Sunday, June 19, 2011

"Whaddaya Mean? We Only Get to See 5 Minutes of It?"

Posted by Bruce Miller
Many years ago, my dear friend Cynthia Theakston, working in group sales at Theatre IV at the time, came up to me after I'd made some stupid mistake or other and asked, gently, "Now Bruce, what have you learned from this?"

I hear Cynthia's voice every now and then to this day.

There are two things I've learned from my recent decision to add previews to the beginning of the run of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels:

1. Follow my instincts. It was the right thing to do. The cast and crew felt significantly safer and cared for. And the preview performances are going off without a hitch.

2. Define the word "preview" next time. Richmond theatregoers at large don't know what it means.

I'll estimate that two-thirds of the three hundred or so callers who've contacted us at the box office misunderstood what we meant by a "preview" performance. In hind sight, I should have known this. At least in Richmond, "preview" is an insider word.

You know those five-minute promotional teasers you see during the first-half hour of your 21st Century movie-going experience? Many people today call them "trailers," which is their proper name. People of my generation, however, spent decades calling them "previews." If I'm not thinking, I'd probably still call them "previews" if and when I ever had the opportunity to talk about them.

When we announced in the paper that we were re-designating the early performances of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels as "previews," a LOT of ticket holders thought we were going to be showing them a 15 or 20 minute "trailer" of the show, rather than the entire production.

Now we know. We should have defined the word "preview" in the press release we sent to the paper.

A "preview," in theatrical lingo, is a FULL, 99% finished performance of the show being presented, not a snippet. Most folks attending these Dirty Rotten previews tell us that they can't see anything that needs fine-tuning.

Wikipedia defines a theatrical "preview" as follows: "Previews are a set of public performances of a theatrical presentation that precede its official opening. The purpose of previews is to allow the director and crew to identify problems and opportunities for improvement that weren't found during rehearsals and to make adjustments before critics are invited to attend. The duration of the preview period varies, and ticket prices may be reduced."

We've long discussed having previews before all Barksdale productions. What do you think? Should we incorporate "previews" into the schedule of every show we do, and sell them as a subscription option in our brochures?

--Bruce Miller

Saturday, June 18, 2011


Posted by Bruce Miller
A fabulous time was had last night at the first preview of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. The show's not quite all that it's going to be yet, but it's highly entertaining, on the road to dazzling, and pretty damned impressive, I think, for a homegrown production in a community the size of ours.

Did I make the right decision to delay Opening by a week and convert this weekend's existing performances into Half-Price Previews? Others will make that decision, not me.

Last night was the first time we were able to run through the show without stopping. The set changes are complicated, to say the least. Night before last, our world-class stage manager, Ginnie Willard, wisely stopped the show five times. Safety is her number one concern, and God bless her for that.

On Wednesday night, when I made the decision to delay Opening immediately following Act One, Ginnie stopped the show maybe ten times.

Here's my bottom line. I will never ask a cast and crew to jump to full performance level in a show this complex before they've had the chance to run through it several times without stopping. Call me crazy, but please don't call me reckless.

I greatly appreciate all the kind comments from audience members last night who loved the show and couldn't see any reason why I changed the first week to previews. I too thought the show went really well. I couldn't be more proud of our directors, stage managers, cast, orchestra and crew. I also think the entire team was more able to do their best work because they knew the pressure was off.

Everyone, including last night's audience, knew that Ginnie was fully empowered to stop at any moment if she felt anything less than fully in control. That knowledge, I believe, leant a lot of freedom to the proceedings. The cast was able to relax and have fun--because they knew they were safe.

Which leads me to my other bottom line. I'm not going to ask any audience to pay full price for a performance when there's a likelihood that the stage manager will have to stop the show. By next Friday, that likelihood will be reduced to close to zero. At that point, let the full price performances commence!

So how did we get in this situation? We're a live theatre. We're ambitious. We make art. These things happen.

I'm not going to place blame on anyone, but for those who want to place blame, I'm happy to offer this opinion. When a show isn't ready on time, nine times out of ten it's because of deficiencies in planning and budget. Both of those key components are controlled by the producers. At Barksdale, that's me and Phil Whiteway--please excuse my bad grammar.

I'm happy this morning. And proud. And excitedly looking forward to a fun and prosperous summer. I'm glad that Barksdale continues to be ambitious, to bite off more than we reasonably can be expected to chew. I'm crazy about our audience, 95% of whom are supportive and caring, fun-loving and adventurous. I'm grateful to be working in a theatre community like ours, where the vast majority of theatre artists actively route for each other's success.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is off to a promising start. The critics will weigh in next Friday and I can't wait. Let the good times roll!

