Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Nuns, Nazis and Lederhosen

Posted by Bruce Miller
This Friday, May 28, we'll be presenting a FUN and FREE event in the lobby at Barksdale Theatre Willow Lawn. We hope you and your friends will come.

The program is entitled Nuns, Nazis and Lederhosen, and it's part of our community connections series. Sue Griffin, our smart and fascinating Director of Costumes, will take the audience on a tour of our extensive costume collection, and none of you will even have to leave your seat.

Sue and her staff have pulled a selection of costumes related to the time and place of our current hit musical, The Sound of Music. In her inimitable and informative style, Sue will dazzle you as she describes each garment, how and why it was made the way it was, and where each particular costume originated.

She's led similar programs for us in the past, and they're always just as fun as they are fascinating.

Here's the blurb:

Nuns, Nazis and Lederhosen - WWII Era Costumes from the Barksdale / Theatre IV Collection

Director of Costumes Sue Griffin has scoured our costume closet for liturgical, WWII era, and Bavarian gowns and garments from productions past. Once again, her guided tour through fashion history will set the stage for the feel and forms of our great spring and summer musical, The Sound of Music.

That blurb was written a year ago. In our conversation of a few days ago, Sue said that the bulk of what she will be bringing to this costume closet "show and tell" will be men's and women's fashions from the 30s and 40s, from both the U. S. and the Continent. Many of the garments will be authentic originals.

And I'm betting a nun and a Nazi will show up in there somewhere. Maybe even some authentic Austrian lederhosen.

Sue Griffin has been interested in costume design since her childhood. She was born in Norwalk CT during WWII. "When I was in second grade my family took a trip to Williamsburg," she recalls. "I saw those ladies walking around in long skirts and I was fascinated. From that time on, I was interested in historic clothing."

Sue learned how to sew at about that same age and would go to the library and check out books on historical costumes, some of which she still refers to today. Clothing, especially historical clothing, fascinated her. "Part of it was the fact you could sit down at a sewing machine and make those things," she says.

Although she sewed costumes for high school and college theatre productions, Sue wasn't aware that you could do it professionally--at least not at first. She earned a B. A. in Art History from Connecticut College in 1963. After college, while working as a buyer for Miller & Rhoads in Norfolk, she became involved in community theatre, then began working with the now defunct Norfolk Theater Center.

In 1980, she moved to Richmond and a new job as head of costumes for TheatreVirginia. She worked there for 22 years as Costume Director. When TheatreVirginia closed in the final days of 2002, she worked briefly for the Richmond Ballet, and then found her new home at Theatre IV / Barksdale in 2003.

Nuns, Nazis and Lederhosen is free-of-charge and open to everyone. No RSVP or tickets are required. The program will begin at 11 a.m. in the lobby of Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn.

Sue's presentation will be followed by a lunch buffet of sliced turkey, ham, roast beef, cheeses, lettuce, tomato, breads, salads, sweets, coffee, tea and sodas. A free-will offering of $5 for lunch is suggested for those who are able. About half of the people who will attend the program will stay for the lunch fellowship time.

I hope you'll join us this Friday morning. And I hope I'll see you at the theatre later on for a show. Now running: The Sound of Music at the historic Empire, and Crowns at the Gottwald Playhouse at CenterStage for the rest of this week. Thereafter, Crowns will transfer to Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn where it will play throughout the month of June.

--Bruce Miller

Being There for the Birth of a New Play

Posted by Bruce Miller
I first met my buddy David Robbins about a quarter century ago. A theatre major from William & Mary, David had followed his undergrad work with four years at the W & M Law School, followed by a year's work as an environmental attorney in SC.

Sometime around 1982, David gave up his law practice and returned to Richmond to be a freelance writer. If memory serves, he worked mainly for the ad agencies at first. That's when we met. Whatever he was writing, he seemed to be successful at it from the beginning. He's always been one of those smart guys who works hard--compliments I don't award easily. He's always seemed destined for great things.

He spent some time acting. He played a major role in Theatre IV's production of Isn't It Romantic? by Wendy Wasserstein, and he was Dracula at Dogwood Dell. Last night Joe Inscoe said he remembered David as a "sailor on roller skates," and he seemed to be referring to something theatrical rather than a wanton evening on Canal Street.

When Theatre IV purchased the Empire in 1986, David wrote (for free) the copy for the fundraising video we used to help pull together the $2.3 million we needed to purchase and execute Phase I of renovation. The video starred Dee Slominski, Meredith Strange-Boston and Jody Smith Strickler as the three twisted sisters from Macbeth. It was a hoot. More importantly, it worked; we raised the needed funds.

Sometime in the 90s, David began working fulltime as a novelist. His first book, Souls to Keep, is a voodoo mystery of sorts set in the Florida Keys (if memory serves) and has to do with switched personalities. Or maybe I'm getting mixed up. It was published in 1998 with little acclaim, but I bought (and still own) something like four copies cause I like to support my writer buds.

