Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Where can they go from there?

I've got another puzzle for you theater lovers out there...
Background first: I was at the gorgeous Cameron Hall (?) at Steward School on a recent Saturday to see my first CYT production ever. It was "Oliver" and quite well done but I kept thinking, "Wow! this theater is so fantastic. It is totally of a caliber that surpasses the professional theater venues available in town. Where do these kids go from here?"

How awful to have a gorgeous well built set, lovely expensive costumes, a beautiful, clean venue, wonderful lighting and sound capabilities, an on site scene shop, a big stage with ample fly space- imagine FLY SPACE in a Richmond theater - and then to go into local Professional theater and not have that. It seems like such a let down.

Yes there is the Empire which is lovely and has fly space and I do not know if you guys have the sound and lighting technology that Steward has or not. But the big acts in town (Swift Creek, Barksdale Willow Lawn, Barksdale Hanover, Firehouse, Triangle) have these tiny claustrophobic spaces. I was shocked and amazed when I went up on stage after "Urinetown" and saw the itty bitty space the actors had to dance on .

It just seems like a let down for these young actors in training to perform in these really nice spaces like the Oates Theater (which I have never acted on even though I went to Collegiate and dated Tony Oates- I guess Dr. Oates donated the money for the theater after being inspired by our fantastic performances on the cafeteria stage - and yes, I am bitter) and Cameron Hall (if I've got that right) at Steward and then offered the chance to perform professionally on these not as wonderful spaces.



Anonymous said...

It's the Cramer Center, by the way.
And the space is amazing.
But lets also clarify that Steward School has nothing to do with the fantastic sets and costumes.
I have seen CYT productions over the years at the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen, Deep Run High School, and probably somewhere else I have forgotten.
No matter where they perform, the quality of all those elements of the performance is extremly high. (And no, I don't work for them and have never had a child in a production, so this is true fan praise.)
Anyway, I agree with your thoughts, but just wanted to add that while Steward School is an awesome venue, the quality of the group using it largely affects the quality of the production you saw.

hoosier steve said...

The quality of the space has nothing to do with the quality of the production. The sets, lighting, sound and costumes done by the Theatre IV/Barksdale staff are top notch, period. The same people who built the imaginative set for Full Monty will be building the large scale magic for Peter Pan next April.
Also I do take a little offense at implying that the Empire and by extension Theatre IV are not in your list of "big acts". Theatre IV ahs the largest audience base and budget in the entire state, not just Richmond.
As a designer my two favorite spaces in Richmond have always been the Empire for its wonderful house, the history, a fly space (albeit one that is almost a limiting as it is exciting for many reasons), and the Little Theatre. Some of the best shows I saw while living in Richmond were done in that tiny space with its odd shaped stage, its leaking roof, limited equipment, a backstage that is also a paint shop, and pretty uncomfortable seating. I think the production quality of shows like How I Learned to Drive, Dead Monkey, A Devil Inside, and many many others is as good or better than anything in town.
The Steward School space is wonderful in many ways, I also find it a little distant and cold in other ways. The Oats Theatre is severly limiting, has bad accoustics and for several years has been closed to outside groups.
Every space has limitations, I could go on for days about the issues at the other spaces you mentioned. The skill, and talent of the wonderful designers that have worked and are still working in Richmond negates all these issues though.
As for the kids not having the same quality outside of their early experiences, that is pure BS. The experiences they can make by working on a show with high caliber professional actors, directors, designer and crew far out weighs any space issues. Many of those issues will never even be noticed by the young actors.
Steven Koehler
Lighting Designer

Andrew Hamm said...

Shakespeare had no set, just the stage. There were no lighting effects, unless a cloud crossed the sun. The costumes were hand-me-downs from lords and ladies who didn't need them any more. No microphones, no sound effects. Just the script, the actors, and the audience.