--Bruce Miller

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Half-Price Previews Added to "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels"

Posted by Bruce Miller
At last night’s rehearsal for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, I made the decision to delay the Opening of our summer musical by one week. Dirty Rotten will now open on Friday, June 24. The performances scheduled for Fri June 17, Sat June 18, Sun June 19, Wed June 22, and Thurs June 23 all will take place as originally planned, but they are being converted to Half-Price Previews.

As much as we would prefer not to change plans mid-stream, about once every three or four years it becomes advisable to do just that. Delaying the Opening of a show that isn’t quite ready is a national, responsible practice. The last time it happened to us was a few years back with our revival of The Wizard of Oz. The last time a delayed Opening at another theatre affected me personally was earlier this season when, on the day I was scheduled to drive to D. C. to see the first performance of Oklahoma at Arena Stage, I received a call from the box office (I’m an Arena subscriber) advising me that Oklahoma wasn’t ready to open and therefore that evening’s performance had been cancelled.

What does it mean when we say a show isn’t ready? Theatre is a collaboration, and when a production goes smoothly, all partners in that collaboration are able to work effectively, quickly and in sync with each other. Sometimes, especially with complex shows like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the creative partners need an extra few days to get in sync. Maybe the costumes, lights and sound are ready, but the set and props haven’t quite caught up. We’re making art here, not widgets.

Whenever production elements approach completion at slightly different times, it causes actors and/or musicians to lose focus. Last night, I could tell that our terrific cast was unable to concentrate fully on their performances because they were still somewhat unsure as to what exactly was going on behind or beside them. There are two turntables in the show, countless flies, giant panels that move on from stage left and right, several hundred costumes, a free moving giant staircase completely dependent on working hydraulic casters, and a singing/dancing/running cast and crew of close to thirty.

As of today, these talented, hard working theatre pros still have not had a single run through of either act during which the stage manager hasn’t had to stop the proceedings cold. Last night, when one of the hydraulic casters on the giant staircase blew out with a loud pop and hiss in the middle of a set change, I knew it was time for me to step in and give this terrific cast and crew just a little more time.

I can’t ask or expect talented actors to place all their focus on their performances when, for safety’s sake, they still have to direct some of their focus on the two ton unit that is barreling toward them from off stage left.

The show will go on tomorrow night, and I’m confident that audience members who choose to attend the Half-Price Previews will have a great time. But I’ll feel a lot better knowing that the pressure has been lessened, and all involved will now have the chance to participate in several successful run throughs before knocking it out of the park on Opening Night.

If you are holding tickets for one of these Half-Price Previews, and would like to exchange for a later performance, please call our box office at 282-2620. Of if you decide to come and be part of the exciting process, be ready just in case the stage manager has to holler “Stop!” Also, please know that we are endlessly grateful for your understanding and support. Best of all, if you paid full price, a $25 voucher is on its way covering more than half of your original purchase price.

Special thanks to all the talented artists involved with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels for continuing to be just as dirty, rotten and scoundrel-ous as any producer could want. When you Break a Leg on Opening, I pray it will be metaphorical.

--Bruce Miller

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Anything Goes at the Tony Awards

Posted by Bruce Miller
Part of what makes watching the Tony Awards so much fun is when you know someone involved with a nominated show. The theatre community is relatively small. If you stick around in the business long enough, you wind up knowing a lot of people who work on Broadway. When it comes to Anything Goes, Sunday night’s Tony winner for Best Revival of a Musical, there are at least two representatives of the Richmond theatre community working in the production.

Michelle Lookadoo joined the company of Anything Goes last night, and she was there on Sunday to experience the thrill of victory with the rest of her cast. Michelle is in the ensemble and covers the leading role of Hope Harcourt, the beautiful socialite who wins the heart of Billy Crocker, the dapper hero of the show.

Michelle began her musical theatre career in Barksdale’s 1999 production of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. She moved to New York immediately thereafter, and her career has been going great guns ever since. She was in the Broadway casts of Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and then Mary Poppins. While in Mermaid, she was the stand-in for the leading role of Ariel and played the role during several performances. Michelle returned to Barksdale this past season to star as Judy Haynes in Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.

On Sunday night, she celebrated the Tony win with the company of Anything Goes, including Tony-winning director and choreographer, Kathleen Marshall. (See the two of them together in the photo above.)

