Sunday, January 31, 2010

Oh the Weather Outside is Frightful

Posted by Bruce Miller
There's good news and there's bad news.

Let's do the good news first. Yesterday in sunny Las Vegas, a 22-year-old VCU broadcast journalism major named Caressa Cameron won a $50,000 scholarship as she was crowned Miss America 2010. Many congratulations to Ms Cameron for representing Richmond, her home town of Fredericksburg, and the Commonwealth so well. Your good news is GREAT news. All of us at Barksdale and Theatre IV are proud of you.

And the bad news? As Ms Cameron was basking in the sunshine and paparazzi flashes of Vegas, her friends back home in Richmond were finding themselves buried under a foot of snow. (It measures 14" in my backyard in Bon Air.)

I know, I know. Snow is also good news! Unexpected time off, sledding down wintry slopes, chestnuts roasting on an open fire. In many ways, snow is festive and fun.

Not to be a buzz-kill, but there's another side to the story. When you are responsible for a $5 million annual budget for a nonprofit touring theatre, all that pretty white stuff that brings activity to a standstill across a wide swath of the mid-Atlantic quickly becomes the stuff of nightmares.
For years now, the snow begins to fall, my kids jump up and down in jubilation, and I sit in the corner and sulk.

This past Friday, Theatre IV opened our wonderful mainstage production of The Song of Mulan. Due to the snow, we've had to cancel two Mulan performances on Saturday and Sunday, costing us --at least on paper--approximately $8,000.

The good news is that, traditionally, most of our wonderful ticket buyers will accept a transfer to another performance, so the actual loss will be in the hundreds rather than the thousands. Nonetheless, it's painful for all concerned.

Also at Theatre IV, we currently have four shows on tour to schools nationwide: Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, Hugs and Kisses, I Have a Dream - The Life and Times of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Sojourner Truth. If we have to cancel half of their bookings this coming week, which seems optimistic considering the geographical breadth of this storm, we will lose an additional $12 to $20 thousand--depending on which shows get cancelled.

And in this case, the losses are truly losses. Our tours are virtually sold out for the rest of their runs. In almost every case, there will be no opportunities to reschedule performances.

Then there's the matter of First Baptist of Ivy Gap, the fun and heartwarming new comedy that was scheduled for all day and evening tech rehearsals yesterday and today at Hanover Tavern, leading to an Opening Night on Friday. Both days of tech have been cancelled, due to the fact that it would be irresponsible to require cast and crew to trek across 30 miles of unplowed roads to park in an unplowed lot. At the end of the day, Ivy Gap is only a play--not worth the potential loss of life, limb or crankshaft.

At this moment, without having the full day tech rehearsals, I don't see how it will be possible to open on time. Nothing is definite yet, but if we have to postpone our well-sold opening weekend, that could cost Barksdale an additional $12,000.

Add it all up, and we're looking at a potential loss of $40,000 or more. In this already chilly economy, a loss of this size would be crippling. And it's only January.

We've weathered these storms before, and we'll weather them again this time. But if you get a friendly call from any Richmond box office asking if you'll accept an exchange rather than require a refund for a cancelled performance, please consider the situation we nonprofit theatres are in, and be kind.

Many, many thanks.

--Bruce Miller

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Mixing with the Majors

Posted by Bruce Miller
Twenty-one nonprofit arts organizations with annual operating budgets in excess of $1,000,000 currently receive funding from the Virginia Commission for the Arts. These 21 organizations are referred to by the VCA as "the majors." They are invited to come together twice a year for roundtable discussions concerning the events, policies and practices that most effect the arts industry in Virginia.

In Central Virginia, the majors include Barksdale Theatre, the Richmond Ballet, the Richmond Symphony, Theatre IV, the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, and the Virginia Opera, which is headquartered in Norfolk but has a strong Richmond presence.

The first of the two annual roundtable discussions takes place each year in January in Richmond in association with the annual ArtWorks for Virginia Conference and Arts Advocacy Day at the State Capitol. I was asked by Peggy Baggett, our extraordinary Executive Director of the Virginia Commission for the Arts, to moderate this year's January meeting.

This past Thursday, from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., it was my privilege to facilitate a healthy, robust conversation among a roomful of the Virginia arts administrators whom I most admire. The last time I was asked to moderate was May 2007.

It's very energizing and great fun to direct and structure a spirited debate involving the likes of David Fisk (Executive Director of the Richmond Symphony), Gus Stuhlreyer (General Director and CEO of the Virginia Opera), Keith Martin (Managing Director, Richmond Ballet), Keith Stava (Managing Director, Virginia Stage Company), Evalyn Baron (Director of Outreach, Barter Theatre), Jo Kennedy (President and CEO, Visual Arts Center of Richmond), Rob Cross (Executive and Artistic Director, Virginia Arts Festival), Bill Hennessy (Director, Chrystler Museum of Art), Elizabeth Murphy (Executive Director, Fairfax Symphony Orchestra), Beth Pline (Executive Director, Roanoke Symphony Orchestra), Phil Whiteway (Managing Director, Barksdale and Theatre IV), and several others whom I know less well.

At Thursday's meeting, Peggy Baggett began by explaining how and why the Commission viewed Virginia's upcoming Minds Wide Open celebration to be a success. Keith Martin followed with a power point presentation outlining the details of Minds Wide Open: Virginia Celebrates Women in the Arts. Then Gus Stuhlreyer, newly appointed chair of the 2012 Minds Wide Open planning committee, led a discussion of possible themes.

After lunch, I led sessions on various leadership initiatives that the majors could consider for future implementation, statewide reaction to the recent NEA study regarding arts attentance, and potential dates and locations for our summer/fall meeting.

The arts are a two billion dollar industry in Virginia. The overall goal of the majors rountables is to determine the best ways for our states most prominent arts professionals to work together to transform our industry into a force that both the general public and the state legislature will understand, appreciate and respect.

Many thanks to David Fisk for hosting last week's meeting at the Symphony's new digs at CenterStage. It was rewarding to connect again with others who care so passionately about the arts in Virginia.

--Bruce Miller

Friday, January 29, 2010

Time Again for "Acts of Faith"

Posted by Bruce Miller
It is time once again for Central Virginia's Acts of Faith Festival--the largest faith inspired theatre event in America. Now in its sixth year, Acts of Faith is a collaboration between faith communities and Richmond's professional theatre companies. This year's Festival began on Jan 15 and will run through Mar 21.

The Festival was initiated and continues to be convened by Second Presbyterian Church. Joining Second Pres as co-sponsors are Bon Air Presbyterian (my church), Congregation Or Ami, First English Lutheran, First Presbyterian, St. Bridget's Catholic Church, St. James Episcopal Church, and Tabernacle Baptist. If your congregation is interested in joining in this annual celebration, you and they would be most welcome.

The good folks who manage the Festival describe the mission as follows: "The Acts of Faith is a way to bring the community together in a shared discussion about how faith and values shape our public and private life. Using theatre as a vehicle to illuminate issues and questions, the Festival facilitates conversations about the arts and faith and encourages unity within diverse traditions.

Throughout the winter, fourteen Central Virginia theater companies will offer a selection of plays and will sponsor discussions after many of the performances. These post-performance conversations are intended for audience participation and will include the plays' director, cast members and theologians.

Discussions will address topics such as why the play was chosen for the Festival, how cultural norms and values are portrayed in the play, and how an individual play might impact one’s faith journey. In addition to the talkback sessions at the theatres, co-sponsoring churches and synagogues encourage adult and youth groups to see the plays together and continue the discussions within their own faith communities."

Barksdale and Theatre IV will be presenting three plays in this year's Festival: The Grapes of Wrath by Frank Galati, Adapted from the novel by John Steinbeck (Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn), First Baptist of Ivy Gap by Ron Osborne (Barksdale Theatre at Hanover Tavern), and Buffalo Soldier by Bruce Craig Miller (yeah, that's me--at Theatre IV's historic Empire Theatre).