His second book, War of the Rats, was a HUGE success. Overnight it seemed, little ole David Robbins (actually big ole David Robbins--he stands something like 6' 4" tall) became David L. Robbins, the best selling author. War of the Rats focuses on the Russian / German snipers fighting in and around Stalingrad in WWII. It served as the inspiration for Jean-Jacques Annaud's hit film Enemy at the Gates starring Jude Law.

Rats was followed in quick succession by The End of War, Scorched Earth, Last Citadel, Liberation Road, The Assassin's Gallery, The Betrayal Game, and Broken Jewel. He's now hard at work on his next novel, The Devil's Waters. In preparation for that assignment, he's been travelling around the world on cargo ships and conferring with genetic scientists. You can read all about his writerly adventures on his website:

I haven't read all his books--there's a short stack of them in my yet-to-get-to pile--but of the several I've read, Scorched Earth has always been my favorite. It concerns racial tensions in today's rural Virginia. It's a courtroom drama, full of flesh and blood characters, suspense and stirring action.

I was thrilled when David and his attorney, Barksdale Board member Bennett Fidlow, recently asked if I'd be interested in reading a stage version of Scorched Earth that David has just completed.

Last night, a small team of familiar Richmond stage faces--Ronnie Brown, Joe Inscoe, David Janeski, Thomas Nowlin, Jeanie Rule, Janine Serresseque, Jill Bari Steinberg, Ali Thibodeau, Scott Wichmann, Aly Wepplo, Eric Williams, and Irene Ziegler--performed a table read of the new script for David, Bennett, Phil Whiteway, Chase Kniffen and me. It went really well; we all were excited.

Barksdale is always eager to explore new work, and we are strongly considering producing David's new play, Scorched Earth, sometime in the near future.

Many thanks to David and all the actors who gave of their time and talents last night. I think I speak for everyone when I say it was a privilege for each of us to be together in that room.

I'll tell you more about Scorched Earth as things develop. Till then, hope to see you at the theatre!

--Bruce Miller

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Sound of Education

Posted by Bruce Miller
Chase Kniffen (director and choreographer of The Sound of Music [TSOM]), Brian Barker (set designer, TSOM), Janine Serresseque (Barksdale's liaison with Richmond Public Schools [RPS]), and I had the wonderful opportunity of conducting an after-school Educator Training Workshop last week with a dozen or so teachers from RPS. The workshop was organized and facilitated by Susan Damron, theatre resource teacher in the RPS Arts & Humanities Center.

For the last eleven years, Theatre IV and RPS have partnered as Central Virginia's only affiliate of the Kennedy Center's prestigious Performing Arts Centers and Schools program. Through this national arts-in-education initiative, we present workshops that train teachers how to use the arts to enhance instruction across the curriculum at all grade levels. Teachers receive continuing education credits for their participation.

About half of the workshops involve master educators from the Kennedy Center's roster of the nation's best arts-in-education specialists. These days, about half of the workshops are developed here in Richmond by Susan Damron and various artists and educators from Theatre IV.

Earlier this year, we created a workshop entitled Beyond the Wiz. In response to teacher requests, the goal was to enable educators with no expertise in theatre--with the exception of George Wythe, RPS middle and high schools have no drama teachers--to learn where and how to look for plays that feature African American casts and themes but have little name recognition among the general public.

We assembled a panel comprised of Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates from VCU (director, The Grapes of Wrath), April Jones - guest theatre artist at the University of Richmond, Derome Scott Smith - Artistic Director, African American Repertory Theatre (director, Black Nativity), and me. Together we discussed the history of African American theatre in the United States, and explored a large number of plays that have had successful revivals with African American casts even if they were not originally written from an African American perspective.

Each participating teacher left with a new appreciation for the wealth of material out there, an expanded knowledge of where to search for new titles, and an understanding of how to obtain reading copies of less well known scripts.

The subject of last week's workshop was Creating the Team Needed to Produce a Musical. Using The Sound of Music as our case study, I spoke about assembling the lead artists, Chase talked about how the director works with the stage manager and designers to move the process forward, Janine (who works overhire in our costume department) spoke about the various steps followed to create the costumes for a show, and Brian dazzled the crowd with his models and computer work, ably revealing how a designer in 2010 can use technology to more effectively communicate with the rest of the production team.

Throughout the entire workshop, we provided tips on how to create a musical on a budget--a subject near and dear to the educators' hearts and pocketbooks.

This afternoon, I will be accompanying the teachers on a tour of the Holocaust Museum. Again we will use TSOM as our case study, and discuss how to use theatre to enhance instruction across the curriculum by showing how TSOM is being used throughout Greater Richmond's school systems to teach the history of WWII.

This Friday evening, the teachers who have been participating in this workshop series will all come to see The Sound of Music, and take a behind-the-scenes tour after the show.

