Wednesday, July 27, 2011

In Memoriam: Essie Simms

Posted by Bruce Miller
With great appreciation for a wonderful life well lived, I am sad to report the passing of our dear friend Essie Simms this afternoon at her home at Westminster-Canterbury. Essie is pictured above with Julie Fulcher-Davis.

Essie has been an inspiration and source of great joy to many of us in the theatre community. She attended every Barksdale theatre production from our debut performance in 1954 until the summer of 2009. Her devotion was not limited to Barksdale. She was a very familiar presence at nearly every theatre in town.

Her last attendance was during a short-lived recovery in Dec of 2009 when she was back in her front row seat for the Opening of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

There will be an Episcopalian funeral service for Essie on Monday, 3 pm, in the chapel at Westminster-Canterbury. A memorial celebration of Essie's life is being planned by and for her friends in the theatre community. Information about that service will be announced on Facebook and here in the Barksdale Blog next Tuesday.

Essie's passing marks the end of an era. In the coming days, I will be writing more about her, and we will be announcing plans for a memorial service in loving celebration of her wondrous life. Until then, I share deepest sympathies with Essie's many friends and loved ones.

--Bruce Miller

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Letter to the Editor - Does "Scoundrels" Offend?

Posted by Bruce Miller
In this morning's Times-Dispatch, under the headline "Mocking the disabled isn't funny," a gentleman named Miles F. Johnson wrote a thoughtful letter, excerpted below:
"I saw Dirty Rotten Scoundrels now playing at Barksdale's Empire Theater and wonder if I saw the same show the reviewer, Julinda Lewis, did. She wrote in the Times-Dispatch, 'I laughed so hard and so often during this musical comedy that my face hurt.'

Personally, I found the scene regarding brother Rubrecht to be offensive. Scott Wichmann portrays a man who is mentally and physically challenged. The word 'chromosome' is used in the dialogue, suggesting that Ruprecht's problems are congenital. Anyone with such challenges is not funny and certainly not a subject for laughter. The authors, by including this scene, exhibited total insensitivity regarding these challenged folks and their families.

I know this is a musical comedy, but expecting the audience to laugh at Ruprecht is, well, inappropriate. Am I a stick-in-the-mud? A wet blanket? Does grouchy, old curmudgeon come to mind? Perhaps, but when you see the show, ask yourself: 'Is the character, Ruprecht, really funny?' Think about it.

Miles F. Johnson

This letter struck a chord with me. My first "career" was in special education. For four summers in high school and college, it was my privilege to work at Camp Baker for developmentally disabled children and young adults. I began as a junior counselor, then a senior counselor, then creative arts director, then assistant camp director. During each of those summers, I lived for ten weeks with some of the most loving, creative, inspiring individuals I'll ever know. It's not an exaggeration to say that those summers changed my life.

Later, I worked for a year as a teacher at the Developmental Training Center. The reason I left Special Ed as a career was that I was unable to distance myself appropriately from the children and young adults in my care. I took all of their challenges home with me. I wanted to solve problems I couldn't solve; offer cures and corrections when none were available. The pressure wasn't healthy for me.

When I read Mr Johnson's letter, I thought it was appropriate and represented a thoughtful and reasonable point of view. I didn't think he was a "grouchy old curmudgeon"--the phrase he uses. I thought he was a loving, thoughtful advocate. Clearly we hurt his feelings with our production, and I deeply regret that. I take his criticism to heart and thank him for it. He makes an excellent point, and I'm sure he is not alone in feeling the way he does. God bless all loving, thoughtful advocates. I hope I'm one of them.

Having said that, I think there is another point of view that is equally valid. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is about two con men, one skilled and one ridiculous, who do any and everything in the course of 2 1/2 hours to achieve their dastardly, silly ends. It is clearly a comedy without a serious bone in its body. The musical does not ask nor expect the audience to laugh at a disabled person. In fact, Scott Wichmann does NOT portray "a man who is mentally and physically challenged." Scotty portrays a dirty, rotten con man who pretends to be "a man who is mentally and physically challenged."

I'm not trying to split hairs. I'm trying to explain why I and, I believe, most people feel comfortable with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels--why we don't feel like we're laughing at people with disabilities.The musical asks the audience to laugh at the two central flim flam men, both of whom are occasionally tasteless, crude, insulting and inept as they go about their business of conning women out of money. It doesn't give away anything substantive to say that at various points, one of the two antiheroes pretends to be a wheelchair-bound veteran, an Irish priest, a royal prince, a sadistic Austrian psychiatrist, a Spanish real estate tycoon, a mute, a psychologically damaged contestant in a nationally televised dance contest, and, yes, a wacky, misfit brother.