On Friday, Feb 26, 11 a.m., we will conduct in Barksdale's Willow Lawn lobby a panel discussion entitled "The Big Soul Ever'body's a Part Of" - Steinbeck's Humanist Faith. Along with a panel of area theologians, we will explore the faith perspectives embraced by Steinbeck and his characters during the Great Depression, and discuss how these perspectives relate, connect and contrast with historical and contemporary thinking and practice.

Steinbeck received the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath, and won the 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature.

This program is free and everyone is welcome. Following the discussion, there will be a build-your-own sandwich buffet and fellowship time. A free-will offering of $5 for lunch is suggested but not required. In case of inclement weather, you can call our box office at 282-2620 for information.

During the next few weeks, I'll be posting personal ruminations about the Acts of Faith Festival, which I think is a very impressive project. I hope you'll stop back by and join in the discussion.

--Posted by Bruce Miller

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

First Baptist of Ivy Gap

Posted by Bruce Miller
When First Baptist of Ivy Gap plays at Hanover Tavern from Feb 5 through Mar 14, it will once again connect Barksdale with Barter Theatre, the State Theatre of Virginia and our sister stage company in Abingdon.

Barksdale and Barter have been close ever since 1967 when Barter's legendary founder, Bob Porterfield, invited Pete, Muriel and Nancy to send Barksdale's hit production of Stop the World, I Want to Get Off out to Barter, marking the first time that a guest company performed on Barter's landmark stage.

More recently, Phil and I have been good friends and professional colleagues with Rick Rose, Barter's current artistic director, since his arrival in Virginia 16 years ago. Next month we'll be partnering with Barter on Poetry Out Loud. Theatre IV facilitates this national poetry recitation program for high school students throughout Virginia. Barter will be hosting our regional competition in Southwest VA.

First Baptist of Ivy Gap was first introduced to a live audience when the script was produced as a staged reading during Barter's 2002 Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights, a component of the Virginia Highlands Festival. The new comedy was so popular with Barter's audience that it was remounted during the 2003 Festival as a "mini-production." Based on popular demand, Barter mounted a full production (the World Premiere) as part of their mainstage season in 2004.

First Baptist is written by Ron Osborne (above and to the right), a St. Louis playwright who is enjoying being "discovered" in his 60s. He's writing a new play every year, and four have been produced either as readings or mainstage productions at Barter.

Recently, Osborne's new play Ruby's Story premiered Off-Off Broadway at New York's 13th Street Repertory Theatre. Firehouse Theatre supporters may recognize 13th Street Rep as the home of the longest running play in Off-Off Broadway history, Line by Israel Horovitz. In 2006, 13th Street Rep was named the "Best Off-Off Broadway Company to Act With" by Backstage.

First Baptist of Ivy Gap is Osborne's most successful play. It is a sweet and sentimental comedy about six Tennessee church women who gather during World War II to roll bandages (historical photo to the right) and plan for their church's 75th Anniversary. In Act II, they reunite during the height of the Vietnam War. Amidst the laughter (there's a LOT of laughter), world and local events test the women's friendship and faith. They pass the tests.

We have assembled an All-Star cast (with one terrific newcomer). Jan Guarino (Mona's Arrangements, The Clean House) is playing Edith, the pastor's wife who holds everything together while her husband gets all the credit. Joy Williams (Driving Miss Daisy, Barefoot in the Park) appears as Luby, the very worried mother of a WWII soldier.

Harriet Traylor (The Little Foxes, To Kill a Mockingbird) introduces us to Vera, a pillar of the church and wife of the local bank president. Maggie Roop (Doubt, Annie) is Mae Ellen, the church's rebellious organist. Ali Thibodeau (Thoroughly Modern Millie, The True Story of Pocahontas) plays Sammy, a sweet young woman from the wrong side of the tracks. And Sarah Pruden (new to Barksdale's mainstage) creates the role of Olene, a vivacious Tennessee mountain girl with her eye on Hollywood.

I'm having a ball directing the show. It's our Hanover entry into Central Virginia's Acts of Faith Festival.

If you're looking for a funny, sweet and reaffirming evening of theatre, I hope you'll join us.

--Bruce Miller

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

I Love Luxford

Posted by Bruce Miller
I had a great morning today delivering two "Meet the Author" workshops at Luxford Elementary in Virginia Beach. I got up at 3 a.m., pulled out of Bon Air at 4 a.m., and made it through the tunnel by 5:30. Then everything came to a stop. Why is there always an accident on I 64 on one side of the tunnel or other?
Thankfully, I allowed plenty of time, and arrived at the Hardee's a few blocks from Luxford just in time for a 6:30 a.m. breakfast biscuit and coffee. Lots and lots of coffee. When I checked into Luxford at 7, I was able to load in my puppets, costumes and crocodile suit before the students arrived. From 8 a.m. until 8:30, all I had to do was relax backstage.

Luxford has been a steadfast supporter of Theatre IV for decades. They have a wonderful administration, faculty and student body. I'm not sure how they train their kids to be so well behaved, but whatever they're doing, they should patent it. I couldn't have asked for a more receptive audience. It was great fun to be able to visit Luxford--just this once--with my workshop rather than a performance.

I worked with K, 1 and 2 for 45 minutes beginning at 8:30. Then I met with grades 3, 4 and 5 from 9:30 until 10:15. My last half hour was spent with a small group of E.D. kindergartners. All in all, I think the day was a success. The students at Luxford really made me excited to be back in the classroom--even if the classroom this time was a "cafetorium," and the class size was 200.

I spent the first 15 minutes of each workshop talking to the kids about my childhood, explaining how I became interested in writing, reading and theatre. Then I began a half hour interactive discussion of five or six basic principles of playwriting. Volunteers from the student body joined me on stage, got into costumes they selected from a rack, or helped me with puppet manipulation, as together we "acted out" a few simple "rules" that any young playwright would be well-advised to consider.

I can hardly believe it, but I've written 36 plays for young audiences, that have been performed in over 12,000 performances in 4 different languages before over 4 million children from Puerto Rico to Guam to Tel Aviv, and from Florida to Montana and Texas to Maine. I guess I can finally call myself a playwright without feeling presumptuous.

Part of the method to this madness of getting into the field of "Meet the Author" is this. In 6 years and 4 months I retire. I'm hoping that in-school workshops and other consultancy opportunities will be able to bring in a little revenue during my golden years.

If you know of a school that's looking for an author, and they'd consider a playwright, please send 'em my way.

Till then, hope to see you at First Baptist of Ivy Gap (Hanover Tavern), The Song of Mulan (Empire Theatre) and The Grapes of Wrath (Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn). Three plays and all of them have "of" in their titles. Hmmm.

--Bruce Miller

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Young Talent Lit Up Weekend

Posted by Bruce Miller
Yesterday's Lights Up! program at CenterStage (the performance component will be repeated today) went off with hardly a hitch. I'm proud to have recruited my good friend Sabrina Squire to be our Mistress of Ceremonies. We've known each other since her early days in radio (and my less early days at Theatre IV). She did an amazing job, providing more than enough candlepower to help the celebration of young talent live up to its name.

Like her colleague Aaron Gilchrist, who served so ably at the Richmond Theatre Critics Awards, Sabrina Squire is one of the few local "celebrities" whose presence actually makes an event seem more special. She brings great beauty, elegance, intelligence and class to every event she hosts. She did a terrific job this weekend and I'm very grateful that she said "yes."

Sabrina was skillfully assisted by Bo Wilson, who wrote an inspired and inspiring script that hit all the right notes throughout the evening. Again, I'm proud to have recruited Bo. His contribution to the success of the event should make the theatre community proud.

Both Bo and Sabrina worked as volunteers, as did the vast majority if not all of the young performers. I think I'm speaking truthfully when I say that, with the exception of a couple musicians who accompanied singers and dancers from the Virginia Opera and the Latin Ballet of Virginia, all the performers were 21 or younger--many were a lot younger. In terms of talent, expertise and poise, they were in many ways equal to adult professionals.