For decades, education has been at the heart of our work at Theatre IV and Barksdale. As early winners of the Excellence in Arts Instruction Award from the Virginia Dept of Education and the Virginia Commission for the Arts, we're proud to be a valued partner with public and private school systems throughout the Commonwealth.

Hope to see you (and the students in your life) at the theatre!

--Bruce Miller

Monday, May 24, 2010

Regina Taylor, Author of "Crowns"

Posted by Bruce Miller
Our current production of Crowns is co-produced with African American Repertory Theatre, and directed and choreographed by Leslie Owens-Harrington. This entertaining and inspiring musical is written by acclaimed American actress, Regina Taylor.

Taylor is the sixth African American woman playwright whose work has been produced on the Barksdale and Theatre IV stages. Playing the Six Degrees of Separation game, it's interesting to discover the people (and themes) that connect us with this exemplary American theatre artist.

I first encountered and grew to admire Regina Taylor in the early 90s when she starred in the critically acclaimed TV series, I'll Fly Away. My friend (and Barksdale favorite) Joe Inscoe also appeared in that television classic, playing a Southern antagonist to Taylor's character.

Some of you may best know Taylor from her more recent TV series, The Unit. She played Molly Blane, wife of Sergeant Major Jonas Blane. Molly was the strong-willed homemaker who held all the military wives together when their fighting men were called away on active duty.

The Unit was created and executive produced by another great American playwright, David Mamet. Co-starring with Taylor in The Unit was Scott Foley, who played Sergeant First Class Bob Brown. Foley's brother-in-law is acclaimed stage and screen actor Patrick Wilson, whose father, John Wilson, starred in Barksdale's productions of The Fantasticks in 1963 and Generation in 1968.

Taylor was born in Dallas, Texas. When she was in the second grade, she moved with her mother to Muskogee, Oklahoma. Her mother was a Social Service Administration employee and transfers were common.

Having a professional mother provided inspiration to Taylor as she was growing up. "She taught me never to set limits on who I could be," Taylor states in People. "I developed an active imagination very young and was always writing plays and musicals."

Taylor's mother also encouraged a sustaining sense of pride and identity in her daughter. When she entered seventh grade, Taylor enrolled in a newly integrated school. On the first day of session, a white classmate sitting next to Taylor loudly informed the teacher, "I do not want to sit next to this nigger."

Taylor was shaken when she encountered this level of racial hatred for the first time. "I thought, 'How can she hate me when she doesn't know me?,'" Taylor states in People. Later she realized that this early encounter helped her to understand the racial prejudice to which her mother's generation had been subjected. In many ways, this understanding helped to prepare her for her career.

When the founders of Barksdale moved to Hanover from New York, they encountered for the first time the racial hatred exemplified by the Jim Crow Laws, which prohibited mixed-race audiences at any arts event. Facing possible arrest, Muriel McAuley and Pete Kilgore defiantly invited African American leaders from Virginia Union University to attend their plays in 1954, becoming the first arts organization in the state to do so. Not only did they break the law, they broke the back of that particular Jim Crow Law forever.

During her high school years, Taylor and her mother moved back to Dallas. After graduating from high school, she enrolled at Southern Methodist University. While still a student, she was cast in the 1980 TV series Nurse and 1981's made-for-television movie Crisis at Central High, playing Minnijean Brown, one of the nine black students who in 1957 risked everything to proactively effect history when they enrolled in the previously segregated Central High School in Little Rock, AR.

After college graduation, Taylor moved immediately to New York. Her big break came in 1986 when she was cast in an innovative project of the New York Shakespeare Festival - Joseph Papp, Producer. The project was called Shakespeare on Broadway for the Schools. Three Shakespearean masterworks were produced in rotating rep for reduced-price student performances: As You Like It, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet. John Moon, who directed Barksdale's just-closed production of Is He Dead?, was working in the casting department of the Shakespeare Festival at this time. Taylor was cast as Celia in As You Like It, the First Witch in Macbeth, and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, becoming the first actress of color to play this iconic role on Broadway.

In 1989, Taylor received national attention for her role as the drug-addicted mother of a gifted student in the hit film Lean on Me. This led to her TV stardom playing Lilly Harper in I'll Fly Away, winning for Taylor two Emmy nominations, a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Television Drama, and an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series.

Like many acts of great intention, I'll Fly Away was not without controversy. African American film studies scholar Mary Helen Washington argued that the show focused too much on the white characters (the family headed by Sam Waterston) and too little on the character of Lilly, her family and friends. "Isn't it ironic," Washington asked, "that black people, who produced, directed, cast, and starred in the original Civil Rights Movement have become minor players in its dramatic reenactment? Isn't it tragic that after all the protests, all the freedom songs, and all the marches against white domination, black images in media are still largely controlled by whites?"

