Thursday, February 28, 2008

"Doubt" (now playing at Barksdale) is as wonderful as everyone says it is so if you haven't seen it yet you'd better call for tickets which I understand are scarce. The cast is wonderful, the set fabulous(always makes me happy), and even the lighting designer, Lynne Hartman, thought to project the shadow of a stained glass window on the wall next to the priest in the pulpit. All the actors nailed their New York accents and everything. There were only four distractions during the show: 1. the candy unwrapping sound produced by the man seated next to me who thought it was charming that I was taking notes, 2. the occaisonal but continuing high pitch sqeel of someone's hearing aid, 3.a cell phone ringing in the middle of the perfromance, and 4. a prop tea pot that was from the wrong era.

Duke Lafoon has come a long way from his starring role in "Red Badge" (was it 15 years ago? ) which was produced by Yours Truly in Lexington, VA. I think the last role I saw him play was Prince Charming in Theatre IV's "Cinderella". He is marvelous as Father Flynn. His performance affords all the nuance to allow the audience to flip flop between his guilt or innocence- Key I think to the success of the parable.

Speaking of great sets: The Firehouse Theatre Project deserves some credit for its last couple of sets. It has been my experience (and I have whined about it to Artistic Director, Carol Piersol many times) that the quality of their sets have been lacking. But recently the sets have been very good - well designed and weel executed. Nice work guys. You can see the latest great set at Firehouse during the run of "The Late Henry Moss".

Liz Marks

Many people in the theater community recently received a letter co-signed by Irene Ziegler, John Moon and Jackie Jones regarding Liz Marks. Below is a lightly edited version of this letter. I encourage everyone to help out to the level they are able. Your help will be greatly appreciated and will have an immediate impact.

“Liz Marks has been a familiar actress, producer and casting agent in Richmond for decades. She survived breast cancer almost ten years ago, has recently undergone successful treatment for lesions on her liver, and finished a regimen of radiation for a lump in her arm. Now, she is back on chemotherapy and maintaining a positive outlook.

In addition to running the Uptown Talent Agency, she is currently getting up at 3:15 a.m. and working a part-time shift at Starbucks that will, soon, provide her with additional health insurance. Be sure to let Liz know of any alternative job opportunities (with benefits) you hear about.

Her health insurance is in force, but it does not cover a significant percentage of her medical costs. Once she reaches her insurance’s allowable limit, she’s on her own. Even now, she is awash in bills and matters are quickly getting untenable.

As Liz faces her current treatment, it will be a tremendous relief to know she will have a roof over her head, utilities, and groceries for herself and her daughter, Elizabeth. Without immediate assistance, all these necessities are in jeopardy.

There are two ways you can help:

1. You can make a check payable to The Liz Marks Campaign and send it to John Moon (address below). We created this charitable donation account just for this purpose. We will see to it that all gifts get to Liz ASAP. This gift would NOT be tax deductible.

2. You can make a check payable to the “Community Foundation” and write “Theatre Artist Fund – current spending” on the memo line. This check can also be sent to John Moon. This gift WOULD BE tax deductible, and would be distributed in accordance with the purposes and policies of the Theatre Artist Fund, as noted below.

The Richmond Theatre Artist Fund was established to meet emergency needs exactly like this. As of this writing, the Fund has approximately $1,200 available for current spending. Our hope is that the support generated by this appeal will significantly increase the funds available for current spending by the Theatre Artists Fund, not the principal. The governing committee of the Fund will then have more cash on hand to help Liz and others who need immediate assistance.

Let us be completely clear about this. Due to IRS regulations, the Fund cannot accept contributions that specifically mention Liz Marks or are earmarked for Liz and Liz alone. If you elect to make a tax-deductible contribution to the Fund as opposed to a non-deductible gift to Liz, you will be supporting the Fund and its mission to help cover the emergency financial needs of theatre artists suffering critical illness or injury. We are confident that the Fund understands and will respond appropriately to Liz’s need.

We genuinely need and will appreciate your immediate participation. Please send all checks at your earliest convenience to John Moon at the address below:
All checks will be delivered by hand to The Liz Marks Campaign and/or the Community Foundation as they arrive. Liz is aware that we are asking you for help. When she was made aware of our efforts, she was overcome with gratitude. She will be advised of the names of all those who respond to this appeal.

Thanks for considering this request. Through this campaign, Liz will know how much she is respected and loved. What medicine could be better than that?

We hope to hear from you soon.

Irene Ziegler, Jackie Jones and John Moon”

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Women both Little and Historic

I’ve been a little squeezed for time these days but I’ve got a couple of blog posts heating up on the back burner. Until I can get them completed, here’s a link to MaryB’s review of “Little Women” at Swift Creek Mill in this week’s Style.