The idea that theatre is only legitimate or significant if thousands of dollars are spent on tech drives me nuts. I've done and seen plays performed in rooms that moved me more than multimillion-dollar Broadway productions. Empty rooms in Shafer Street Playhouse, the Chapel at Second Presbyterian, the RF&P Forum at the Science Museum, the lobby of the Barksdale, church sanctuaries, gymnasiums and school auditoriums are all just as legitimate venues for impactful theatre as any gazillion-dollar theatre with fly space.

The best piece of theatre I've ever seen in Richmond was The Syringa Tree in the Theatre Gym. No set, one actor, one costume, simple lighting, simple sound. here's what you need for great theatre: A great script, great direction, great performers, and technical elements that serve the story. More is not necessarily better, and it can in fact be a distraction.

I hughly recommend you read Grotowsky and Peter Brook.

Andrew Hamm said...

Obviously, that sould be "highly" recommend.

hoosier steve said...

I like to hughly recommend, it has a certain appeal to it.
I agree though, Brook is an easy read and helps focus on what is really important.
For the record, the lighting for Syringa Tree in the Gym was very difficult to do, I realize not your point, but still, I worked my butt came back though.
I personally liked the production better at Barksdale, but I think that had more to do with how much JB had grown as an actor than what lighting I was able to do.

Anonymous said...

Limitations positively breed creativity. Unlimited resources can breed complacency. There is much to be said for down and dirty spaces, including not having to pander to a main stream subscriber base to keep the nice space up and running. Certain shows fit certain spaces. As a director, there is a feel to each space, and the space informs the piece, almost as another performer.

Anonymous said...


Brook yes...

Grotowski no....

Running off into the woods to hug trees ain't theatre either!!!

For the record, I have a pretty decent space here in Lexington but I can't do things nearly as well as what is happening in Richmond simply because the talent pool here isn't nearly as deep as it is in Richmond, as I am sure Steve will attest. It's people that make theatre great, good or bad, not spaces...


ps. I also would drive to DC to get my theatre fix occassionally but I gotta tell you, I saw more bad theatre at the Shakespeare Theatre than just about any other theatre in the country...Now they got this great new space, they can do even that much more bad theatre!! Their production of Hamlet this past summer was awful...Arena Stage isn't nearly what it used to be, Studio Theatre is highly overrated, I think Whooly Mammoth and Signature are really the two best bets in DC right now and with the exception of the new works each of them produce, I would put up anything in Richmond against what is happening in DC.

Of course those bigger theatres all have pretty sets and costumes and maybe that is what really counts...

Andrew Hamm said...

Steve, I recall the lighting from the Gym production having really enhanced the mood, the transitions, and the flow of the show. I recall specifics, which you should take as a compliment; the best work in theatre, in my opinion, becomes transparent.

Andrew Hamm said...

Rick: Point taken about Grotowski. You have to take what you can use and laugh off the rest. But his concept of "poor theatre" was the most influential idea in western theatre since Stanislavski, and absolutely applies here.

hoosier steve said...

I take it as a compliment and I thank you. That was one of my favorite productions before I left. I just wanted to point out that I prefered the Barksdale production, not because of a "better space" but because of the growth of an already incredibly talented actor.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I LOVE this discussion. Thanks boys!

Anonymous said...


Let's have a theory battle, as I pretty much despise all things Grotowski...for my money, both Brecht and Artaud (speaking of nutty) were more influential than Grotowski...without Artaud there is no Grotowski and I think Brecht's influence is almost, but not quite, as large as Stanislavski's...of course, that's just my opinion I could be wrong...

JB...It wasn't Koehler's lights that made Syringa Tree so freakin' assume when I saw it at Theatre Gym...It was all you darlin'...


hoosier steve said...


I agree, which was kind of my point.

Dave T said...

Howdy all,
Love the theory debate -- what about the influence of say Cameron MacKintosh? (Sorry -- just have to be an a**hole once in a while).
Would also echo the sentiments about venue -- JB and Scott's one-person shows (JHH, Fully Committed, IAMOW,...) -- have been awesome and among my favorite shows of all time. Hell, some of the best theater I've ever experienced has been "taxicab theater" that they did at the Humana festival one year (talk about no fly space).