Similar arguments have been, are currently, and will continue to be leveled against Barksdale whenever we offer to work in partnership with African American Repertory Theatre and/or choose to produce black theatre ourselves. Any nonprofit theatre that follows its heart has to learn to listen to and respect such criticism, while still continuing to do its best to work proactively for the community's good.

During the period when critics like Washington were questioning the focus of I'll Fly Away, Taylor herself said this in an interview with Essence: "In terms of fully exploring a female character, I believe I have the best television role for a woman, black or white."

Caitlin Collins, a Northwestern University student who worked with Taylor during a recent residency, stated the following: "One of the ideas Regina passed onto us, which will stick with me, is the notion that others may try to label you as one thing or another, to name you, but you have the power to name yourself and to follow your own inspiration."

Billy Siegenfeld, professor of dance at Northwestern, added: "Regina Taylor lives a fiercely open-minded creative life, one that constantly questions the received wisdoms about how one should behave as well as the habits of generalization that drive people to categorize each other unjustly."

In recent years, Taylor has also become one of America's most popular playwrights. Crowns was the most performed musical in the nation in 2006. Her most recent work, Magnolia, is set during the beginning of desegregation in Atlanta in 1961. The world premiere was presented at Chicago's Goodman Theatre last year, after a development workshop in 2008 at this year's Tony Award-winning National Playwright's Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, where Phil Whiteway's nephew, Preston Whiteway, serves as Executive Director.

I hope you'll join me soon for our revival of Crowns. We're earning standing ovations at every performance, and the show is thrilling to watch, both as entertainment and inspiration.

--Bruce Miller

Photo Captions (starting at the top): The set and cast of Crowns, playwright and actress Regina Taylor, Shalimar Hickman Fields as Jeanette in Crowns, Margarette Joyner as Mother Shaw in Crowns, Preston Whiteway - Executive Director of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Everything's Coming Up Raindrops on Roses

Posted by Bruce Miller
When I opened Outlook on my computer this morning, and went back a few days to finally read some old emails, I came across this message that Janine Serresseque forwarded to our entire staff on Monday. It made me grin like a little kid with a pony. Make that a cream-colored pony. I decided to cut and paste it here. Some days my job is really fun!

Everything from this point forward is copied from Janine’s forwarded email. I’ve left out children’s names and email addresses just cause that’s what seemed right.

Hi Everybody,
I'm forwarding this love letter to the entire staff. Here is proof that we rock.

-----Original Message-----
From: Ashley Evans []
Sent: Sunday, May 16, 2010 9:14 PM
To: Janine Serresseque
Subject: The Sound of Music

I thought I would start with you, since I have your email address from signing up my daughter, who will be participating in Stage Explorers again this Summer. Please pass this to whomever may be interested in my feedback.

Today, my husband and I took our daughter (10) and son (8) to see The Sound of Music….

Where to start… We were BLOWN AWAY
The play was OUTSTANDING in every way!
From the stage to the costumes to the voices to the story line! WOW

The attention to detail was so impressive….
Down to the looks, the expressions, and the scenes, as well as the quality of the voices of all ages and ranges.

It was such a treat and the kids had just watched the movie again recently “to be ready” and they were right there loving it and “in it” the entire time!

Maria and Mother Superior were so good it made you smile to listen, and you wanted to jump to your feet to applaud each time when they were done.

From a regular theatre lover in the audience, I just had to say something. You guys “nailed it” and you should be very very proud of yourselves.


Ashley Evans

Now this is me, Bruce again. THANK YOU, ASHLEY! I'm passing your kind words on to lots of folks who will be interested in your feedback.

And you "folks" out there, if you have yet to reserve your seats for The Sound of Music, I hope you will do so ASAP. The show really is as good as you're hearing. To break even, we need the support of about ten thousand of you.

With all the attention paid to the "Broadway" series at the Landmark, and all the marketing dollars spent, and all the costs that customers have to pay, it's really worth everyone's while to see how professional Broadway productions that originate right here in Richmond measure up.

Hope to see you at the theatre!

--Bruce Miller

Monday, May 17, 2010

All God's Children Got "Crowns"

Posted by Bruce Miller
In association with the African American Repertory Theatre, Barksdale opened the revival of Crowns yesterday afternoon at the Gottwald Playhouse at CenterStage. Based on that terrific opening (and the enthusiastic audience response that accompanied it), we have every reason to hope for a replay of the critical and popular success we enjoyed when our two theatres first co-produced Crowns at Willow Lawn in 2005.

Yesterday's wonderful opening was all the more satisfying knowing how hard so many people worked to get Crowns back on its feet. Both in 2005 and again in 2010, we hit a few bumps in the road on the rugged path between first rehearsal and first performance.

When Crowns premiered at NYC's Second Stage in 2002, I read the review in the Times and knew I should take a trip north to see it. The show was only a moderate success in the Big Apple, but it had all the hallmarks of being a mega-hit here in Richmond.

