier ground. Relying on the tried-and-true, as most such lists tend to do, you wind up with five giants of the 20th century, whose works continue to be revived on and off Broadway, in major regional theatres, and internationally. Each was a household name in his or her time. Each had an extended career, and their great plays still appear in text books and anthologies around the world as representative American dramas.

What follows is my best stab at the consensus B Team. I make note below of their most acclaimed work for the stage (plus a handful of notable screenplays*). Again, they are in alpha order.

Lillian Hellman
The Children’s Hour [1934], The Little Foxes [1939], Watch on the Rhine [1941], Another Part of the Forest [1946], The Autumn Garden [1951], The Lark—adaptation of the French play by Jean Anouilh [1955], Candide—original libretto of the Bernstein operetta [1957], Toys in the Attic [1960]

William Inge
Come Back, Little Sheba [1950], Picnic [1953], Glory in the Flower [1953], Bus Stop [1955], Dark at the Top of the Stairs [1957]) A Loss of Roses [1959], Splendor in the Grass* [1961], Natural Affection [1962], The Last Pad [1972]

George S. Kaufman (pictured on the 1st Time cover) and his collaborators
Merton of the Movies—with Marc Connelly [1922], Beggar on Horseback—with Marc Connelly [1925], The Butter and Egg Man [1925], The Cocoanuts—libretto with Morrie Ryskind of the Irving Berlin musical [1925], The Royal Family—with Edna Ferber [1927], Animal Crackers—libretto with Morrie Ryskind [1928], June Moon—with Ring Lardner [1929], Once in a Lifetime—with Moss Hart [1930], Of Thee I Sing—libretto with Morrie Ryskind of the Gershwin musical [1931], Dinner at Eight—with Edna Ferber [1932], Merrily We Roll Along—with Moss Hart [1934], You Can’t Take It with You—with Moss Hart [1936], The Man Who Came to Dinner—with Moss Hart [1939], George Washington Slept Here—with Moss Hart [1940]

Clifford Odets (pictured on the 2nd Time cover)
Waiting for Lefty [1935], Awake and Sing! [1935], Paradise Lost [1935], Golden Boy [1937], Rocket to the Moon [1938], Clash by Night [1941], Humoresque* [1946], The Big Knife [1949], The Country Girl [1950], The Sweet Smell of Success* [1957], Wild in the Country* [1961]

Thornton Wilder (pictured on the 3rd Time cover)
The Long Christmas Dinner [1931], The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden [1931], Pullman Car Hiawatha [1931], A Doll’s House—translation and adaptation of the Ibsen masterwork [1935], Our Town [1938], The Merchant of Yonkers [1938], The Beaux’ Stratagem—adaptation of the Farquhar masterwork [1939], The Skin of Our Teeth [1942], Shadow of a Doubt* [1943], Our Century [1947], The Matchmaker [1954], Alcestiad [1955]

I’m proud to note that, in keeping with our mission to produce the great plays—past, present and future, Barksdale has staged 30 productions of major works by eight of the top ten American dramatists. The only two we’ve yet to explore are August Wilson and Clifford Odets. I’ve made a note.

Barksdale productions of the top ten playwrights include (in chronological order):
1956 Our Town – Wilder
1958 The Matchmaker – Wilder
1958 Bus Stop – Inge
1959 The Crucible (revived in ’60) – Miller
1960 Picnic – Inge
1960 A Streetcar Named Desire – Williams
1961 The Rose Tatoo – Williams
1962 The Solid Gold Cadillac – Kaufman and Teichman
1965 Come Back, Little Sheba – Inge
1966 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (revived in ’67) – Albee
1967 The Night of the Iguana – Williams
1972 George Washington Slept Here – Kaufman and Hart
1974 Long Day’s Journey Into Night – O’Neill
1974 You Can’t Take It with You (revived in ’76) – Kaufman and Hart
1975 Ah! Wilderness – O’Neill
1977 The Royal Family – Kaufman and Ferber
1979 The Man Who Came to Dinner – Kaufman and Hart
1983 George Washington Slept Here – Kaufman and Hart
1993 Death of a Salesman – Miller
1994 Our Town – Wilder
1995 The Glass Menagerie – Williams
1999 Three Tall Women – Albee
2001 The Little Foxes – Hellman
2002 The Crucible – Miller
2004 The Man Who Came to Dinner – Kaufman and Hart
2006 The Lark – Hellman
2009 Bus Stop – Inge

Hope to see you at each of our upcoming shows: Bus Stop at Hanover Tavern, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Willow Lawn, A Christmas Carol at the historic Empire, and Black Nativity (co-produced with African American Repertory Theatre) at the Gottwald Playhouse.