Also working on Anything Goes is Monica Costea (her self-portrait photo is posted to the right). Monica worked for Theatre IV, TheatreVirginia and King's Dominion in the 1980s and 90s. Like Michelle and a large number of Broadway professionals, Monica tends to flow from show to show. She is a hair stylist. She joined Anything Goes this winter, leaving the hair styling department at Billy Elliott, where she had been working since that show opened in 2008.

When Phil and I led our group of theatre patrons to New York last March, both Michelle and Monica came to speak to our hearty troop of Richmond theatergoers about their extensive experiences on the Great White Way.

We wish the two of them, and everyone in the company of Anything Goes, years of success.

--Bruce Miller

Friday, June 10, 2011

Oliver Hill - One of America's Greatest Civil Rights Heroes

Posted by Bruce Miller
One of the several things I love about my job is the variety. The late, great Oliver Hill, one of Virginia’s most renowned civil rights heroes, will be added to Virginia’s Standards of Learning next school year, and Theatre IV is creating a new play to help teachers introduce Mr. Hill to their upper elementary and middle school students.

I began my research this week. The 55-minute, touring instructional program will open with a gala performance in the historic Empire Theatre in January 2012. Along with My Fair Lady, the as-yet-unnamed Oliver Hill project will be a cornerstone of the Empire’s Centennial Celebration. The Empire first opened its doors on Christmas Day, 1911.

Oliver Hill was born in Richmond 4 ½ years earlier, on May 1, 1907. As a child, he moved with his family to Roanoke, and later Washington, D. C., where he graduated from Dunbar High School. He earned his undergraduate degree from Howard University and entered the School of Law there in 1930, studying under Charles Hamilton Houston, the chief architect of national efforts to challenge Jim Crow laws through the legal system. In law school, Hill was a classmate and friend of future Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall. Hill graduated second in the Class of 1933; Marshall was first.

After serving in WWII, Hill set up his law office in Richmond, and from here he worked on several important cases of the civil rights movement. He helped to win equal pay for African American teachers, access to school buses for black students, voting rights, inclusion of blacks on juries, and employment protection against racial discrimination. His work on behalf of the students of Moton High School in Farmville became part of the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education that helped to end the national policy of "separate but equal."

Oliver Hill retired in 1998 after 60 years of exemplary work. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton in 1999. He died at age 100 in Richmond on August 5, 2007.

I'm extremely honored to have the opportunity to write this play, and to interview so many great civil rights heroes who worked along side Oliver Hill, including Hill's longtime law partner, Sen. Henry Marsh, pictured above. I'm proud that Theatre IV continues to be the nation's leading producer of theatrically based, African American history programs for schools. We regularly tour these instructional programs to every school district in Virginia, and throughout 32 neighboring states.

--Bruce Miller

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Which Man is the Right Man for the Job--Lots to Consider

Posted by Bruce Miller
It’s been an interesting few days to be Scott Wichmann’s employer. As those of you who read this blog are aware, there are a few folks out there who question the manner in and level at which we employ Scotty. Today, Phil and I and Barksdale / Theatre IV were recognized as "Patriotic Employers" by Commanding Officer Michael S. Mullen, CDR, USN for … our employment of Petty Officer Scott Wichmann.

In a very pleasant breakfast ceremony, we were presented with Letters of Commendation thanking our two nonprofit theatres for contributing “to national security and protecting liberty and freedom by supporting employee participation in America’s National Guard and Reserve Force.”

Like so many issues that all business leaders face, there are multiple sides to every story, and differing perspectives that must be factored in to any decision.

There are at least 90 theatre artists and administrators who live and work in Richmond based on the fact that they have full time or full time equivalent employment with Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV. Many of them are touring actors. Many of them are staff members. Some of them are independent artists who work with us on a close to consistent basis.

Scott falls into that final group, and we consider ourselves (and Richmond) very lucky to have him. We are privileged to employ Scott as an actor, director and playwright. In addition to his work at Barksdale and Theatre IV, Scott works a few hours each week at Game Stop, located next door to Barksdale Willow Lawn. He also works in logistics for the U. S. Naval Reserves.

With every assignment we offer Scott, we know that we must work around his commitment to the U. S. Navy. It’s usually no big deal. But on occasion, we have to make special arrangements, like when the wonderful Charles Wissenger replaced Scotty during the final week (plus a couple days) of Shipwrecked, the first play in Barksdale’s 2010-11 Signature Season.