As I mentioned a few days ago, I think we all should give special credit to two individuals who have been working tirelessly for months to pull all this off--without receiving a penny in compensation. Aimee Halbruner, Director of Education and Community Engagement with the Richmond Symphony worked longer and harder to make this event possible than anyone I know, and she received no recognition from the stage last night. (I hope the recognition part changed at today's matinee.)

Coming in a very close second is Brett Bonda, who directs the Minds in Motion program for the Richmond Ballet. Brett has also been working skillfully and tirelessly for months. Thankfully, he was recognized from the stage last night, along with several of his co-workers at the Ballet.

Janet Krogman, Chuck Metzgar, the tech crew, several key arts educators from Hanover, Henrico and Richmond, and many others from CenterStage also contributed exemplary efforts to make this weekend a success. Central Virginia should be proud and appreciative of one and all.

And let's not forget the good people at Genworth for funding the program, and Sue FitzHugh for raising the funds.

I was well pleased with Theatre IV's and Barksdale's several contributions to the weekend. The Richmond Boys Choir never fails to amaze and inspire, and last night's performance was no exception. The RBC was conceived of, founded by, funded and operated by Theatre IV for the first three years of its existence. From the outset, we all hoped and planned for the RBC to become independent in year four, and that's what happened. Making a successful transition to independence is itself a major achievement, and all of us on the theatre side should be proud of that also.

The RBC was included in this weekend's program because we at Theatre IV chose to share our allotted ten minutes of performance time with two of our partners--the RBC and the Latin Ballet. Only resident companies received time allotments on stage in this weekend's performances. I'm proud that Theatre IV chose to showcase not only our talented young performers, but also our partnerships with two colleague nonprofits that add significant diversity and depth to Richmond's performing arts community.

Like the Boy's Choir, the Latin Ballet also brought their traditional exuberance to last night's program.

Theatre IV and Barksdale presented several workshops and programs yesterday afternoon, all of them seemed to be very well received. Christopher Hudert, our puppet master for several Theatre IV productions, led Phil, Chase and me in our Puppetry on Parade workshop. Twenty five children had a hands-on experience with over 30 of our hand puppets, marionettes, rod puppets and specialty puppets. It was very informative, thanks to Christopher, and a lot of fun.

Sue Griffin, Marcia Hailey, Lynn West and a fourth member of our costume shop wowed the crowds with their creative Let's Make a Hat! workshop. All afternoon, you could see kids running around crowned as princesses, wizards, jesters and Egyptians. More proof that our amazingly talented costume department is second to none.

Slade Billew (Theatre IV / Barksdale) and Chris Blake (Richmond Shakespeare) team-taught a stage combat workshop. From all reports they had the kids wrapped around their fingers. Leslie Owens-Harrington did a wonderful job on a 75-minute master class in theatre dance, with a respectable and admiring audience in the Carpenter Theatre watching her every move.

I was also particularly proud of our production of I Have a Dream - The Life and Times of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The show is written for grades 3 and up, but it held the attention of nearly everyone in the Gottwald Playhouse audience, from toddlers to senior citizens. I was proud of the cast.

In the mainstage performance, our cast of Oh the Thinks You Can Think from Seussical the Musical was terrific. We couldn't have asked for a more talented and hardworking group of teenagers. Their costumes looked terrific, as did Chase's stage direction.

It was an honor to share the stage, also, with African American Repertory Theatre, City Dance, Richmond Ballet, Richmond Shakespeare, Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra, SPARC and Virginia Opera.

If all this sound like I'm bragging, I am. One thing I continue to re-learn at these community-wide events is that several of my respected arts administration colleagues are far more skilled than I at promoting the vital contributions made by their organizations. Some are true masters, promoting their nonprofits endlessly at every turn, and receiving for their nonprofits contributions far exceeding what we receive at Barksdale and Theatre IV. They're doing it right; I'm not as skilled.

I know our case statement is just as impressive as theirs, if not more so. For one thing, through Hugs and Kisses, our theatres literally save children's lives everyday. The failure comes in my (and Phil's) tendency to keep quiet about so much that Barksdale and Theatre IV do. I'm trying my best to turn that situation around. I need to start being a braggart for Barksdale.

Along with many others, Theatre IV and Barksdale worked long and hard to make this weekend's programs a success. If you were able to make it, I hope you had a grand time.

--Bruce Miller

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Great Family Fun This Weekend

Posted by Bruce Miller
Lights Up - Youth Open House at CenterStage is a free event for you and the children in your life. It takes place this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, and everyone is invited! The mini-festival will occur, of course, at CenterStage, marking the public opening of the Genworth BrightLights Education Center.

Theatre IV and Barksdale are proud to be resident companies of CenterStage, and we're excited about helping to produce and present the free performances and workshops that are part of the weekend's festivities. Other resident companies that are participating include African American Repertory Theatre, Elegba Folklore Society, Richmond Ballet, Richmond Shakespeare, Richmond Symphony, SPARC and Virginia Opera.

The Jazz Society is also a resident company. They will not be joining in this weekend because all events are designed to involve children and teens, and the Jazz Society has no performers in and presents no workshops for this age group.

Theatre IV and Barksdale have invited two of our partnering companies to share our allotted time slots: The Latin Ballet of Virginia and the Richmond Boys Choir. African American Repertory Theatre has done the same with one of their partners, City Dance. The Richmond Symphony also will be working in one activity with a community partner, the Richmond Philharmonic.

I served on a steering committee of three that has been working hard for several months to pull the Open House together, with lots of leadership and help from CenterStage staff and volunteers. Area arts educators have also been key leaders in this effort.

To give credit where credit is due, the bulk of the work was done by the other two members of the steering committee--Aimee Halbruner, Director of Education and Community Engagement with the Richmond Symphony, and Brett Bonda, Director of Minds in Motion with the Richmond Ballet. These two outstanding artists are cornerstones of our community's arts leadership.

Events will begin on Saturday, Jan 23, with an afternoon of fun and informative arts workshops, master classes, lecture-demos and live performances for children and teens. Attendees must register for the activities of their choice. Registration begins at 10:30 a.m. in the Carpenter Theatre lobby. Everything is free, but on-site registration is required, on a first-come first-served basis.

The interactive fun will begin at noon and continue throughout the facility until 5 pm. Theatre IV and Barksdale will be offering the following:

I Have a Dream: The Life and Times of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. - A live performance of one of Theatre IV's acclaimed touring productions, co-produced with the Virginia Historical Society. In the Gottwald Playhouse, Saturday, 1:30 pm. Most appreciated by audiences age 9 and up.

Let's Make a Hat! - A hands-on workshop conducted by our brilliant costume shop. Participants will use everyday materials to construct fun and festive hats. In room 3137, Saturday noon. Most appreciated by children of all ages.

Puppets on Parade - Using Theatre IV's extensive puppet collection, kids will learn about hand puppets, marionettes, rod puppets and body puppets. In room 3140, Saturday noon. Most appreciated by children of all ages.

Careful Combat - Produced in association with Richmond Shakespeare and co-led by Slade Billew, our fight coach extraordinaire, this workshop will teach kids how professional actors can appear to fight on stage, with nobody getting hurt. In room 3140, Saturday 3 p.m. Most appreciated by kids age 11 to 14.

Master Class: Musical Theatre Dance - Our brilliant director and choreographer, Leslie Owens Harrington (Crowns, Annie Get Your Gun, Peter Pan, Anything Goes, many others) will offer a 75-minute intensive class for experienced dancers ages 16 to 18, covering tap, jazz and myriad other musical theatre styles. Pre-registration required by this Friday. Interested participants should contact Christina Billew at (804) 783-1688 x 1132 or c.billew@theatreivrichmond.org. Non-participants can observe the class as well. On the stage of the Carpenter Theatre, Saturday 3:30 p.m.

