Posted by Bruce Miller
One of the responsibilities of a regional theatre is to provide work opportunities to the best and brightest talents within its community. In today's highly competitive arena, up-and-coming theatre artists must choose whether to earn their stripes after moving to major theatre markets like NYC, Chicago or Philly, or build the resumes they need to launch their hoped-for theatrical careers in a city like Richmond.
It's a tough decision. I would argue in favor of the latter, but only if Richmond's regional theatres continue to provide significant opportunities that allow young artists to work at the top of their game with other equally talented pros.
Case in point - Billy Christopher Maupin. He's been passionate about theatre since Hector was a pup. He left his small hometown in Kentucky to venture to Cincinnati to audition for a touring actor position with Theatre IV. (TIV had an office and tour operation in the Queen City from 1996 to 2006.) After touring for a year with our Ohio-based team, BC asked to transfer to our larger operation in Richmond. Ford Flannagan, who handles all our tour casting, said "yes" and brought him right here to River City.
After working in our national tour for a couple years, Billy Christopher transitioned into the Theatre IV / Barksdale marketing position he continues to hold today. His salary sucks--not quite as much as it did initially--but it allowed him to keep body and soul together as he set out to build a resume and career. Like a lot of talented theatre artists, BC chose to complete his training in the school of work experience rather than a university theatre program.
There was that year early on when BC left Theatre IV and moved to New York. Because he's a talented guy, and, I suspect, in part because of the touring experience he had with us, he was cast in a national tour with TheatreWorks USA (Theatre IV's biggest national competitor). Like hundreds of other young hopefuls, he earned his union card through this gig, but soon thereafter encountered the stigma that comes with earning your card, perhaps, too soon. (go to Google, type "stigma theatreworks")
Billy Christopher, like many other talented theatre artists before and after, left New York and moved back home to Richmond. He took a leave of absence from Equity (it's really hard to get union gigs in Richmond if you're young), and set about auditioning and campaigning for directing assignments as if his life depended on 'em.
Carol Piersol, artistic director at the Firehouse, and I are of a similar mind when it comes to the responsibilities our two nonprofit theatres have to eager, talented young artists. Directing jobs are THE HARDEST positions to get in Richmond, probably in any theatre city. The stakes are so high. Nonetheless, through perseverance, patience, passion and talent, Billy Christopher earned the chance to direct a reading at Firehouse, then a cabaret at Barksdale, then more readings, and finally several mainstage directing assignments.
Along the way, Kaye Weinstein Gary at K Dance became a BC "believer." Grant Mudge at Richmond Shakes also gave him a shot. And later this season, Chamberlayne Actors Theatre is giving BC the chance to direct his first Lillian Hellman. It took several years. You can ask him whether or not it was worth it.
Which brings us to last night. Carol Piersol and I were both in the house for the Opening Night of Becky's New Car, the sparkling new comedy by Steven Dietz that Billy Christopher directed at Barksdale / Hanover Tavern. I can't speak for Carol, but I'll bet that, like me, she watched the proceedings with a significant sense of pride.
It's taken several long years, and what seems like a gazillion projects, for Billy Christopher to earn the shot he had last night. And the great news is ... he came through with flying colors.
Becky's New Car is top notch--a perfect marriage of script, actors and director. Billy Christopher had the chance to work with a major new play, a cast as professional and accomplished as any you'll find anywhere (see the show pics of Melissa Johnston Price, David Bridgewater, and Gordon Bass), first-rate designers, a reasonable budget, and a fairly large and discerning audience.
What he has delivered is worthy of the confidence others have placed in him. Becky's is an exceptionally enjoyable show that is sure to be one of the highlights of Richmond's 2011-12 season.
It would be foolish for me to oversell it. It ain't King Lear or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. But, in my humble opinion, it's a significant step forward for a major young talent who, hopefully, will be revving up the engine of Richmond theatre for years to come.
With 20/early 30-something directors like Chase Kniffen and Billy Christopher Maupin--and Justin Amellio (assistant to Patti D'Beck for White Christmas, RTCCA-nominated director for [title of show]) starting to come on strong--it seems like Richmond theatre is in capable hands.