But as much as we may rage against the machine, there are still some people who equate venue with quality. I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard someone talk about the shows at the Mosque or the Carpenter Center as the "real" shows, as if somehow the locally produced stuff is fake.

Venue is what drives some people, but not others. I guess I think it may be more effective for theater to appeal to the "others" rather than to convert the some.

Dave T said...

...that is, theaterS specifically (that is, those who don't have a big venue at their disposal), not theater in general...typos suck

Andrew Hamm said...

I have to concede the influence of Antonin Artaud. More theatre artists in the '60s and '70s read The Theatre and Its Double than the Bible. But I have a hard time personally giving Artaud any credence because he was insane. That's not an opinion, he was demonstrably insane; he tried to carry a stick to Ireland because he was convinced it was the staff of St. Patrick. So as interesting as his writings are, I hesitate to put a lot of trust in him. Mental illness and substance abuse are generally a turn-off when I'm looking for artistic mentors.

My reference to Grotowski was mainly to call attention to the impact of his theory of "poor theatre." For Grotowski, and for three generations of theatre artists since, the fundamental concern of theatre is the interaction of actor and audience. This isn't to denigrate the function of sets, costume, lighting, props, or special effects; all of these have their function and can greatly enhance a production. But a technically beautiful production with awful acting is intolerable to watch; a beautifully-acted play in an empty room costumed in street clothes can be sublime. Post-Grotowski, much more scholarly and media attention has been given to small productions in found or converted spaces. All those "off-offs" and "off-off-offs," you know...

I work for Richmond Shakespeare, a company that, in adopting the original practices of Elizabethan touring players, has much in common with Grotowski's "poor theatre." I have heard numerous theatre artists in town bemoan our style of production as "cheap," and have to admit that I read Mary's original post as a bit of a put-down of our production style. I would counter such statements by challenging more actors to audition for us. You get up here and convey the depth and breadth of a battlefield outside Rome with nothing but a leather jacket, two knives, and Shakespeare's words. I think you will find, as I have, that removing all the extraneous details focuses the show on the storytelling power of the actor. It is the most challenging and liberating experience I have ever had as an actor. Fly space? We don't need no stinking fly space!

That said, I absolutely love lighting designers. The one thing I constantly wish I had access to is manipulation of the lighting. Maybe one of these days the Firehouse or Barksdale will hire me to direct something and I can play with all the tech toys I covet but profess not to need. Lighting was the tech star of my thesis, Joe Jackson's Night and Day, which was, by the way, performed in a big empty room (the RF&P Forum at the Science Museum).

Robinitaface said...

Sorry, i'm late! I knew you were all concerned!

"I was shocked and amazed when I went up on stage after "Urinetown" and saw the itty bitty space the actors had to dance on ."

I wanted to draw attention to that quote from the origanl post -

Mary - It seems the cast - and crew - made the best of what they had. So much so that it wasn't until AFTER the show that you realized the limitations of their space. We remember your post about how much you LOVED LOVED LOVED LOVED LOVED "Urinetown." The show took you to another place - you weren't paying attention to the attributes of the venue - so it seems everyone did their job well.

Now, I can't speak for everyone, but the kids with whom I've worked from the youth programs don't seem to be much concerned with whether or not the performance spaces are bright, shiny and new. From what I've experienced, these kids/young adults, are already very professional-minded and are there to work. They've grown up seeing shows at the "big acts in town (including Theatre IV)," and have expressed awe and that they feel privileged to be performing on those stages with the Richmond professionals at such a young age.

Dave - Be that a**hole! Cameron MacKintosh. Oh, Sir Cameron. Well, if nothing else, he ain't stupid. Helicopters, chandeliers, giant turntables...PAH! That goes back to putting butts in seats...people still know the shows how many years later? I mean, he's not doing big productions of total crap. Take away the gimmicks, they're still powerful stories.