In addition to the open house activities, a concert program featuring many of Richmond's most talented young performers (ages 6 to 21) will be presented in the Carpenter Theatre on Saturday night at 7 and Sunday afternoon at 3. Both performances are free. To obtain tickets or more information, visit the CenterStage website at http://www.richmondcenterstage.com/. Free tickets will be awarded on a first-come first-served basis.

The wonderful Sabrina Squire will be our host for both performances. Bo Wilson leant his impressive talents to the short script that will hold each performance together.

Young artists from Theatre IV will present the opening number from Seussical the Musical, accompanied by the Richmond Youth Symphony.

Theatre IV and Barksdale are proud to participate in the leadership of exciting arts education events like this one. Hope to see you at CenterStage this Saturday and Sunday!

--Bruce Miller

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Ragtime, God of Carnage, Time Stands Still

Posted by Bruce Miller
On Saturday evening of our recent whirlwind visit to NYC, Hannah and I went to see Ragtime. Since we knew we were going to both matinee and evening performances (and therefore wouldn't be able to stand in the TKTS line until 5:30--two and a half hours after discounted tickets went on sale), we purchased our Ragtime tickets before we left Richmond. We went through www.BroadwayBox.com, and took advantage of their 40% discount.

I know a lot of theatregoers who firmly believe that Ragtime is one of the best musicals ever. I myself love the cast album and the score. But now that I've seen the show, I can say that the show itself is not on my list of favorites.

The story is so epic, the cast of characters so large, and the themes so grand, the show never has time to examine anyone or anything with very much detail. The entire show is painted with very broad strokes, and so I failed to connect on a personal level with anyone.
This despite the fact that at least two of the leading actors were outstanding, in my opinion. Christiane Noll as Mother and Bobby Steggert as Mother's Younger Brother poured their hearts into their roles, finding depths of emotion, in my opinion, that other actors glossed over.

Quentin Earl Darrington in the role of Coalhouse Walker Jr. (pictured above holding his baby) had an impressive singing voice, but the most honest, deep emotion I saw on his face all evening was when he became overwhelmed by audience appreciation during curtain call. On the night before closings, which this was, audiences are often packed with those who really LOVE the production. They can be very adoring. If I'd been Mr. Darrington, I'd have gotten emotional too. I just wish he'd been able to tap into those simpler, more honest emotions during the play. All his emotions in the play seemed to me to be overly operatic.

But all this is a reflection of my taste more than the show or any particular performance. As I said, many theatre lovers whom I respect think that both Ragtime the show and this particular revival are exemplary. Their opinions are just as valid as mine.
On Sunday, we bought all our tickets on the TKTS line for half price, with a $2.25 per ticket service charge instead of the $7 per ticket service charge that is standard with pre-orders. We saw God of Carnage (pictured above) in the afternoon and Time Stands Still, the new play be Donald Margulies, in the evening.

When I'm in New York, I try to see shows that will add to my overall knowledge of contemporary theatre production, and shows that we may want to produce some day at Barksdale. God of Carnage (currently starring Jimmy Smits, to the right) fits both bills. As a Tony Award Best Play winner, and a four-actor, single set comedy, it's been recommended to me by several Barksdale subscribers who have seen it.

Hannah and I both loved God of Carnage, but there's a catch. There's a scene in the middle of the play in which one of the two women involuntarily commits a major faux pas. I don't want to give anything away. Suffice it to say that her actions are very realistic and graphic, and have the potential of causing quite a stir in a theatre as small as Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn. The scene is very funny, but I worry that in a small house, it could also be very disturbing. I've asked Phil Whiteway to try to catch the show on his next trip to the Big Apple so he can give me an additional perspective.

If you're headed to New York, and you find a very contemporary comedy with a significant amount of vulgar language appealing, then I encourage you to take in God of Carnage and let me know if you think it would make a great Barksdale offering.

Time Stands Still starred Laura Linney, one of my favorite actresses, and was written by Donald Margulies, a contemporary playwright whom I greatly admire. In the last several seasons, we have produced two of his plays, Collected Stories and Brooklyn Boy.

As much as Hannah and I both admired Time Stands Still, I don't think it's a play we'll be producing at Barksdale. The story of two journalists who build their careers and their lives around recording and reporting horrific events that take place around the world is very thought provoking. It is also very intense and fairly dense in it's language and thematic exploration.

There is virtually no comedy or sentimentality to lighten the heavy lifting. In Richmond, I think it would appeal principally to the most serious theatregoers. I would worry that the remaining 60% to 70% of our audience would not choose to take so demanding a journey.

So those are the shows we saw, in a nutshell. Going to Broadway has been in my blood, and in Hannah's blood, since our earliest teens. I can't imagine my life without it.

My strongest hope is that I can take at least a fraction of what I learn on these theatre trips and put it to good use back home, here in Central Virginia. Regional theatres have the great privilege of recreating some of that terrific Broadway experience in their home towns. And Broadway, in turn, benefits from the actors, directors, designers and sometimes even plays and musicals that are "developed" in the regions, before moving upward to larger markets.

I hope you'll continue to support Barksdale as we serve our role in the national theatre scene.

--Bruce Miller

Two Wonderful Broadway Productions

Posted by Bruce Miller
I thought I'd write two last blog posts about Hannah's and my recent trip to NYC--this one covering the first two of the five shows we saw.

I know many of you may think we're insane to tackle five productions in three days. Of course, you're right. If we were in the city longer, or more frequently, we'd be happy to spread out the good times so that each show could steep a bit before it was time for us to gulp down the next.

Unfortunately we don't have that luxury. As it is, not only do we crowd five shows into too short a stay, we also leave town with five or ten shows we're eager, but unable, to fit in.

This trip, we flew into JFK on Friday morning, took the E train into Manhattan, shouted "Martha Newell" as our feet hit Broadway, and had lunch at Europa Cafe, a nice, simple and moderately-priced chain restaurant at the corner of Broadway and 53rd. We had an early check-in at the Edison, then made it to the ticket line by 3.

On most days, the TKTS booth in Times Square has one loooong line for musicals, and a very short line for plays. We wanted to see the revival of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, so we stood in the "Play Only" line for about 3 minutes before making to the window and buying our tickets for that evening's 8 pm performance--50% off.

A View from the Bridge is considered by many to be the last (and perhaps the least) of Miller's masterworks: All My Sons (1946), Death of a Salesman (1949), The Crucible (1953), A View from the Bridge (1956). But I'll go see a lesser Miller masterwork any day of the week.

This production starred Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson. under Gregory Mosher's direction. Hannah and I both enjoyed the production a lot. Being a presumptuous nitpicker, I'd have to say that Liev Schreiber never quite let loose enough as Eddie Carbone, at least for my taste. The narrator, wonderfully played by Michael Christopher (playwright of The Shadow Box) says that he admired Eddie because he "let himself be completely known" (or some phrase very close to that). Eddie is a character of great Italian passion. To be honest, I thought Liev Schreiber always maintained a little bit of masculine reserve, never truly revealing that passion. But maybe that's just me.

Scarlett Johansson was understated and actually very good--not at all the starlet one might expect. In fact, the entire cast was terrific and both Hannah and I recommend the show without reservation.
On Saturday, we saw the matinee of A Little Night Music, for which we had purchased tickets in advance. Night Music is a sold out hit, and there's no chance it will be on the TKTS line anytime soon.

As I mentioned before, we both loved the production. If you want a broader take on Night Music, watch the "Word of Mouth" reviews on Broadway.com. Two of the three intelligent theatregoers loved the show as we did. The script, score and production left the third theatregoer cold.

Truth be told, the script and score are somewhat esoteric, and will not be to everyone's liking. I'm not trying to be pompous, but I'll go out on a limb and say that Night Music is a "thinking man's" musical.

If you are a reader, if you enjoy Masterpiece Theatre, if you look forward to seeing plays as well as musicals, if you enjoy language, then I think it likely that you'll love A Little Night Music.

If you would choose to see Hairspray, Nunsense, or Joseph...Dreamcoat for the third time rather than venture out to the revival of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, then Night Music may not be your cup of tea.