I was also intrigued to read today that an old photo of Anne Frank’s boyfriend recently surfaced. I’ve seen “Diary of Anne Frank” three times (including the Broadway production starring Natalie Portman) and my favorite production of it remains the one the Mill did something like 15 years ago with a cast that included Paul Deiss (currently in “Little Women”) and the best Anne ever, the lovely and talented Holly Timberline. “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

Monday, February 25, 2008

Influence of the Crush

There seems to be a bit of a theme in recent posts by Dave T. about crushes. I want to share that I have "Dog Train" in my car's CD player and although I do enjoy Laura Linny's singing performance and agree that it is full of emotion, in no way does the song provoke a crush in me.

The question is: How much do those little crushes on actors we might get during the two hours of intimate yet safe involvement we have with them on stage affect our perspective of their performance?

I sat right next to Dave (a rare but enjoyable experience) as he drooled over Liz Blake in "Measure for Measure"- well, he didn't exactly drool but he was riveted by her as he has confessed in a previous post. So I saw the same show, from the same vantage point, the same night. But what is most interesting is that though I thought Ms. Blake's performance was valiant, I enjoyed Julie Phillips' performance more (note: I did not develop a crush on her but I guess I might have if things were different -oh hell, where am I going with this?). In fact I was a bit concerned with a couple of Ms. Blake's character transformations - she played several but a couple of them ran together for me.

I agree with Dave that Ms. Phillips high point characterization was Mistress Overdone but I thought all of her roles were very well played and her transitions distinct and seamless. I just felt that she did an overall better job than Ms. Blake.

Is it possible to weigh the amount of personal emotional reaction to an actor vs. objective criticism?

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sunday papers

I probably should have known better. I’ve pretty successfully avoided the T-D’s movie reviews over the past year or so after I finally realized that they had little or no critical or literary value and it was just as easy to read any of a half-dozen better critics online (including the best “quick hit” reviews from Jerry Williams). But this morning’s Flair cover on the Oscars hooked me in and I was once again subjected to the lame-itude that is Neman.

I could have brushed off the idiotic repeated “joke” about awards not going to flops. I would have chalked up the internal inconsistency to typical sloppiness or maybe laziness (Neman chides the Academy for forgetting Tommy Lee Jones in “The Valley of Elah” while saying no one liked “There Will Be Blood.” “Blood” which is still in theaters hasn’t exactly been a blockbuster but it’s current box office take stands at about 5 times what “Elah” made in its entire run).

But harder for me to shrug off is his derision for David Denby at the New Yorker. I don’t necessarily think Denby is some ultimate critic or anything but he’s head and shoulders above Mr. Neman. Among the many great things in Denby’s latest piece – a survey of the Coen Brothers films – is that it sums up exactly what is wrong with “No Country for Old Men,” in my opinion. I love the Coens but I’m with Denby in thinking “No Country” doesn’t quite match their previous best (unlike Denby, I love “O Brother Where Art Thou” and “Miller’s Crossing.”)

Neman also says that Amy Ryan should win best supporting actress for "Gone Baby Gone" – which may be true; I can’t really say since I haven’t seen the movie. “GBG” is the last movie I remember Neman actually liking (he said it “turns out to be well-crafted and compelling, brutal but not unfunny”) but at last reckoning, it only made about $20 million at the box office versus “Blood”’s $33 million and counting. Should people be looking at Neman a bit oddly these days? Why no “awards not going to flops” line here? Oh yeah, there’s that consistency thing again.

So if it’s not too late, I’d suggest skipping the Oscar cover stories and flipping right to the interview with the “Doubt” cast. While I wish Keri Wormald would have been included in the convo, it’s still an interesting piece.

And for those who had hopes of snagging “Idol” cast-off Colton Berry for a local production (OK, so maybe that was just me…), it looks like he has his sights set for bigger venues. Oh well; maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Rainy Day Reading

I always look forward to the arrival of the latest New Yorker. I don’t think there has ever been an issue I’ve read through that hasn’t had something fantastic in it: a great piece of fiction, a particularly insightful review, a hilarious cartoon. This week includes an extended review of the Kathleen Turner-directed production of “Crimes of the Heart.” I practically seethe with envy when I read a review like this. Given that most of my Style reviews are 300 to 600 words long, I can scarcely imagine having almost 1500 words to expound. (Notice, however, that even with all those words, the set and lighting design get summed up in a sentence. Poor techies can’t catch a break, even on Broadway!)