I know that everyone who knows Scott loves him personally. I suspect that everyone acknowledges that he is a tremendous asset to our theatre community. I know that those people who think I offer Scott too much employment have issues with my casting judgment and fairness, not Scott’s talent. I know there are lots of people who expect Barksdale and Theatre IV to do even more to keep talented theatre artists in Richmond, to offer more employment weeks to Central Virginia’s finest, and to pay higher salary and benefit packages.

We do what we can. We work to find the balances that most benefit our companies, the artistic quality of our work, our employees, and our significant responsibilities to the theatre community at large.

I have to admit, today, it was nice to hear from someone of standing that our employment practices are exemplary. Sometimes, in the back and forth of blogdom, it seems like there’s no way to satisfy all the diverse opinions and differing perspectives. This conversation is good, because it helps us see how things look through the eyes of others. It provides us with the opportunity to explain our own perspectives, as limited as they may be. The goal, one day, is for the vast majority of us in Richmond who care about theatre to embrace, or at least accept, a major professional theatre that will be built on the foundations of, but also surpass, every professional, nonprofit theatre that preceded it. Honest communication will be necessary if we even have a chance of fulfilling that goal.

We ask for, and appreciate, any help you can give us as we move forward. Everyone is welcome.

--Bruce Miller

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Empire is Alive with the Sound of NEW Speakers

Posted by Bruce Miller
Owning the historic Empire Theatre, which will celebrate its Centennial (100th Birthday) this coming Christmas Day, is a privilege and a blessing--an expensive privilege and blessing. We've been raising funds quietly over the last several years to make home improvements to the only performance facility we own outright. Both Willow Lawn and Hanover Tavern are rented spaces--but even there, we pay for all the light and sound equipment.

In April of 2008 we replaced our old analog sound board with a new 40-channel, digital Yamaha LS9-32, and immediately heard our sound quality improve. Cost - $9,000.

In March of 2009 we replaced a dozen 15-year-old house mics and six tour mics (all wireless) due to the national DTV transition that rendered all our old frequencies useless. Our new mics are Sennheiser Evolution 100s, with a price tag of $18 K.

In June of 2009 we spent an additional $9 K (K means thousand for those who don't recognize the abbreviation) to replace an additional 18 tour wireless mics with new Sennheiser Evolution 300s.

In October of 2009 we replaced two handheld mics (originally purchased for a long ago production of Beehive) with Sennheiser Evolution 300s - another $1,400.

In the spring of 2010, we purchased a new Meyer MM-4 Frontfill Speaker System Amplifier, Processor for right around $2,200.

And yesterday we installed and tweaked a new Nexo Geo S8 Tangeant Line Array as our central cluster, including nine boxes, an amp and a processor. Total cost for this week's purchase--$22,000. The new speakers add stunning clarity and cover all our seating areas, including our hard-to-reach Governor's Box (available on command for all of Virginia Governors and Lieutenant Governors, current or past) and our Congressional Box (available on command for our Virginia and U. S. legislators).

We think you'll notice and appreciate the difference when you join us for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels this summer! The magnificent Empire truly benefits from being Central Virginia's only theatre built for the human voice before the age of sound amplification. Nonetheless, the new speakers help to make every word and note crystal clear.

In addition, we recently spent $22 thousand on lighting upgrades, with another $100 thousand needed and coming soon. More about that later.

All of this equipment, with the exception of the Meyer speakers, was purchased locally (Backstage Inc.), and all installation was performed by local professional labor (mostly our resident staff), significantly benefiting the Greater Richmond economy.

Special thanks to our old pal, Fred Brumbach, formerly of Backstage Inc., currently of On Stage Gear, for his invaluable consultation. And, of course, extra special thanks to our irreplaceable Tech Director, Bruce Rennie, and our exemplary Sound Manager, Derek Dumais, for working together to make all of this happen.

--Bruce Miller

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Putting a Face on the Future

Posted by Bruce Miller
The goal of the powers-that-be at Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV is to create a major regional theatre here in Central Virginia.

By “powers-that-be” I mean myself and Phil Whiteway, the Board of Trustees of Barksdale and the Board of Directors of Theatre IV, and our staff leadership. By “major” I mean a theatre that obtains national standing through reputable play selection, artistically excellent productions, the staging of world premieres, the transfer of successful productions to Off Broadway or other regional venues, a nurturing environment for the best of local professional theatre artists, and a welcoming environment for national talent.

A theatre as described above would have a major performance home that was itself an attraction. The annual operating budget would be six to seven million. In keeping with the nationally established model, about 40% of total revenue would come from contributions, and about 60% would come from earned revenue.