Regarding this production, anyone and everyone should go if for no other reason than to see Angela Lansbury in a career-defining performance. Granted, I saw and loved Lansbury as Mame, as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, and as Mama Rose in her revival of Gypsy (my favorite Gypsy, by the way). Her Night Music character, Madame Armfeldt, is a former courtesan approaching the end of her days. She observes the wild romantic antics of the other characters from a distance, recalling the artfulness of past romances, regretting the wantonness of "modern" society.

"Where is style, where is skill, where is forethought," she sings. This from an extraordinary actress who has personified style, skill and forethought throughout a nearly 60 year career. Not only is her current performance close to perfection, the resonance that her mere presence on stage adds to the proceedings turns this into a history-making moment that no theatre lover should miss.

Catherine Zeta-Jones, as Desiree, actually holds her own among exalted company. Now I'm sounding pompous again. Who the heck am I to even comment on great stars like Liev Schreiber and Catherine Zeta-Jones? I'll just say this. Her star power is undeniable. Her acting, singing and movement impress. Her's is a Desiree with whom it is easy to fall in love.

Personally, I think she's a little too young and gorgeous for a character whom I believe should be a bit closer to a turning point in life when she feels that her most attractive days will soon be behind her. Personally, she'll never erase my memory of the luminous Glynis Johns. Having said that, I enjoyed and respected her performance, and felt she contributed to the overall wonder of the show.

Trevor Nunn, who I think is a brilliant director, urges at least two of the supporting characters to be a little too broad, again, in my humble opinion. To me the characters are simple, but they are directed in this production also to be a bit buffoonish. Again, that is nitpicking.

I missed the eloquence and heightened formality of the grand dinner in Act II of the original production. When Henrik purposefully shatters his glass, it has less of an impact when it happens at a picnic on the lawn.

Also I missed the full orchestra of the original, but only to any measurable extent on A Weekend in the Country, the rousing finale to Act I.

What I LOVED was the spirit of the piece, and the production's commitment to the depth of a story which can easily be treated as frivolous fluff. I found it moving, thoughtful, and filled with romance and delight. Again, Hannah and I recommend it without reservation.

Soon I'll be back to talk about Ragtime, God of Carnage and Time Stands Still.

--Bruce Miller

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Bradley Belongs on Broadway

Posted by Bruce Miller
Corey Bradley made his Broadway debut in the recent revival of Ragtime. But he made his stage debut 18 years earlier playing a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz at Theatre IV. I think I'm right about that. Corey was in a lot of Theatre IV shows during his formative years in Richmond. I'm not completely sure which one came first. I'll have to do some checking.

Hannah and I had the chance to visit Corey at the stage door of Ragtime last weekend, after enjoying his terrific performance at the Neil Simon Theatre. Ragtime was on our list of shows to see because:
* it was scheduled to close on Sunday, our final day in town,
* neither Hannah nor I had ever seen Ragtime on Broadway before, and
* Chase had let us know, after his earlier trip north to catch this revival, that Corey was in the cast.

After curtain call, we went to the stage door as soon as we could clear the crowds. We figured Corey would probably be leaving early, as ensemble members often do. I didn't want to miss him.

The stage door was jammed, so I almost didn't see Corey as he made his exit onto the sidewalk and then turned right, slipping past the crowd-control barricades into the open air rather than turning left to run the gauntlet of autograph hounds.

As soon as I saw him break away from the pack, I grabbed Hannah and we dashed out onto 52nd Street to avoid the crowds, chasing Corey as he walked down the sidewalk. When we were close enough, I hollered out his name, and he turned and saw us.

It's been a few years, and I have the extra pounds and gray hair to prove it. Also the last time Corey saw Hannah, she was probably in first grade. So as we walked up, I held out my hand and said, "Bruce Miller, Theatre IV."

Corey's face lit up, he knocked my hand out of the way and gave me a big hug. "I'm so proud of you," I said. "You cast me in my first show," he beamed. "It's so good to see you. How's everything at Theatre IV?"

I know this is the exact conversation that takes place somewhere on Broadway every night, as proud teachers and directors unexpectedly visit former students and actors who've now made it to the big time. No matter how many times I have this conversation, it always tears me up (feel free to pronounce the word "tears" whichever way you choose). I'm a sentimental slob, I know, but there's something endlessly affirming about seeing kids you've enjoyed working with turn out so well.

I think Corey's last role with us was playing Tommy Djilas in The Music Man during one of our summer seasons at Collegiate. After graduating from high school, Corey earned his BFA in Musical Theatre / Dance at Elon University in North Carolina. Since then, he's achieved non-stop success, appearing in the national tours of Mamma Mia!, Fosse, Chicago, and West Side Story. In Las Vegas, he appeared in We Will Rock You and with Hugh Jackman in Hugh Jackman: In Time, directed by George C. Wolfe and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall.

In addition to The Music Man (Theatre IV), Corey's regional credits include Hot Mikado (Westchester Broadway Theatre), Showboat (North Show Music Theatre), La Cage aux Folles (North Carolina Theatre), Joseph... (Downtown Cabaret Theatre), and Ragtime (Kennedy Center).

Film and television credits include being a principal dancer in Disney's Enchanted, Sex and the City, and Spike Lee's He Got Game.

Corey asked me to send greetings to all his friends in Richmond, which I'm more than happy to do. I assured him that all of us at Barksdale and Theatre IV send all best wishes right back to him.

So many talented actors make their way through Richmond each year, and a great many of them (I'm thinking now of Matts Polson and Shofner, who close in Putnam County Spelling Bee this afternoon) return to appear in subsequent shows even as they build careers in major markets. Few theatre communities can claim this degree of success. With all the talk on other blogs of what's professional and what isn't, we should all be very proud to be exactly what we are.

I hope to see you soon at a Richmond theatre, as we all catch the current performance, perhaps, of one of Broadway's future stars!

--Bruce Miller

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Hunter Herdlicka Hits Homer with Henrik

Posted by Bruce Miller
Two of the friends Hannah and I stopped to visit on our recent theatre weekend in New York were actors in shows we went to see. Hunter Herdlicka plays Henrik in A Little Night Music, and the second friend appeared in the ensemble of Ragtime, which closed on Sunday.

I'm being presumptuous when I call Hunter Herdlicka a "friend," although I certainly now consider him to be one. Hunter was a classmate and friend of Zak Resnick's at Carnegie Mellon. When Zak appeared in Into the Woods in the summer of 2007, Hunter came down to Richmond to see the show. He loved it. He and I may have met during that visit; neither one of us is sure.

When Facebook entered the consciousness of guys in their 50s like me--not too long after Into the Woods--I decided it was in Barksdale's best interest for me to "keep in touch" not only with close personal friends, but also friends of friends--professional actors and other theatre artists who had the potential to work with us here in Richmond one day.

I "friend requested" Hunter and several other of Zak's classmates at Carnegie Mellon. I did the same thing with talented theatre students at other universities. I'd send a note with the "friend request" that went something like this: Hunter - I'm shamelessly networking on behalf of Barksdale Theatre, the leading professional theatre in Richmond VA. AEA SPT. I'm the artistic director. I'm trying to strengthen connections and communication with the national talent pool. Thanks.

Truth is, most of these young theatre artists are trying to strengthen their own connections, and so a lot of them accepted me as a friend. Now I know that being a Facebook "friend" isn't the same thing as being a real friend. But in a business where networking and contacts are really important, there's nothing disingenuous about casting a wide net among respected professional colleagues.

For example, when we were casting the role of Trevor in Thoroughly Modern Millie, I turned to my Facebook friends and found Tim Ford. We wound up casting him, he moved to Richmond for the summer, was terrific in the show, and won a Richmond Theatre Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical. Now he's a friend for real.

Anyway, back to Hunter. When he was cast in Night Music, I wrote him a Facebook message of congratulations. When Hannah and I were making plans to see Night Music, I messaged Hunter again and asked if Hannah and I could stop by after the show.

