Mary’s kicked off a great discussion that gets at the heart of growing and maintaining a vital theater scene here. I have just a few thoughts to contribute:
--> Growing a Constituency. There are programs like CYT and smaller theater companies like Chamberlayne Actors Theater that have been able to thrive (from what I can tell) by growing a regular and devoted constituency. This has always been the idea behind having subscribers but it really has to go beyond just getting someone to buy a season of tickets (which people are less and less willing to do given the demands on people's time and the myriad entertainment options out there). I think Barksdale is doing a great job at trying to build a constituency via their blog and their Coffee and Conversations series. You develop an awareness in people so they’re on the lookout for whatever production is coming up and they may be more willing to take a chance at checking out a play they hadn’t heard of before. Unfortunately, the myth seems to have been propagated that this strategy only works for older folks or groups with an already established commonality (Christians, the GLBT community, etc.) I think theaters are still struggling to get at that elusive younger crowd which is more fickle so you can’t always count on traditional methods. And the untraditional ones are risky – are you going to throw resources behind a “singles night” at the theater or a hip-hop night at the theater when there’s no telling whether that’ll amount to anything?
--> Challenging plays. One of the coolest things about seeing “Spring Awakening” in NYC was that the majority of the audience was younger, the first time I’d seen such a thing since “Rent.” But hey, it was a rock-n-roll show all about sex! There are other shows like this but nobody is willing to put them up. I still mourn the fact that Rick St. Peter left town because for a while there (before he got old and respectable and had kids of his own) he was putting together shows like “suburbia” and “Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop” that had a chance of intriguing a younger crowd (and even adventurous older folks). I also think producers have to shift their thinking a bit: The generation that matured in the 60s – remember free love and rampant drug use and everything? – is now entering their 60s. I think a grown-up these days is willing to see a show where they say “fuck” unlike the bro-ha-ha that such a show would engender years ago. Are we just going to do “Anything Goes” and “Guys and Dolls” forever? I guess you have to do them occasionally because those are the shows that sell out – there wasn’t a ticket to be found for “Anything Goes” a couple of summers ago – but how about something that shocks the system a little?
--> Venue. Richmond continues to have a venue problem. I know that the reason some people are wary of places like the Firehouse is because it’s not a big fancy theater like the National. The fanciest place we have in town is the Empire but that’s still in scary downtown, hard-to-park ville in the mind of most Richmonders -- Theater IV’s valet parking and positive marketing notwithstanding. From what I hear, some of the schools with nice theaters – Collegiate and Steward for instance – have rental rates that are prohibitive which is too bad because Theatre IV used to do shows at the Oates Theater at Collegiate and they were great. The downtown arts center debacle was supposed to solve that venue problem to some extent. It remains to be seen whether whatever comes out of it will.
No disrespect to anonymous but I don’t really get the appeal of going to DC at all. I used to live there and even when I could bike to a theater, transportation was a hassle. I’ve probably seen 8 professional theater productions in DC and half of them were great and the other half were…eh.
In general, I agree with everything robinitaface said and there’s no way Richmond could become DC for any number of reasons. But I spend more time than I have in years on Richmond’s two big campuses (UofR and VCU) and there are kids looking for things to do and a fair amount of disposable income at both places. That’s where the potential for the future is, I think.
I’ve got more thoughts but work is calling me. More soon…