Hilton Als is an eloquent, intelligent critic. You might not agree with what he says but I think he does a great job saying what he thinks. And for me, the best thing about him is he isn’t impressed by much. I think he has a healthy appreciation of good theater (and art and movies – check out his blog if you want more of his thoughts) but he isn’t exactly kind to Beth Henley in his piece. While it’s a bit harsh, I also think it’s right on target. And whether it’s won a Pulitzer or not, I think you have to evaluate something honestly on its merits.

Speaking of merits – or lack of them – here’s the first thing I’ve read about Clay Aiken and his stint in “Spamalot.” I read somewhere else that the singer – who no one can deny has got awesome pipes – didn’t really “get it” when he watched the Monty Python movies. Is it any wonder then, that he doesn’t come across as quite silly enough?

And a final item that may be extremely silly – or a sublime surpise – is the high-jacking of a concept (or maybe just a title?) from an old classic for the planned film Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Undead. I have to admit that the title alone makes me smile.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Bad guys, part 2

In Measure for Measure, you have a pretty clear bad guy: Angelo. You can argue the level of his badness, the validity of his motivations, and even ultimate responsibility in the situation (a situation the Duke sets into motion because he’s too much of a wimp to enforce his own laws…), but clearly he’s meant to be the heavy of the piece.

In Doubt, well, things just aren’t so clear are they? (Spoiler alert: I’ll be talking about some key plot points in the play below though will be trying to be as evasive about them as possible. Still, if you’d rather not even have any clues as to what happens in the play, I’d STRONGLY suggest not reading further.)

First, consider the focus of Doubt: Sister Aloysius. (Still reading? Now’s the time to STOP if you want to remain clueless!) She tries to protect a student but in the process seems to devastate him. And, between what is happening at home and what happens at school, certainly sets him up with a lifetime need for intensive therapy. That’s certainly not good, is it? One could go even further and argue about whether she really is even motivated by such humanistic motives as protection. She seems more interested in rooting out and dispelling the cause of her suspicions; not necessarily bad but certainly a bit spiteful and one could even say obsessive. And in a play full of hints and allegations, she is the only one who actually admits to having lied. And she lies in an attempt to entrap. That’s not only sinful, that’s downright nasty, and if it was done by anyone in law enforcement, would be actionable. Along the way, she riles up the student’s mother, who clearly would rather not be riled, and sets a young teacher on edge, enlisting Sister James as an unwilling accessory in her campaign against Father Flynn. So is the good sister a bad guy? The ending seems to imply that she’s actually a bit of a victim. But is a victim of her own machinations worthy of our pity or our distain?

I actually think that it is possible and entirely valid to argue that Shanley goes too far in portraying Aloysius as going too far. I think it is fairly specific to this historic moment, in the years after all of the church abuse scandals, to have much sympathy for her at all. In a more trusting, less hypersensitive time, she could be dismissed as a bit of a loon with an overactive imagination. Armed with our current cynicism, we know (do we?) that she might very well have a basis for her suspicions.

It’s insinuated that Father Flynn could be a bad guy; Sister Aloysius sure seems to think he is. But in terms of cold hard facts, what do we have? Not much. A few paltry pieces of circumstantial evidence and many plausible explanations for each one. But isn’t that how the most insidious monsters work? Leaving nothing but the faintest of trails and damning their victims to a lifetime of self-incrimination and doubt.

A while back on the Barksdale Blog, Phil Whiteway took on the question of what Doubt is about. One thing that is masterful about the play (Shanley’s occasional dips into flippancy notwithstanding) is that it’s about exactly what it says it is. Doubt. The power of it, the vital importance of it, and in some situations, the insidiousness of it. Thanks to the Barksdale – I haven’t had so much to stew on since “Spinning into Butter.”

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Bad guys, part 1

So the two plays I reviewed this week make a great double-feature, and it’s not just because nuns play pivotal roles in each. Each of them exemplify something theater does that movies and television generally choose not to do these days: present a nuanced bad guy and, in the case of Doubt, wrap up a story with ambivalence – and a thrilling ambivalence at that – rather than tidying things up. Does anyone remember a movie called “Limbo” (directed by John Sayles) from about 8 years ago? It caused a minor stir because of its ambivalent ending. Doubt, on the other hand, won acclaim, a Tony and a Pulitzer. Go figure.

But on this bad guy business, I totally agree with Andrew Hamm, who happens to play the “bad guy” in Measure for Measure, on the interpretation of Angelo that he talks about on his blog. In fact, I left the play wanting to focus my review principally on this but quickly realized my 300 words would be up in no time (of course, I also wanted to write about the near-death-defying antics of the actors trying not to trip on the slippery rugs -- but I thought I'd take Andrew on his word that they were going to address that...). The commentary I’ve read on M4M categorically refers to Angelo as the villain and often characterizes him as a rapist. But as Mr. Hamm alludes to, he’s put in a position specifically to clean up Venice and the person he has sex with actually wants to have sex with him. Is strict adherence to law the fault of the adherent law-enforcer or the fault of the law (or those who enacted it)? Is it rape if the person being "raped" actually considers it a consensual act? Interesting questions and ones that should certainly shade judgment of Angelo.