Part of what I'm after is maintaining my family of professional contacts. The other part of what I'm after is scoring dad points. If you're a freshman in college and interested in theatre, it's got to be at least a little cool to have a dad who knows people in the business.

After exchanging a few nice messages with me, Hunter suggested that Hannah and I approach the stage doorman after the show, mention his name, and come backstage to say hi. We did. He couldn't have been nicer. We talked a while about Barksdale and Into the Woods. Then he showed us all around the Night Music set--really crowded by the way, even more so than the notoriously crowded Empire. We stood onstage and looked out into the house. Once we were off the set, I took his picture with Hannah, and then we all headed out into the cold.

Hunter is now an official Friend of Barksdale, and friend of professional theatre in Richmond in general. I encourage all of you to try to catch his performance in A Little Night Music. Not only is he terrific in the show, he's a heck of a nice guy. I can't thank him enough for being so friendly and gracious.

The second friend we met at the stage door of Ragtime is a young man who first began working at Theatre IV when he was around eight years old. He did several shows with us as a child, and now he's on Broadway. We had a GREAT visit. I'll tell you more tomorrow.

Thanks to all of you for your support of Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV. We couldn't do it without YOU.

--Bruce Miller

If They Can Make It There

Posted by Bruce Miller
Hannah and I had the chance to visit with four actor friends--three old and one new--on our recent trip to New York. We caught up with the first two, Zak Resnick and Mark Ludden (below and to the right), at lunchtime on a frigid Saturday morning.

As many of you will remember, Zak recently starred at Barksdale in Into the Woods (Rapunzel's Prince, Second Wolf--above and to the left) and Thoroughly Modern Millie (Jimmy--below and to the left). Mark is a veteran of one of Barksdale's several productions of Joseph/Dreamcoat, which preceded my tenure as artistic director. Both Zak and Mark are doing Richmond proud as they put their amazing talents to good work in the Big Apple.

If you've been keeping an eye on Zak's career, you know he's very quickly becoming someone to watch on the Great White Way. There's definitely no moss growing on this boy.

Just before beginning Millie rehearsals last spring, Zak graduated from the professional theatre program at Carnegie Mellon University. In August, he took his final bows in Millie and moved to New York almost before the applause had stopped. Just a few weeks later, he made his Off Off Broadway debut with the New York Musical Theatre Festival playing a leading role in The Cure, a new vampire musical that generated a significant buzz (see my earlier blog post, Zak Zooms in on Vampire Zeitgeist, Friday, Sept 25, 2009).

Then on October 1, Zak and his amazing tenor made it into the studio to record the new CD from the Broadway Boys, a vocal group comprised of 26 of the most accomplished male voices in New York. He was in illustrious company. Also singing on the Boys CD were Jesse Nager from the Broadway cast of Mary Poppins, Danny Calvert and Landon Beard (Altar Boyz), Telly Leung (Rent), Michael James Scott (Hair), Maurice Murphy (Putnam County Spelling Bee), Daniel Torres (Wicked), Gabe Violett (Spring Awakening), Marty Thomas (Xanadu), and Peter Matthew Smith (Hairspray).

Later in October, Zak made his debut at Joe's Pub, one of the hottest vocal venues in town. He shared his talents with the Public Theater's Music Theater Initiative Songwriters Showcase, singing songs from Dogfight, a new musical by rising composer / lyricist stars Pasek and Paul. Dogfight has just been commissioned by Lincoln Center, and Zak was among those vocalists recruited to showcase the amazing new score in its first public performance.

As a sure sign of his expanding New York profile, Zak was photographed by BroadwayWorld.com in November simply for attending the 6th Annual Broadway Unplugged concert at Town Hall. Bedecked in a golden scarf (see above), Zak stood with one of the evening's star performers, Daniel Reichard (Jersey Boys). Coincidentally, also performing that night at Town Hall was another of Richmond's vocal wunderkinds, Emily Skinner (below and to the left).

This past Monday, Zak joined an All-Star cast at the Canal Room for a one-night-only event celebrating the talents of one of Broadway's most exciting young composers/actors/ vocalists, Jonathan Reid-Gealt. Joining Zak at the mic--or perhaps protocol requires that I say that Zak was joining them--were several of Broadway's most amazing voices, including Jeremy Jordan (currently standing by as Tony in West Side Story--and formerly starring at Firehouse Theatre in Austin's Bridge), Tituss Burgess (recent star of The Little Mermaid and Guys and Dolls), Lauren Kennedy (knocking 'em dead in Vanities and Les Mis--also a former Ashland resident who graciously met with our 2007 Barksdale NYC tour group three years ago when we went to see her in Broadway's Spamalot), plus Quentin Earl Darrington and Bobby Steggert (a personal favorite of mine), both from the cast of the just-closed Ragtime revival.

Zak's career could not hold more promise.

Also making his Mark on American theatre is our other friend, Mr. Ludden. For the last few seasons he has alternated national tours of Les Mis (to the left) and Evita with summer gigs at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse in Auburn, New York. Last year at about this time, Mark was one of the Barksdale alum who graciously agreed to talk with our 2009 NYC tour group during brunch in The Rainbow Room.

Hannah and I caught up with Zak and Mark in their current day jobs as singing waiters at Ellen's Stardust Diner--one of the coolest (and hardest to land) gigs going for up-and-coming Broadway singers. If you've never been to Ellen's, you really should give it a try. The great performances come with the price of lunch--and the singers are phenomenal.

Zak sang a couple songs during our time in the diner, easily outdoing Michael Bublé with his cover of the Leonard Cohen classic I'm Your Man. Mark's power baritone shook Ellen's rafters, providing beautiful counterpoint to Zak's pop tenor.

I suppose all the great theatre singers in New York don't come from Richmond, but what we heard on Saturday was proof positive that at least two of them do.

It was great to catch up with both Zak and Mark last weekend, even if the visits were all too short. All we Richmonders owe them our support as they chart their careers in New York New York. I'll try my best to keep all of you apprised of their successes as they achieve them.

And very soon, I'll write about the other two actor friends who graciously greeted us in the Big Apple.

--Bruce Miller

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

My Favorite Musical

Posted by Bruce Miller
Ask anyone who knows me to name my favorite musical and they will say A Little Night Music. It's held the number one spot, with no serious competition, since that spring night in 1973 when I sat on the first row of the mezzanine, slightly house right of center, swept away by the original production and the original cast.

I was 22 years old. This, I thought, is what Broadway is all about.

The images that were burned into my psyche that evening will last, I hope, my lifetime. Glynis Johns, sitting alone on her white bed in that red dress singing Send in the Clowns absolutely broke my heart. And what followed on stage thereafter not only repaired my lovelorn passions, it all sent me out into the balmy night on a song, feeling wiser and deeper than I had felt when I walked into that theatre expecting only the opportunity to see a show.

I thought the entire cast, the direction and the design were exceptional. Mostly, the script, music and lyrics connected more deeply with my soul than any other musical before or since.

When I heard that Night Music was being revived on Broadway this season with Catherine Zeta-Jones as Desiree and Angela Lansbury as her mother, I really wanted to go. Most particularly, I really wanted to take my daughter Hannah, the other theatre LOVER in my family. (Terrie and Curt put up with my passion for the stage, and faithfully attend play after play, but they have passions of their own that far outweigh theatre.)

This past weekend, Hannah and I spent four days and three nights seeing five Broadway shows, including A Little Night Music. I have no time to write about the trip or the show this morning, but let me say this. We both LOVED the revival.

Watching this very different production, I completely remembered everything that once captured my heart. Best of all, Hannah left the theatre saying this was now her favorite Broadway production. And meaning it. And she's seen a lot.

I look forward to writing more later, about the revival of Night Music, and our other visits to A View from the Bridge, Ragtime, God of Carnage and the new Donald Margulies play, Time Stands Still.

I'll also write about our visits with Barksdale/Theatre IV friends Zak Resnick, Mark Ludden, Hunter Herdlicka (starring as Henrik in A Little Night Music) Corey Bradley (making his Broadway debut in the ensemble of Ragtime, which closed on Sunday), and Lizzie Holland.