We know through strategic planning that the majority of our stakeholders, including audience members, contributors, volunteers, independent artists, and competing nonprofit theatres support this goal. The prevailing wisdom is that a major professional theatre benefits the entire community and theatre community-at-large by:
• presenting national caliber productions of important works,
• putting Richmond on the national map as a theatre city,
• providing gainful employment and benefits that allow and encourage outstanding theatre artists to come to or remain in Central Virginia,
• contributing significantly to the local economy,
• offering internship, volunteer and workshop opportunities that add to Virginia’s theatre education programs at the high school and college level,
• touring instructional programs to a broad cross section of Virginia’s elementary and middle schools,
• touring fellowship and entertainment programs to Central Virginia’s senior centers and retirement facilities, and
• sharing resources such as facilities, set and costume stock, and expertise, when possible, with smaller professional theatres in Greater Richmond.

This goal was not created or claimed by Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV. It was assigned to us by the Central Virginia Professional Theatre Task Force, which met regularly for two plus years beginning in 2003. The 17-member, independent Task Force was facilitated by Stephen Richard, Executive Director of Arena Stage. Members of the Task Force were recruited from Greater Richmond’s most respected theatre artists, educators, funders, ticket buyers, and civic and business leaders. The Task Force was assembled and funded with support from the Community Foundation and Virginia Performing Arts Foundation, precursor of CenterStage. The Task Force was formed following the collapse of TheatreVirginia, and assigned the responsibility of determining how Central Virginia should proceed in filling the gap left by TheatreVirginia’s dissolution.

After an extensive, independent, professional market study conducted by Shugoll Research out of Washington, D. C., the Task Force determined that the best way to advance professional theatre in Central Virginia was to build a major professional theatre of national standing on the foundations already established by Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV. These findings were turned over to the Boards of our two theatres, and accepted unanimously early in 2006.

The remainder of 2006 and all of 2007 were spent in extensive, comprehensive strategic planning. We hired Langford & Associates to conduct an independent development study in 2008. We contracted with Kelly O’Keefe and the VCU Brand Center to conduct an independent branding study in 2009. The results of the branding study were accepted in 2010. Silent development efforts have been underway ever since.

As I stated at the outset, our goal is to create a major regional theatre here in Central Virginia. That is our goal. We’re not there yet. We will never be able to achieve this goal alone. We hope to earn broad-based community support as we move forward into the future. We invite you to join us.

Not everyone agrees with the goal. Every once in a while we hear from someone who would like for Barksdale Theatre to remain small, behaving more like a community theatre than a major professional theatre. We listen to and respect all this input. We know that when changes are underway, the opinions of all stakeholders matter. We seek, value and appreciate your opinions. They will help us as we continue the hard work that lies ahead.

--Bruce Miller

Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Quick Read on "The Book of Mormon"

Posted by Bruce Miller
On our recent theatre trip to NYC, my daughter Hannah and I saw The Book of Mormon. Almost locked-in to win the Tony Award for Best Musical, Mormon is the hottest ticket on Broadway. So it's the one show we bought in advance, paying $352 (before box office service charges) for two seats in the rear mezz. Yikes!

I read a rave review on Facebook from one of the Richmond theatre artists I most respect. His glowing assessment echoed the sentiments of virtually every mover and shaper in American theatre. Mormon has already won Best Musical nods from the New York Drama Critics' Circle, the Drama Desk Awards, the Outer Critics Circle Awards, and the Drama League Awards.

Ben Brantley in the New York Times called it "the best musical of this century." Peter Marks gushes in the Washington Post: "Matt and Trey: where have they been all my life? The Book of Mormon deserves worship." The critic in Vogue proclaims it "the best new American musical of the last 25 years." And Entertainment Weekly describes it as "a perfect Broadway musical," adding, "This is what 21st Century Broadway can be."

The youthful, packed house on the Sunday evening performance we attended went WILD--the most enthusiastic audience response I've witnessed on Broadway since the euphoric reaction that followed Jennifer Holliday singing And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going in the pre-Tony Award months of the original run of Dreamgirls in 1982.

So what did we think of The Book of Mormon? I liked it more than Hannah did. There were elements I liked a lot. If the rest of the world weren't getting all orgasmic, I'd be talking about how fun it was. But the best musical of the century or the last 25 years? Better than Into the Woods, The Lion King, Rent, Wicked, Spring Awakening, and Light in the Piazza? I have to admit that I just don't get it.

I'm sure part of it is that I'm 60 years old. I've never watched South Park, also written by two of the creators of Mormon, even for five seconds. When I watched that South Park "Hamlet" take-off that James Ricks posted on Facebook a week or so ago, I found it confusing and annoying and not funny in the least. I'm 60 years old, which I know is no excuse, but it seems to me like maybe it's germane.