Penned by the great African American actress Regina Taylor, the fervent gospel musical is adapted from Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry's book Crowns - Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats. The interviews that comprise the text of the book are the stories that are retold in the show. Most of the interviews were conducted with church women throughout the South. Many of the stories take place in Richmond.

The women of Crowns talk of their experiences buying hats at Thalhimer's and Montaldo's. They relive their university days, participating in sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. Anyone who grew up in Richmond (as I did), and read the book and/or saw the show, immediately recognized the moving (and frequently hilarious) stories of courage and faith.

When I saw the show in New York, it all seemed a little too glitzy and showbizzy to be real. At least that was my opinion. The actresses in New York really knew how to sing, but they sounded more like Broadway divas than Southern gospel singers. Their dances seemed more designed for the stage than the sanctuary. Everything seemed a little too rehearsed and lacking in spontaneity. Most important, the actresses' connection to the moving and outright funny stories often seemed to be at arm's length.

I knew that when we did the show in Richmond, I wanted to recruit a cast made up entirely of Southern church women who would approach the play not only as a performance, but also as a spiritual revisit to their personal and family memories. I wanted the experience to be authentic.
Both in 2005 and again in 2010, we cast one of Virginia's premier gospel singers in the lead. In both years, the singer began with an enthusiastic "yes"--a "yes" that eventually turned out to be a "no" once the rehearsals were underway.

In both years, the incredibly talented actress / singer whom we had cast called me three or four weeks before the opening to tell me that she had changed her mind. "God told me not to do the show." she said. She was very apologetic, very professional (in gospel terms), and very nice. She sincerely believed (and believes) that God spoke to her during prayer and told her to leave the production.

I like to believe that I too have experienced the "still small voice." I'm a Presbyterian, not a Southern Baptist, and we phrase things differently. I come from a theatre tradition and not a gospel tradition. Nonethelesss... . In 2005, and now again in 2010, I in no way impugn her belief or statement.

You want authentic, you get authentic.

Recasting a lead once rehearsals are underway can upset the apple cart a bit. Recasting a lead in 48 hours when you're stranded in Ireland (as Phil and I were) due to a volcano in Iceland can be one of those experiences you won't quickly forget.

Thankfully, Chase Kniffen was in constant contact with Phil and me when we were stuck for seven extra days on the Emerald Isle. Even more thankfully, when Chase called Margarette Joyner, a very talented singer, actor and gospel artist who happened to work in our costume shop, Margarette said "yes!"

During Crowns 2005, our second pick as leading lady was the luminous Almeida Ingram Miller. Her performance was extraordinary. In Crowns 2010, Margarette Joyner is igniting the stage once again. In both instances, I firmly believe, we wound up with the gospel queen we were meant to have.

In addition to losing our lead, Crowns had to overcome a few other challenges. We had to change pianists mid-stream after realizing that our first pianist played a very contemporary sounding gospel, while the show requires a more traditional flavor. Then our new pianist helped to pull things together by agreeing to accept additional responsibilities as our new music director.

Midway through this process, one of our highly professional and spiritual actresses bowed out of the show for a week when she feared that our changing musical leadership would not allow the show to be all that it should be. Only when the new team was firmly in place did we win our beloved actress back. Talk about committed and demanding--the Crown ladies believe in this show so much, they always put quality and authenticity first.

Once again, you want authentic ...

Then we found out the hard way that another cast member was allergic to the sawdust that drifted up from our shop into our rehearsal hall. When it became impossible for her to speak after a late night rehearsal, we knew it was time to move to another space, which we did.

Eventually, everyone joined in on and/or returned to the task at hand. Phil and I finally returned from Ireland and moved the opening back by nine days, giving us the time we needed to accommodate all the ups and downs. Things were going swimmingly until the day before opening. That's when Chase took the wooden furniture out into the alley to spray paint it black. He left it outside for five minutes to dry. When he came back, the furniture had been stolen, wet paint and all.

Of course, all of this mayhem was happening while we were preparing to open The Sound of Music--the largest show in Theatre IV and Barksdale history--on the same weekend.

Like I said, considering all this, we were THRILLED yesterday when the show went beautifully. The actresses pulled all of the love out of their souls and the magic out of their hats. The audience leaped to their feet at curtain call.

Now we can sit back and watch with pleasure as the show gets better and better as it relaxes and tightens up a bit. I don't want to understate the crazy little challenges we still face with flying fur balls and the occasional renegade hat that insists on going this way when the actress goes that. But I thank all our stars for graciously putting up with me as we on the producing end do our best to work out every kink.

The heroines / heroes of the day include our beautiful and inspired cast: De'Shionay Adkins, Desiree Roots Centeio (also serving as vocal director), Shalimar Hickman Fields, Margarette Joyner, Katherine Louis, Rose Watson and J. Ron Fleming. Once again, Leslie Owens Harrington's inspired direction and choreography continue to shine.