--Bruce Miller

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

From Girls in Green to the Great White Way

Posted by Bruce Miller
Those who may wonder why Barksdale and Theatre IV are so pleased to partner with the Girl Scouts (see Curtain Up, Lights Out, Fun’s ON! [Sat Oct 31, 2009] and How We Help … Girl Scouts [Wed June 18, 2008] should consider the case of Toni-Leslie James (pictured to the right).

Who? Toni-Leslie James. Start getting used to hearing that name, even here in little old Richmond. In fact, especially here in Richmond. Toni-Leslie James, you see, is beginning her third year as Director of Costume for Theatre VCU. Simultaneously, she is earning rave reviews as the Costume Designer of Finian’s Rainbow (pictured below), which opened on Broadway last week to some of the most glowing reviews I've read in years.
VCU Communications and Public Relations issued a press release about Ms James last spring that reads as follows: “The seed for (her) illustrious career was planted years ago on a fateful field trip to see Jack and the Bean Stalk with her Girl Scout troop. From that moment, she was hooked.”

So as our historic Empire filled last weekend with a hundred or so young ladies in green, who knows what super-star of the future was in our midst.

If you’d like to catch a videotaped interview with Toni-Leslie James, you can watch her in a 1992 edition of American Theatre Wing Seminar - Working in the Theatre: Design. Before taping this show, she had just won the American Theatre Wing Design Award for the costumes she created for her Broadway debut, Jelly's Last Jam. She was also nominated for a Tony for the same show.

Since that auspicious beginning, Ms James has won great acclaim for her costumes for 14 Broadway productions, including both parts of Tony Kushner’s landmark drama, Angels in America (1993), and Michael John LaChiusa’s two Broadway musicals, Marie Christine (1999) and The Wild Party (2000). Ms James has also dressed many of Off-Broadway’s most memorable plays and musicals.

All told, in addition to her Tony nomination, she has earned three Drama Desk nominations and an Obie Award for Sustained Design Excellence last spring.

Ms James lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Australian lighting designer David Higham, and divides her time between NYC and Richmond. After the opening of Finian’s last week, she may once again be the toast of Broadway, but she’s also a Richmond treasure!

And it all started with a Girl Scout field trip to a local children’s theatre.

That’s the kind of story I LOVE to tell.

I hope to see YOU at the theatre, real soon! And when you come, look around. Maybe you’ll be sitting down the row from Richmond’s newest Tony nominee—Toni-Leslie James.

--Bruce Miller

Monday, November 2, 2009

The First of November, 2009

Posted by Bruce Miller
Yesterday from two until four we said goodbye to Souvenir, and then from six until last call we celebrated the life and legacy of Jack Parrish.

Prior to making it out to Hanover Tavern, I was with my mother at Westminster-Canterbury. She’s a 93-year old with advanced Alzheimer’s and she was having a bad day. I was called in by the nurses to try to calm her down, to stop her screaming and fighting, to bring her back to this world from the terrifying places to which her disease takes her from time to time.

Just before visiting Westminster, I team-taught with Katy Sproul (Firehouse actress Amy Sproul’s mom) our Sunday School class at Bon Air Pres, as I do every week. The topic was gun control, and our class decided to try to persuade our church, and other churches, to take a stand on closing the gun show loophole here in Virginia and nationally.

It was a roller coaster of a day.

Politics can be so polarizing. All of us are demeaned and diminished when we allow ourselves to be manipulated into corners and fail to come together for the common good.

Disease can also force us into isolated corners—making us feel alone and afraid. Doctors and nurses, despite their many skills and heartfelt care, cannot always pull us back from these dark places. But even on these bad days, "family" can usually make a difference.

True performers like Florence Foster Jenkins (and thank you, Debra and Jonathan for bringing her true story to life in Souvenir) refused to be relegated to a corner. Relying on the strength of her intentions, Ms Jenkins transformed self-doubt into confidence, self-effacement into assertiveness, convinced that it is only through truly sharing innermost gifts and selves that any of us will bring joy and community to others.

Jack Parrish also knew this strength and these intentions. He lived his life center stage. He loved his family and friends. He threw himself into each new adventure. He embraced Shakespeare’s magnificent advice to the players, so beautifully recited last night by James Ricks. In the whirlwind of his passion, Jack acquired and begat a temperance that gave it smoothness.

Jack's friends by the hundreds gathered again last night to honor his legacy in different cities around the world. Jokes and songs, toasts and memories filled with truth even if, sometimes, a little fuzzy on accuracy. Testament to a life well lived. Tribute to all those who come together, join together to bring fullness, not fretting, to this brief hour upon the stage.

God bless Jack and Florence, my mother and my Sunday School class. God bless us every one.

--Bruce Miller