My taste in musicals was forged during the era of Stephen Sondheim. My favorite musical of all time is A Little Night Music. My favorite musicals of this century are Wicked, Spring Awakening, and Light in the Piazza. I NEVER thought I'd say this about Sondheim (Night Music), but I fear and suspect that my beloved musicals of days gone by now seem terribly old school to young, savvy theatregoers who find Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon to be what American musical theatre needs today.

To me, The Book of Mormon was a lot of fun, clever and energetic, full of sound and fury signifying ... not a heck of a lot. To me, it was mostly derivative. Like Spamalot and Avenue Q, it revels in its irreverence. Like Drowsy Chaperone, it celebrates unapologetic musical comedy technique. Like Urinetown, it finds much of its humor from referencing other musical theatre hits. Like The Producers, it rejoices in an old fashioned bring-on-the-dancing-girls (in this case boys) sensibility that is almost quaint. Like In the Heights, it wraps everything up at the end with a tidy sentimental bow.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Unlike the great works of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Kander and Ebb, it breaks no new ground with its production, libretto or score. It challenges nothing (seriously, find me an easier target for satire). It takes us nowhere we haven't been before. It teaches us very little. But it doesn't intend to do any of that.

Also, full disclosure time, I experience discomfort making smart-aleck fun of anyone's faith, no matter what that faith may be. Early in the show, there's a jaunty song that repeats the catch phrase, forgive me, "f... you God," I knew my father, were he alive, would be deeply hurt to see me applauding.

So, let me say what I LOVED about the show:

The CONCEPT: Take the squeakiest clean, fastest growing religion in the world and insert two of its virgin missionaries into Uganda, the most hellish place on earth (at least as described in this show), and see what they can do to convert a populace that is being decimated by AIDS, barbaric war loads, and enforced female circumcisions. View everything though the lens of American musical comedy. A GREAT idea.

The PERFORMANCES: I thought Josh Gad as a Mormon Zach Galifianakis (Jack Black?) and Andrew Rannells as a Mormon Bradley Cooper were full of talent and energy, as were their Mormon back-up singers. Nikki M. James, the beautiful black woman who is the first to convert, is a joy to watch. Everyone sings, dances and acts with such a love of all things Broadway, they send your spirits soaring.

The RESOLUTION: Using the mythology of the Broadway musical to shed light on the mythology of Mormonism (standing in for all the world's religions), and watching the Disneyworld Africans discover that, yes, mythology is make-believe but that's all it's ever been intended to be--stand-ins for the truths of love and interconnectedness. Yes, it is a small world after all.

I honestly did think the show was fresh, excitingly performed, and a lot of fun. At the end, it's even sorta sweet. I wasn't offended, just a little uneasy. In the overall arc of musical theatre, I think this show will go down as very 2011. Which is in many ways a great compliment.

--Bruce Miller

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Why Are Certain Actors Pre-Cast?

Posted by Bruce Miller
A noteworthy comment was posted to the previous blog entry. I appreciate the perspective of the writer and the kind words (not included below). I will definitely take the stated opinion to heart. I also offer some additional perspective of my own.

The comment reads, in part, as follows: "I honestly believe there are some in the community (a large number, actually) who DO feel that you tend to favor and precast one particular actor in town. I need not mention his/her name because EVERYONE knows who I am speaking of. Is this person talented? Without question. Should he/she be HANDED 2-3 leading roles per year without auditioning? No. Being "Richmond's favorite actor" comes a little easier when you are in Bruce Miller's back pocket. Why not let said person get in line with all the actors and fight for the part? Who knows, maybe someone else in line will surprise you! Just two cents to add to the pot."

To be fair to Joe Inscoe and Scott Wichmann (pictured at the top in Shipwrecked - I'm not sure which one the commenter is referring to, since both fit the bill), let me say that both guys audition regularly at theatres around town, including ours. And sometimes they don't get cast. If anyone incorrectly perceives that either actor thinks he's above the audition process, let me put that idea to rest. Joe and Scott get in line with all the other actors in town all the time.

So the issue is all about the directors and producers doing the casting, not the actors being cast.

I make a thousand decisions a year (in close association with Phil Whiteway, Chase Kniffen and lots of other folks) regarding how to keep Barksdale and Theatre IV artistically and financially sound. Phil Crosby, Larry Gard, Grant Mudge, John Knapp, Carol Piersol, James Ricks, kb saine, Derome Scott Smith, Tom Width, and the good folks at CAT, HAT, SPARC et al do the same regarding their theatres. All of us have the responsibility to keep our nonprofit companies afloat.