Sue Griffin and Audra Honaker (with a lot of help from Ms. O-H) pulled together a closet crammed with vintage church hats and matching dresses. Chase Kniffen and Trevor Riley (our stage manager) kept the show moving forward in an organized manner. The very talented Francine Jackson stepped in at the last minute as Music Director and Pianist. Our greatly appreciated Tony Williams passed on all the secrets he learned during the first Crowns run, serving as Musical Supervisor extraordinaire. David Powers built a set and a central stained glass window that take your breath away. Kenny Mullins painted everything with light to make it all look finished and beautiful.

Sound man Andrew, who joined the team (bless you, Andrew) so late that his name hasn't yet made it into the playbill, only saw two run-throughs before his first audience. Now he's working tirelessly to get all the right mics live for each of the moments when each the individual women need to be heard--a harder job than anyone could imagine until they've tried to do it.

God may have told one actress not to do this show. Thankfully, He gave everyone else a thumbs up. If you've never seen Crowns before, or if you saw it five years ago and enjoyed it so much you're ready to return, then please join us soon for the one show where the Big Guy Himself has chosen to work directly with our casting department.

Hope to see you at the theatre!

--Bruce Miller

Sunday, May 16, 2010

"The Perfect Family Summer Musical"

Posted by Bruce Miller
The extraordinary musical that brings down the curtain on both the Barksdale and Theatre IV Seasons earned its first rave review this morning from Susie Haubenstock. She LOVED it, writing a review almost as glowing as last week's review of Henley Street Theatre's A Doll's House.

Considering that The Sound of Music is America's favorite musical, and that pre-sales in advance of opening have already hit a record high, I strongly urge everyone to get their tickets to 1938 Austria as soon as possible. I'm convinced that the Times-Dispatch review will be only the first of several great notices. No one should miss out on the fun.

Here's what Susie has to say:

"What does it take to revive Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music? Seven adorable children -- check. A Maria who's full of fun and energy and sings like an angel -- check. A Mother Abbess with a thrilling, inspiring voice -- check.

The new Theatre IV/Barksdale Theatre co-production at the Empire Theatre has all that and much, much more. Under the ebullient direction of Chase Kniffen, The Sound of Music is the perfect family summer musical, with much for each generation to love.

Even after a thousand viewings of the movie, it's possible to forget that there are serious political themes here, as well as grown-up relationships. Rodgers and Hammerstein were romantics, of course, but the Howard Lindsay/Russel Crouse book takes on Nazism, patriotism, pragmatism, moral relativism and religious faith -- and the show won the 1960 Tony Award to boot.

No need to recap the moving story of the von Trapp family in Austria; suffice it to say that Kniffen has reinvigorated what might be a saccharine bore and infused it with youthful enthusiasm. Most of the underpinnings are lush, from Brian Barker's opulent set to Sarah Grady's charming costumes to Lynne M. Hartman's beautiful lighting.

The orchestra, under Sandy Dacus' direction, is almost full enough, sounding thin only on the first-act finale, Climb Ev'ry Mountain, and Derek Dumais' sound design is nearly perfect despite its complexity.

The splendid cast is led by the delightful Stacey Cabaj as Maria, who bursts with warmth and joy and sings clear as a chapel bell. Jody Ashworth plays Captain von Trapp with admirable liveliness but a near-total lack of romantic appeal; nevertheless, his voice is stirring, his Edelweiss moving.

Susan Sanford and Michael Hawke are perfectly cast as the worldly Elsa and Max, more wryly lovable than despicable, and Kara Charise Harman provides that fabulous voice for Mother Abbess, as well as her loving manner.

All seven von Trapp children are delightful -- Ali Thibodeau, Eric Pastore, McKelvey Ewing Harrison, Cooper Timberline, Meghan Rose Cordner, Sydney Morgan Hall and Ellie Wilson -- and nowhere is Kniffen's deft touch more evident than in their performances; he elicits great work from young actors. His deceptively simple staging of The Lonely Goatherd is one of the highlights of the show.

All but the youngest kids in the audience were kept entertained by the 2½-hour show. My grandma took me to see The Sound of Music when I was little, and I've always been grateful. Given this lovely production, any grandma -- or mom, or dad, or aunt or big brother -- shouldn't hesitate to do the same."

Susan Haubenstock - The Richmond Times-Dispatch

You can reach our box office at 282-2620. I hope to hear from you soon. And I look forward to seeing you at the theatre.

--Bruce Miller

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Look Back / A Look Ahead

Posted by Bruce Miller
Phil, Donna, Terrie and I celebrated the 35th Anniversary of the founding of Theatre IV last night at the opening of The Sound of Music. It was on May 14, 1975 that the State Corporation Commission officially recognized Theatre IV's birth as a nonprofit business in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The years have flown by. I can think of no more satisfying way to pay tribute to the past than to sit proudly in that audience, enjoying a magnificent production that so significantly heralds Theatre IV's future.