The brother, Ruprecht, is not referred to as "disabled." He is described in song as follows:

Every royal family, by its nature,
Has a sort of price that it must pay.
Every noble lineage has
One loose gene-
Small as a molecule,
Flitting 'round the family pool.

It's the sort of thing
One sees in Appalachia
Or in the odd inbred bichon frise.
It really can be such a
Nasty stain on the escutcheon
When a wisp of DNA
Begins to fray, then goes astray.

Caligula had the tempre,
The Hapburgs had the chin.
George the Third went cuckoo-bird
And Nero had that violin.
Richard, you'll remember,
Had the hump and the withered limb.
The Bushes of Tex
Were nervous wrecks
Because their son was dim.
But look what happened to him.

Alas, our family also carries a bit of a curse.
But darling, it could be a great deal worse.

Ruprecht is a character that the other characters make up. He exists only as part of a scam. The characters in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels offend everyone in sight. That's part of what makes them dirty and rotten. It's their outrageousness that is funny, NOT the people they offend.

One could argue persuasively that the current style of comedy trends purposefully toward the irreverent (think Jon Stewart, South Park, The Book of Mormon, Spamalot, Avenue Q, etc). Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is clearly in sync with that trend.

When our production offends kind, thoughtful men like Miles Johnson, I'm very sorry. But it is not our intent to offend. We're offering a light summer comedy, crude and tasteless as some of the characters may be. Most audiences are laughing their hindquarters off, as mentioned in our five rave reviews.

Last year we produced The Sound of Music; this coming Christmas we'll be doing My Fair Lady. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is not one of these classic American musicals. It adds a welcome variety to what we do. It's contemporary and silly. It is also, arguably, fresh and funny.

We hope all audience members will enjoy the show in the spirit that it is written and presented.

--Bruce Miller

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Matthew Costello

To Members and Supporters of the Richmond Theatre Community:

Many of you have learned recently about the critical health issues that our colleague Matthew Costello is facing. If you have not, you can learn more directly from the horse’s mouth, by visiting Matthew’s blog:

Matthew is a dear friend. Like many of you, my heart goes out to him in this time of need. If you would like to help Matthew address his financial challenges, I suggest you consider making a contribution to the Richmond Theatre Artists Fund at the Community Foundation – Serving Richmond and Central Virginia. If you choose to do so, here’s what you need to know.

Among the many rules that the Community Foundation lives by is this one: “Charity ends where certainty of the beneficiary begins.” What that means is that there is no way anyone can give money today or tomorrow to the Theatre Artist Fund at the Community Foundation with any guarantee, stated or implied, that those donated funds will go to Matthew Costello or anyone else. IRS rules are very clear on this.

Having said that, let me add that the Richmond Theatre Artists Fund and the Community Foundation are advised by a Committee of four active leaders in the Richmond theatre community. This Committee reviews requests and makes recommendations to the Community Foundation regarding how funds available through the Theatre Artists Fund should be spent.

The Committee will advise on the distribution of two types of funds. The first type comes from interest that already has been earned by the principal of the Theatre Artists Fund, and is available for immediate use. The second type includes donations that recently have been or soon will be made to the Theatre Artists Fund at the Community Foundation, IF these donations include the phrase “SPENDABLE PORTION” in the instructions (if contributions are made online) or on the memo line of the check (if contributions are made via the mail).

I know the workings of this Committee well; I trust them completely. I know they will make wise and appropriate decisions.

I am very eager to support Matthew in this time of need. I am making my contribution online to the Community Foundation ( I am making the contribution in honor of Matthew Costello (they provide the opportunity to do that). In the Instructions section (towards the bottom of their page), I am writing:

“For the Richmond Theatre Artists Fund. Spendable portion.”

If I were mailing in a check, I would make the check payable to the Richmond Theatre Artists Fund, and on the memo line I would write “Spendable portion. In honor of Matthew Costello.” The mailing address of the Community Foundation is:

The Community Foundation
7501 Boulders View Drive
Suite 110
Richmond, VA 23225-4047

I recommend this course of action to you and to all my colleagues and friends.

By making this gift to the fund and trusting the Committee, I will be able to support the Richmond Theatre Artists Fund AND count this gift as a tax deductible contribution.

If you would like to communicate with me further regarding these matters, please feel free to contact me on Facebook.

With great appreciation,

Bruce Miller