When a director and I precast Joe or Scott, it is because we know they will turn in terrific performances. I also know their names in ads will help sell tickets. Again, I've heard a lot of ticket buyers talk on the other side of that one-way mirror, and the names Joe Inscoe and Scott Wichmann are spoken with regularity.

Every other artistic director in town knows this too. Therefore, we've gotten to the point where if I don't nail down Joe and Scott many months in advance, another artistic director will nail them down and I'll lose them. This is not always the case, but it often is. Joe and Scott are regularly offered work at theatres (and on films) both in town and out of town, and I almost always compete with other directors to secure a contract.

The same thing can be said (at varying degrees) for Brian Barker, Stacy Cabaj, Desiree Roots Centeio, Larry Cook, Sandy Dacus, Patti D'Beck, Paul Deiss, Ford Flannagan, Jan Guarino, Lynne Hartman, Audra Honaker, Tamara Johnson, Jackie Jones, Ron Keller, Kelly Kennedy, Joe Pabst, Steve Perigard, Melissa Johnston Price, Adrian Rieder, Ali Thibodeau, Debra Wagoner, Aly Wepplo, Ginnie Willard, Joy Williams, Irene Ziegler, and several others. They've each worked their way into that place where artistic directors (and/or freelance directors like Billy Christopher-Maupin) talk to them and begin wooing them for projects many months in advance.

That's not the way it used to be, but it is the way it is now. Actually, I was behind the eight ball on this one. James Ricks, Tom Width and Rusty Wilson led the charge to get actors to commit to projects really early. It was a smart move on their parts. I've learned from them, and have begun to copy in order to keep up.

For the artists, it's a good thing. For Richmond theatre in general, it's a good thing. I love the fact that Richmond is starting to have "stars" and I'm doing what little I can to increase that trend. I think it adds to overall interest in theatre, and appropriately recognizes the amazing talent that exists here.

I think we should all love that. But with the increased buzz comes this reality: competition for "star" talent is growing more and more intense. Increasingly, this means that the talents of certain individuals will be secured months in advance.

Another component that drives this trend is health insurance. Several of Richmond's finest theatre artists rely on their unions for their and/or their family's health insurance. They begin negotiating a year in advance to ensure that they'll book enough work weeks from a company that pays for health insurance in order to guarantee that there will be no gaps in their coverage.

The last thing to be considered in this discussion is the notion of an ensemble company. There are independent artists within the community, including all of the names mentioned above, with whom I seek and to whom I offer a long term commitment. I think this helps those artists remain in Richmond (everyone likes a sense of security), and it helps us develop a loose knit ensemble company at Barksdale and Theatre IV that enables us to create better theatre.

Again, I'm not trying to "defend" casting decisions or the casting process. Things are as they are; different people will have different opinions. No "defense" is offered or needed. I'm trying to share with you what goes on in my head and behind the door of my office as the leadership of Barksdale works hard to create a nationally recognized, professional, resident theatre here in Central Virginia.

Sharing perspectives is a good thing. I greatly appreciate all those who share their perspectives with me.


--Bruce Miller

Friday, June 3, 2011

How Does Barksdale Approach Casting

Posted by Bruce Miller
It's been fun and interesting to read the recent casting discussions on Dave's blog. Thanks, Brother Timberline. In hopes that people will understand the institutional objectives that I have established at Barksdale Theatre, in close association with our Board, staff and leading independent artists, I'd like to comment here on a few points raised about Barksdale's casting decisions.

I've done some rough, quick figuring from home. Please forgive me if I'm off by one or two. During the season that is about to conclude, Barksdale employed 80 actors in its nine mainstage productions. Eleven of the 80 actors live out-of-town. Sixty-nine of the 80 call Greater Richmond their home. I believe this is an appropriate ratio. Our commitment always has been, and will be for the remainder of my tenure, to Central Virginia's professional acting community.

Of the 11 who came from out-of-town, three used to be locals. Michelle Lookadoo (White Christmas) began her career at Barksdale. Kathy Halenda (White Christmas) and Ben Houghton (White Christmas) grew up here. We love bringing outstanding working professionals back to town.