If you don't have your tickets to The Sound of Music yet, you'd better hurry. It's a terrific show--extraordinarily moving and entertaining. If it doesn't become the smash hit of the season, I'll eat my Tyrolean hat.

The Sound of Music is the final show in Barksdale's (and Theatre IV's) 2009-10 Signature Season. Two days ago, subscriptions went on sale for the 2010-11 Barksdale roster. I'm very proud of the titles that are, as the characters in our first play might say, in the offing. Here's a sneak peek at our new season's opener.

Shipwrecked! An Entertainment - by Donald Margulies

Acting treasures Joe Inscoe and Scott Wichmann appear together for the first time (it's hard to believe, but that's what Scotty tells me) in this thrilling, brand new comic adventure, the latest offering from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (and current Tony nominee), Donald Margulies.

Margulies is also the author of Brooklyn Boy and Collected Stories (both produced in the last decade at Barksdale) and Dinner with Friends (a relatively recent offering at the Firehouse).

Margulies created this ingenious frolic in response to the recent spate of discredited memoirs, such as A Million Little Pieces, the allegedly nonfiction bestseller penned by James Frey and selected by Oprah Winfrey for her star-maker book club. Shipwrecked! An Entertainment presents itself as a theatrical defense offered by a discredited memoirist from days gone by (the real-life fantasist Louis De Rougemont), and offers a consideration of the validity of both literal and metaphorical truth.

But I won't make it all sound too serious. This show is a hoot and a half.

The real-life De Rougemont was quite a character. Consider this bio excerpted from Wikipedia (a reliable source for literal truth if ever there was one):

Louis De Rougemont (Nov 12 1847 - June 9 1921) was a would-be explorer who claimed to have had adventures in "Australasia." He was born Henri Louis Grin (love that name) in 1847 in Suchy, Switzerland. He left home at the age of 16, and found employment in a variety of jobs, including a footman for the actress Fanny Kemble, a servant to a Swiss banker, and a butler for the Governor of Western Australia. He worked as a doctor, a "spirit photographer," and an inventor. He married and abandoned an Australian wife.

In 1898, Grin began to write about invented adventures in the British periodical The Wide World Magazine, writing under the name Louis De Rougemont. He described his alleged exploits in search of pearls and gold in New Guinea, and claimed to have spent 30 years with "Indigenous Australians" in the outback. He claimed that the tribe with whom he had lived had worshipped him as a god.

Various readers expressed disbelief in his tales from the start, claiming, for example, that no one can actually ride a sea turtle. De Rougemont had also claimed to have seen flying wombats. The fact that he refused to place his travels on the map aroused suspicion. Readers' arguments in the pages of the London newspaper, The Daily Chronicle, continued for months.

De Rougemont subjected himself to examination by the Royal Geographical Society. He claimed that he could not specify exactly where he had been because he had signed a non-disclosure agreement with a syndicate that wanted to exploit the gold he had found in the area. He also refused to talk about Aboriginal languages he had supposedly learned. Still, his supporters continued to find precedents to his exploits, fervently wanting to believe that his adventures were real.

In 1898, The Daily Chronicle announced that a businessman named F. W. Solomon had recognized De Rougemont and identified him as Louis Grin. Australian journalist Edwin Greenslade Murphy also helped to expose him, claiming that his memoirs consisted mainly of collected tidbits gathered during visits to the Reading Room of the British Library.

Grin defended himself by writing a letter to The Daily Chronicle, using his original name, and expressing consternation that anybody would confuse him with Louis De Rougemont. The Daily Chronicle was very willing to publish the letter. The Wide World Magazine exploited the situation by preparing a Christmas double issue of De Rougemont's adventures. Sales of both papers soared. De Rougemont himself disappeared from the public view.

In 1899, Grin travelled to South Africa as a music-hall attraction: "The Greatest Liar on Earth." On a similar 1901 tour of Australia, he was booed from the stage. In 1906, he appeared at the London Hippodrome and successfully demonstrated his turtle-riding skills. During World War I, he reappeared as an inventor of a useless meat substitute. He died penniless in London in 1921.

Joe Inscoe will play De Rougemont. Scotty Wichmann and an actress yet to be cast will appear as all the other characters in Grin's life and imagination. If you want to catch Inscoe riding a sea turtle (with Wichmann at shotgun?), don't miss Shipwrecked! An Entertainment.

I hope you'll subscribe today, and encourage your friends to join you. All of Richmond's professional theatres need your support.

--Bruce Miller

Friday, May 14, 2010

Announcing Barksdale's 2010-11 Signature Season

Posted by Bruce Miller
"Brilliant" - defined by as "Full of light. Shining." Exactly how I feel about the five plus one shows in Barksdale's 2010-11 Signature Season.

Somewhere near the top of the list of my most important responsibilities is selecting which plays we will produce. Play selection is not something I do alone or in a vacuum. Suggestions come from virtually everywhere (Board members, subscribers, single ticket buyers, teachers, theatre artists of all stripes, contributors). I honestly appreciate and benefit from all the ideas you throw my way.