Anonymous said...

Andrew Hamm, the reason many actors don't audition for Richmond Shakespeare has nothing at all to do with the venue and style, it's organizational.

Le Synge Bleu said...

my 2cents worth is that most of the spaces you are saying are tiny and cramped and not up to par are about 50,000 times better than some of the less developed spaces in ny where a lot of amazing theatre has been produced. and the flip side is that a lot of crap has passed through the great b'way houses. my god, just the fact that there are so many spaces in richmond is supremely exciting, much less the fact that comparatively speaking they're really not so diminutive. btw, the original production of urinetown was at a theatre smaller than the mill in the nyc fringe fest.

Andrew Hamm said...


If you're going to drop that kind of bomb, I'd really prefer you did it via an email with your name attached. Not because of the anonymous-comment thing, but because I just might be able to answer some of your concerns.

Being the "new kid" on the staff of Richmond Shakes, I'm pretty much the go-to guy for people with complaints about the organizational side of the company. I assure you, I have kept people's comments completely confidential while endeavoring to address the issues raised. I am, in fact, taking on an additional number of production responsibilities for the Richmond Shakespeare Theatre (our downtown season) in the following months. I have problems with the way the company has worked, as well. My response is to do what I can to fix it.

The company is growing exponentially right now, with a new downtown venue, a new training department, Will Power to Youth, the Pollak Award and more. So I guess what I'm saying is, if you're interested in performing some classical theatre but have had bad experiences or heard bad stories in the past, I just ask you to be open-minded enough to consider the fact that an organization can grow, change, and improve.

And for the record, I'm not blowing smoke when I say that there are artists in town who won't work with us because of our aesthetic. Some of them have told me so. I respect their opinions while disagreeing with them. I'm pretty good at that; just ask Scotty.

Anonymous said...

It's swell these students/kids are trained in these wonderfully equipped spaces, but any actor that wants to work regularly has to learn to be flexible. The actors I respect go where they will expand themselves. If I want to work and continue to grow as an actor, I go for the piece being done, and not the venue where it will be performed. Stars (the ones who can really act) often go to lesser spaces off-Broadway, or in the provinces, or at LORT theatres where serious theatre is undertaken. On stock tours, you are on a thrust stage, or in the round, or in a proscenium, and so forth from week to week - you adapt the show to the stage on Mondays, and begin performances on Tuesdays. Actors have got to be flexible (which definitely gets harder as one grows older). GREAT theatre is often done in humble venues.

Mary, blogging at 5:28 am???


Anonymous said...

As a theatre educator and a professional performer, I have a few words to add to this vibrant discussion.

I have students and colleagues who have been involved with the excellent productions at Christian Youth Theatre. Let me add some information to continue answering the question, "Where do these kids go from here?" CYT and Steward School have wonderful financial resources that most professional, university and community theatres I know of do not have. First, Steward School is a private school facility. Therefore, the revenue gained from ongoing endowments and handsome tuition prices provides a lovely foundation for the school to build and maintain beautiful theatre facilities. Second, CYT is a youth theatre training and performance organization. As such, parents pay tuition for their children's classes and a few additional hundred dollars for each child to participate in each production. Not to take anything away from CYT, its high quality of training and productions, but if every actor in the professional and community theatres in this town contributed $200 to perform in each production, I tend to think we'd see more lavish productions in those theatres as well. And I echo other posters in the sentiment that beautiful production values do not good theatre make.

I have performed in some of the most beautiful venues and tiniest, dirtiest holes in my 20 years of performing in community, university, summer stock, regional, touring and Off-off-Broadway theatre.

Where do the CYT kids go from Steward School? They go where the rest of us go, wherever there's great theatre happening! I'd rather perform Hugs and Kisses in 20 more cafetoriums, potentially saving lives and redeeming innocence at each school, than a soulless but beautiful production of The Phantom of the Opera at "Theatre Palace USA".

Anonymous said...

Last Anonymous post is by me, Karen Hamm (technologically impaired)