Another two of the 11 (Patricia Duran and Ricardo Melendez - both in Legacy of Light - pictured to the left) were cast because of their talent, to be sure, but also because we have a commitment through our Hispanic Theatre Project to cast Latino actors in at least one production per year. We believe that if Richmond theatre in general is to increase attendance from Central Virginia's Latino community (the fastest growing segment of our population), theatres must begin allowing Latino audiences to "see themselves on stage." I mean in no way to marginalize the amazing talents of Tricia and Ricardo, both of whom I greatly admire. Nonetheless, I'm proud of our commitment to Latino audiences.

The remaining 6 of the 11 are Kevin Earley, Andrea Rivette, Freddie Kimmel, and Darrell Joe in White Christmas; Jeff McCarthy (pictured above and to the right with Harriet Harris and Stephen Sondheim in last season's Sweeney Todd at Barrington Stage Company) and Rachel Abrams in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Honestly, we think of Rachel as a local, even though she's based in D. C. She has strong Richmond connections. She's starred with us in Into the Woods, Guys and Dolls and Annie.

Darrell Joe was recruited because we were seeking an African American male ensemble member with GREAT triple threat skills, and, based on who showed up at extensive Richmond auditions, we had to go out-of-town to find a dancer/singer at Darrell's level.

That leaves four actors out of 80--Kevin (pictured to the right starring on Broadway in Tale of Two Cities), Andrea, Freddie and Jeff--who we honestly can talk about when we discuss Barksdale's "bringing in actors with Broadway credits to help sell tickets." I'm paraphrasing from one of the points raised by a commenter to Dave's blog.

In each instance, these actors were cast because the powers-that-be (that includes the directors and me) thought they were the best artists for the roles. Also, as an institution, we have a commitment to bringing in Broadway actors, for four reasons, in this order of importance:

1 We believe their unique talents will enhance each show. Barksdale's mission statement states that we will create national caliber productions. We take this responsibility seriously. We are not exactly like every other theatre in town, each of which has its own mission. We believe our Broadway guest artists help us create national caliber work.

2 Despite what a couple folks say in comments on Dave's blog, Richmond audiences want to see Broadway performers in our shows, along with our best local artists. We've paid for lots of focus groups where we sat on one side of the mirror and Central Virginia's theatregoers sat on the other. Over and over again, we heard Jane and John Q Ticketbuyer talk about the allure of "Broadway" performers. In his comments on Dave's blog, Frank Creasy is absolutely right when he suggests that Barksdale's biggest competition is the Broadway series. We are proactively and strategically trying to address that competition by featuring wonderfully talented Broadway stars in our shows.

3 We believe a major regional theatre has a responsibility to provide its best local performers the opportunity to work side-by-side with major national talents. If you're a young professional theatre artist beginning your career in Richmond, having the opportunity to explore work in larger markets is a good thing, not a bad thing, even when it means moving on. And those opportunities are enhanced if you have resume credits in shows that featured nationally-known talents like Kevin, Andrea, Freddie, Jeff and Michelle (pictured to the left and above starring on Broadway in The Little Mermaid). And don't get me started on networking.

4 Barksdale is Central Virginia's resident professional theatre. Because of our strong audience and contributions bases, which have been developed through decades of hard work and strategic planning, we have the unique opportunity and responsibility to put Richmond theatre on the national map. I believe that it benefits every company in town if the national theatre community begins to recognize Richmond as a "theatre town." Due to the size of our metro area, this is not an easy task. We are working hard to gain the national attention that we believe Richmond deserves. Bringing in national stars is one part of our strategic efforts to gain national attention. One of Dave's anonymous commenters groused that Richmond audiences don't know who Jeff McCarthy is. I somewhat disagree, but I understand the point. Please let me add this, the national theatre community definitely knows who Jeff McCarthy is. They also know Kevin Earley, Andrea Rivette, Michelle Lookadoo and Freddie Kimmel. And they are impressed that Richmond theatre in general is beginning to attract performers of this caliber.

For each and every role that was filled by a national professional who was brought in from out of town, we had local auditions. GREAT people auditioned. In the opinions of the directors, choreographers and music directors in charge, the pros brought in from out of town were more suited to the roles than the local auditionees. Had these directors been blown away by the local auditionees, we would NOT have brought someone in from out-of-town.

Casting is a subjective process, and people will always have differences of opinions about casting decisions. My intention here is not to "defend" casting choices, but to make our institutional motivations clear. This is what you can expect from Barksdale theatre, God willing, for the next five years.

Having said that, let me add that nothing is ever carved in stone. All of us always welcome and listen to your input, be it supportive or constructively critical. Thanks.

In a future post, I'll discuss pre-casting vs open auditions.

--Bruce Miller