Direct input into the process comes from Phil Whiteway (of course, he's the one who has to pay the bills), Chase Kniffen (he will assist me in selecting the artistic teams that will bring each title to life), Sara Marsden (she'll sell the tickets), Judi Crenshaw (she has to articulate the strengths of each title to the media outlets and the general public), plus Joy Ross Davis (group sales), Sue Griffin (costumes), Bruce Rennie (tech director), and several others.

At the end of the day, the buck stops with me. If you hate (or love) a play produced by Barksdale, I'm the guy to blame (or congratulate).

From the millions of titles that exist (surely the world must have given birth to at least several million comedies, dramas and musicals by now), there are perhaps a couple hundred titles that make it on to one or another of the lists that always float around the Barksdale offices. From this wealth of great work, five or six titles ultimately emerge. The criteria against which each title is assessed are:

* is it a "great" play (Barksdale's mission is to produce "the great comedies, dramas and musicals--past, present and future")

* do we have the capacity, based on existing resources, to produce a first class production (our mission charges us to create "national caliber productions")

* will our production be fresh, unique and alive

* will it captivate the audience

* does it have the potential to expand our subscription base (lots of lengthy and very personal discussion here; remember, the productions that have passed this test include everything from Guys and Dolls to Intimate Apparel to Boleros for the Disenchanted to The Little Dog Laughed to Cyrano de Bergerac to Melissa Arctic to Is He Dead?)

* does it add to the diversity and breadth of our work and offer new opportunities to our artists and audiences (we try very hard not to produce on our Willow Lawn season the same type of play over and over again)

* is there or will there be a considerable font of energy created around this title among our artistic leadership and family

* is there a unique "hook" that will allow us to extend this energy to single ticket buyers, group sales leaders, and playgoers / playmakers at large

* does the season feel good as a whole--is the total greater than the sum of its parts

* would the season make our founders (Pete, Muriel and Nancy) proud; will it engender pride among our Board of Trustees and staff

This year there was a special emphasis on a final criteria.

* Will it make money?

With the continuing sluggishness in the economy, the significant declines in governmental and corporate support, and the increasing competition coming from CenterStage and the "Broadway" season, there is no margin for financial error. I know that admission is not very high-minded. I'm just being honest.

Five titles (with a sixth subscriber option) have run this gauntlet and emerged with colors flying. I'm very excited to announce Barksdale Theatre's 57th Signature Season!

Shipwrecked! An Entertainment - by Donald Margulies
White Christmas - Music & Lyrics by Irving Berlin, Book by David Ives & Paul Blake
Legacy of Light - by Karen Zacarias
Contemporary Broadway comedy - title TBA
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels - Music & Lyrics by David Yazbek, Book by Jeffrey Lane
The Bluest Eye - by Lydia Diamond, based on the novel by Toni Morrison

More to come tomorrow about each of these wonderful shows. I hope you'll subscribe!


Tuesday, May 4, 2010


Posted by Billy Christopher Maupin
That's just one of the many kudos for Barksdale Theatre at Hanover Tavern's Butterflies Are Free by Leonard Gershe. And it runs for only two more weeks! Here is a sample of quotes from the five stellar reviews:

STYLE Weekly's Mary Burruss writes:
"clever script, stellar performances"

"audience laughter is constant"

"Bloch and Martin have a sparkling chemistry that’s fun to watch. Martin brings charm and believability to the ditzy yet sweet Jill."

"Mrs. Baker’s strong, if misdirected, maternal devotion is deftly captured by Johnson, whose Eartha Kitt-like voice lends appropriate strength to the role."

HERALD-PROGRESS' Dan Sherrier writes
"the perfect blend of comedy and drama"

"absolutely hilarious"

"talented cast and great direction"

"[Martin] brings the show to life"

"[Conyers] arrives late in the game but still manages to contribute some good laughs."

"Script? Excellent. Actors? Excellent. Direction? Excellent. Set, lighting and costumes? All excellent."

"The reliably solid Barksdale is at its best in Butterflies are Free."

Julinda Lewis, freelance correspondant for the Richmond Times-Dispatch:
"wonderfully detailed set"

"[Bloch] proves irresistible"

"Johnson is strong, subtle, commanding and hilarious, all at once."

"Butterflies are Free is smart, funny and immensely enjoyable."

WCVE's John Porter says:
"Butterflies Are Free is a good, solid, funny show."

Kristin Jimison from RVANews:
"the strength of the small cast shines under the taut direction of Billy Christopher Maupin"

"Butterflies is a delightful, refreshing comedy with just enough drama to tug at your heartstrings. Smartly executed and full of absolutely charming performances, it’s a perfect way to spend a spring evening."

Don't miss out on your chance to catch this smart, fresh, warm comedy!

[Photos by Jay Paul]