--Bruce Miller

Friday, January 8, 2010

$20 Day Trips

Posted by Bruce Miller
On my home computer, I use MSN as my home page (start page?, web portal?). It's what pops up when I connect to the Internet. It's not so much a choice. I think, at first, it was what came with one of my original computers. Now it's what I'm used to.

Every time I sit in front of my screen and connect, right in the middle of the screen are three alternating images, each of which appears for about eight seconds before transforming to the next. Each image is an invitation and entryway to that day's three featured articles or links or whatever one calls the content offered by MSN. Click on the image and you go to the article.

Usually there's a "tough" article about sports, heart attacks or investments, and a "tender" article about fashion, celebrities or America's Ten Happiest Cities, and then a "family" article (usually kid friendly) about vacation spots, teen idols or x-games.

Often one or more of the articles will earn at least my initial click.

This morning I clicked on "10 $20 Day Trips" and the link took me to MSN Local for a slightly creepy article by Rebecca Schoenkopf, who, I was informed in the tag line that appeared at the end of the article, is the author of Commie Girl in the OC from Verso Books.

I won't be rushing out to get a copy.

Commie Girl recommended that I consider the following "Day Trip" ideas:

Go to your local luxury spa, spend $20 for a "day pass," and lie around in a cozy robe in a softly lit room listening to the water features and watching other people go to and from the scrub facials and seaweed shiatsu massages that are apparently available on a pay-as-you-go basis. I'll pass.

I was sort of interested in visiting my state's hot springs (it's been a while since we've driven to Bath County), and taking an "architecture tour" of a nearby historic building (we've never taken the kids to Mt. Vernon, which has to be breaking some sort of Virginia law). But each of those outings will set me back by a lot more than $20.

I'll crawl on my belly over broken glass before taking a "tour of foreclosed homes," spending an afternoon with Chuck E. Cheese, hopping on GRTC and transferring from bus to bus until I've covered the entire city, and/or visiting a variety of going-out-of-business sales.

Probably my favorite among Commie Girl's suggestions were visiting my local zoo (either Maymont or the funky one in Chesterfield), making the rounds of estate sales, and/or taking a train trip to Ashland or Fredericksburg and back, getting off and spending a few hours strolling through these nearby towns.

But again, if I go with Terrie and/or the kids, I gotta believe that the train trip alone will cost a lot more than two Alexander Hamilton's.

Anyway, Commie Girl got me thinking. What can Barksdale and Theatre IV offer to seniors, families, and/or couples who are looking to entertain themselves for a few hours, close to home, for not much money?

We already have our Rostov's Coffee & Conversations programs, and our Barksdale Bifocals monthly meetings. I'll write a full blog post about those two "freebie" series in a day or two.

But are there other cool ideas?

Here are five quick thoughts for Community Connection programs that we could offer cheaply, that may be fun and help us cast a wider net. Each program should be doable for under (in some cases significantly under) $20 per person.

I hope you'll give me more ideas, if you've got 'em.
  1. A scripted, costumed tour of historic Hanover Tavern and the Courthouse community, with multiple "character" guides
  2. The same at the historic Empire Theatre and Jackson Ward, focusing on the fascinating and diverse cultural history of that neighborhood

  3. A guided tour of Barksdale and Theatre IV's costume collection, held in our new costume storage facility, and led by Sue Griffin and her talented staff

  4. Lunchtime matinees of one act plays, professionally produced and performed on Barksdale's lobby stage, followed by a catered lunch at our Tavern tables (two hours total)

  5. A pack-your-own lunch and eat while you listen program (or buy a box lunch at one of the seven fast food eateries with which we share a parking lot) featuring the artists of the current production talking about what they're up to

Each of these outings, I hope, would be a heck of a lot more enticing that taking a tour of foreclosed homes.

Whether you're coming to see a play or one of our ancillary programs, I hope to see you at the theatre!

--Bruce Miller

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Theatre Attracts Largest, Youngest US Audience

Posted by Bruce Miller
Last June, the NEA released sobering data from their 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. Christmas break was the first chance I’ve had to give the survey a thorough examination.

The new data indicates that the trends established over the last quarter century remain in place. Unfortunately, the percentage of U. S. adults connecting with any and all of the living arts continues its gradual but steady decline.

Being a glass half-full kind of guy, I can't help but mention that there is some significant good news for theatre lovers. National attendance may be trending downwards in theatre just as it is in every art form. But when examining the rate of decline in theatre attendance, and the aging of the national theatre audience, it's clear that professional theatre continues to be America's most popular performing arts discipline for audiences both old and young.

2008 Survey results include the following questions and answers.

How do our nation’s cultural activities rank in popularity?

What follows are the percentages of the national population that connected with each of the following cultural pursuits at least once during 2008:

Literature - 50.2%
Parks / Historic Buildings - 24.9%
Arts & Crafts Fairs / Art Festivals - 24.5%
Art Museums / Galleries - 22.7%
Outdoor Performing Arts Festivals - 20.8%
Musical Theatre - 16.7%
Straight Plays - 9.4%
Classical Music - 9.3%
Jazz - 7.8%
Dance (not ballet) - 5.2%
Latin / Spanish Music - 4.9%
Ballet - 2.9%
Opera - 2.1%

How much has cultural participation increased or declined (in terms of percentage of population participating) since the NEA began collecting data about a quarter century ago?

Here are the percentages of growth or decline in popularity of each cultural pursuit, measured over the last 26 years, 1982 – 2008:

Art Museums / Galleries - 2.7% growth
Musical Theatre - 10.2% decline
Literature - 11.8% decline
Jazz - 18.8% decline
Straight Plays - 21.0% decline
Classical Music - 28.5% decline
Opera - 30.0% decline
Ballet - 31.0% decline
Parks / Historic Buildings - 32.7% decline
Arts & Crafts Fairs / Art Festivals - 37.2% decline

(Older data is not available for Latin / Spanish Music, Dance (not ballet), and Outdoor Performing Arts Festivals.)

Which performing arts events are most enjoyed by audience members in each age group?

Among 18 to 24 year olds, 14.5% attended musicals in 2008, 8.2% attended plays, 6.9% attended symphonic concerts, 2.5% attended ballet performances, and 1.2% attended the opera.

Among 25 to 34 year olds, 16% attended musicals, 9.2% attended plays, 7.0% attended the symphony, 2.3% attended the ballet, and 1.7% attended the opera.

Among 35 to 44 year olds, 18.2% attended musicals, 8.9% attended plays, 8.9% attended the symphony, 3.4% attended the ballet, and 2.5% attended the opera.

Among 45 to 54 year olds, 17.4% attended musicals, 8.7% attended plays, 10.2% attended the symphony, 3.2% attended the ballet, and 2.4% attended the opera.

Among 55 to 64 year olds, 19.5% attended musicals, 12.3 % attended plays, 11.6% attended the symphony, 3.1% attended the ballet, and 2.4% attended the opera.

Among 65 to 74 year olds, 18.0% attended musicals, 11.0% attended plays, 12.2% attended the symphony, 4.3% attended the ballet, and 2.9% attended the opera.

Among those 75 or older, 10% attended musicals, 7.4% attended plays, 9.7% attended the symphony, 1.4% attended the ballet, and 1.8% attended the opera.

Those who speculate on the reasons for the continuing decline in arts attendance 1982 - 2008 suggest the following prioritized list:
  1. decline in the national average of hours available for leisure activities;

  2. growth of competing leisure activities such as the Internet, home gaming systems, movies via Netflix and pay-per-view, and bar and restaurant activity;

  3. decline in arts education in elementary, middle, high school and university education; and

  4. declining media coverage of the living arts.

All of us at Barksdale and Theatre IV have been working hard to buck the trends. Last fall I posted a blog entry about our increased attendance during the summer of 2009 (In the Good Old Summertime, Sept 3, 2009). Following the close of The 25th Anniversary Putnam County Spelling Bee on January 17, I’ll report on the attendance patterns established during our fall and holiday seasons.

Till then, I hope you’ll join our nation’s largest and youngest audience by buying a ticket to the THEATRE!

--Bruce Miller

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Winning Smiles at Children's Hospital

Posted by Bruce Miller
One of the great pleasures of the Christmas, Hanukah and Kwanzaa holidays is the opportunity to give the gift of theatre to those who have no chance to enjoy our work under other circumstances.

Throughout the year, Barksdale and Theater IV regularly donate approximately 10% of all our tickets to those who otherwise could not afford to attend. We've been doing this since Theatre IV's founding in 1975.

Most of the free or deeply discounted tickets are distributed through about 40 different nonprofit organizations that regularly work with us on two service initiatives: Barksdale's Bounty at B'dale and Tickets for Kids at Theatre IV.

At Christmastime, we also enjoy taking smaller performances out to children and seniors who can't make it in to one of our theatres to see us perform in our native habitat. One of our annual holiday visits is to the wonderful children at the Children's Hospital on Brook Rd.

On Wednesday, Dec 9, the Richmond Kiwanis Club and nine performers from Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV joined together to bring some holiday fun to about 30 kids, many of whom live in their wheelchairs and hospital beds at the Children's Hospital full time. The annual Holiday Party is made possible by a donation from the Kiwanis Club, all of which is used to buy refreshments and gifts for the hospital's inpatients and day patients.

During this year's party, Kiwanis members helped the children unwrap their gifts, and carolers from Theatre IV's production of A Christmas Carol (Charlie Dacus, Robin Harris-Jones, Billy Christopher Maupin, Mark Persinger and Ali Thibodeau) plus Chase Kniffen, Jennings Whiteway, Snow Bear and I donated time to sing for and with the hospital's patients and staff.

The ultimate event of the party is, of course, a visit from Santa.

"Most of our inpatients will be spending the holiday season at the hospital this year," said Stephanie Allan, Special Events Coordinator at Children's Hospital. "This event allows the children to enjoy the holiday spirit by bringing the festivities to them."

"Our club takes great pride in our long relationship with the Children's Hospital," said Bill McAllister, Co-Chairman of the Children's Hospital Committee of the Kiwanis Club of Richmond. "This will be the 56th year of our sponsorship of the Holiday Party. What a great way to kick off the season."

"Providing access to the theatre arts is part of Theatre IV's mission," said Jennings Whiteway, Donor Stewardship and Events Manager for Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV. "We are grateful for partners like Children's Hospital for giving us the opportunity to share the wonder of live theatre with these kids, lifting their spirits, especially during this time of year. It is a rewarding experience for everyone involved and something we love to be part of each year."

Many thanks to the performers who volunteer their talents each year to service initiatives like this one. If you'd like to participate or assist in future programs, please let me know. I can't think of anything we did this holiday season--and we did a LOT--that put me more in touch with the Christmas spirit.

Until next year's holidays, I look forward to seeing you at the theatre!

--Bruce Miller

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

What's "News" at Hanover Tavern?

Posted by Bruce Miller
All of us at Barksdale Theatre are proud to be lighting the fuse of our 5th Anniversary Season back at Hanover Tavern--our 57th Anniversary Season if you overlook the ten years we were away!

I know this sounds cliché, but how can it be possible that we've completed four full seasons since returning to our ancestral stomping grounds? It seems like only yesterday that Phil and I were sitting with Pete Kilgore, sharing the tremendous pride and joy he felt from knowing that his theatre was returning, finally, to his HOME.

It was with Pete's blessing, and the strong support of the leaders of the Hanover Tavern Foundation, that we decided during our negotiations of 2005 to position Barksdale's work at Hanover Tavern as a Country Playhouse Season--the equivalent of the purposefully commercial Pops Series offered by symphony orchestras nationwide.

There were (and there still are) three good reasons why we chose to pursue this business plan.

1 We believe it would be foolhardy to compete with ourselves. We think each of our two seasons needs to have its own artistic identity and attract its own audience. In our Signature Season at Willow Lawn, we focus on theatre as an art form. In our Country Playhouse Season at Hanover Tavern, we focus on theatre as entertainment.

Of course there is overlap. We work hard to make everything at Willow Lawn entertaining and everything at the Tavern artistic. Our experience tells us there are large numbers of Greater Richmond theatre patrons who actively avoid the likes of Boleros for the Disenchanted, The Clean House, James Joyce's The Dead and Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods, while enthusiastically embracing Barefoot in the Park, Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, Butterflies are Free, and their seventh visit to Nunsense.

And vice versa.

Barksdale is a big tent theatre. We want everyone to feel welcome and at home. We offer two different experiences on our two different stages because we want to appeal to the broadest possible base of theatregoers. One day, if we can find the time and money, and if we believe it will do no harm to our colleague organizations, we may re-institute Theatre Gym as a third season for a third type of audience member.

2 The second major reason to have a Pops Series is to create an entryway for new audiences. With Nunsense, a musical comedy with very broad appeal, we hope to attract and earn the trust of new ticket buyers who may have such a good time that they choose to return to see another Barksdale production with a lesser known title, or perhaps one that challenges their existing sensibilities. Part of our nonprofit mission--part of every nonprofit theatre's mission--is to educate the community about the art form. You can't educate anyone until you first get them in the door.

3 A third reason to want to attract a broad-based rather than a niche audience is to increase the attractiveness of sponsorship opportunities. Sponsorships are part of the life blood of every large professional nonprofit theatre in the nation. When seeking sponsorships, it's all about market share.

No performing arts organization in town--no other theatre including the "Broadway" series at CenterStage--comes close to Barksdale and Theatre IV in terms of market share and audience diversity. If a corporation wants to support the arts and get its good name out there to a large and discerning audience, they won't find better sponsorship opportunities than the ones offered by the boisterous bunch at Barksdale.

We know there are good people out there who question the business assumptions that inform our programming at Hanover Tavern. There are arts aficionados who prefer niche theatres that focus on one type of programming and/or one segment of the audience. There are arts advocates who would prefer that seriously-intentioned theatres not produce commercial work from Nunsense to Neil Simon, that symphony orchestras with aspirations of greatness not dedicate programs to The Hollywood Hits of John Williams, that ballet companies that seek artistic excellence not feel compelled to remount annual productions of The Nutcracker.

I certainly understand and respect their opinions. However, I believe that in markets the size of Richmond, artistic integrity is job number one, and keeping sufficient cash in the coin purse is job number one too.

After the closing of TheatreVirginia, Barksdale assumed the responsibility to develop and sustain the professional infrastructure (staff, freelance artists, facilities, equipment, production stock) that is required to support not only our theatre but also Greater Richmond's professionally-oriented theatre community at large. With such a heavy commitment on the expense side, financial health cannot be taken for granted.

Maintaining market share is vital for a major professional theatre, particularly when national competition enters the community determined to take it by storm. All of us can name five or six or more beloved businesses that once seemed to be invincible Richmond landmarks. Ultimately, these great businesses faced increasing national competition, lost significant market share, and suffered the dire consequences that inevitably followed.

At Barksdale and Theatre IV, we're working our hardest (and smartest) to continue to make our companies invaluable assets to the Greater Richmond community. We appreciate your support. We believe having a major theatre in Central Virginia that can sustain a professional infrastructure is essential, not just for us, but also for every theatre in town and the community in general.

So what exactly are we offering on the 2010 Country Playhouse Season? Five shows that I LOVE! I'm very excited about this year's lineup. You can find it on our website: http://www.barksdalerichmond.org/. Or you can wait a day or two and I'll outline our upcoming Tavern shows here on the Barksdale blog.

Hope you'll consider subscribing to our wonderful Country Playhouse Season at Hanover Tavern and our inviting Signature Season at Willow Lawn. We need and cherish every subscriber we can get.

After all, subscribing is the best way to guarantee that ... I'll see you at the theatre!

--Bruce Miller