What’s great about Andrew’s performance is that he doesn’t make Angelo a boring, bad-just-because-he’s-bad villain. He obviously falls for Isabella (and really, who wouldn't?) and he wouldn’t be the first man in power to take advantage of his position to secure his relationship with a beautiful woman. It’s also telling to me that the audience does not see what I think is Angelo’s most despicable act: trying to hasten the execution of Claudio after his tryst rather than staying it. That this directive originates off-stage makes me think that Shakespeare wanted us not to think of Angelo quite as badly as we otherwise would.

I think one of the challenges for director Bond and actor Hamm once they made this choice about Angelo is that he becomes a character much more like Claudio. To some extent, both men are conflicted over whether to take advantage of Isabella. At first, Claudio totally accepts her unwillingness to give up her virtue for him but then, in the face of death, starts to think, “well, heck sis, what’s a little virtue? At least you’ll still be alive!”

So, as I alluded to in my review, I think the real triumph of Andrew’s performance is that even while they wrestle with similar demons, his portrayal of each of them is distinct. His portrayals are filled with shadings (particularly for Angelo) that allow the audience-member to clearly identify each character and understand each of their predicaments. It’s good work and I’d go on even more about it but I wouldn’t want him to get either a) a big head or b) complacent.

One more comment on M4M: I really enjoyed John Moss’ performance. I admit that while I found the relative extremity of his performance a bit jarring – both Lucio and the executioner could have been characters in a Monty Python skit – they both made me laugh out loud. I really would have been happy to watch him go on all night and I look forward to seeing him in a comedy where I might be able to just appreciate the laughs he generates without being otherwise distracted by the contrasting melodrama.

Tomorrow (or soon): some discussion about the bad guy (guys?) in Doubt.

Double play

I've got two reviews in Style this week, one for “Measure for Measure” and one on the just opened “Doubt: A Parable.” More in-depth comments to come…

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Hairspray fans

Another incursion of a Broadway star into the mainstream! It was announced yesterday that Marissa Jaret Winokur would be one of the participants in the next iteration of “Dancing with the Stars.” Those who might have been wondering what the Tracy Turnblad actress was going to do next, well, now you know.

Last fall, Audra McDonald crossed over into the mainstream thanks to her role in the TV show “Private Practice,” and she’s about to get another round of press thanks to the TV broadcast of “Raisin in the Sun” next Monday. It’s still a bit amazing to me that people don’t know who she is, particularly after she won her third Tony award in 5 years back in 1998. So it goes. I don’t know about you, but I’ll have my DVR setup to catch “Raisin,” and it won’t be for Diddy.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Virginia Living

In case you haven’t seen it, the latest issue of Virginia Living has a cover story about Northern Virginia’s "innovative theater scene." It’s interesting that this piece comes along in the midst of the many discussions lately about the relative health of Richmond theater. I haven’t read the whole thing – just skimmed it in the bookstore – but after a more thorough read, I plan on commenting more here. Any thoughts from anyone else who might have read it already?

Friday, February 15, 2008


Since I’m still in that Valentine’s Day mood, I’d like to talk briefly about infatuation. I’m sure it has happened to you that you go to a show or to a movie and an actress or actor immediately strikes your fancy. Sometimes it’s a physical thing (OK, maybe most of the time it’s a physical thing) but oftentimes it’s the way he/she moves or sings or looks smolderingly at the camera.

Just last week, I had that kind of reaction twice while at the theater. Liz Blake in “Measure for Measure” is certainly beautiful (actually, she’s probably beautiful even when she’s NOT in M4M) but I think I really became enchanted during the scene when she first goes to see Angelo. She walks into his presence and reacts humbly and deferentially as if she’s entering some magnificent royal hall. It was a great little acting detail that indicated to me that she was much more than a pretty face.

Then at “Rumplestiltskin’s Daughter,” I thought Gigi Galiffa was absolutely the bee’s knees. Of course, she is extremely cute. But it’s also just wonderfully refreshing to see a young female protagonist who is forthright and confident without there being an edge of guilt or guile about her. Most of the women I love and respect in real life are like that, but in the movies and on the stage strong women tend to be saddled with ulterior motives or deep-seeded fears or just a sizable streak of bitchiness in order to make them more dramatic.

But the real inspiration for me writing this is that last night I had the strange and wonderful experience of totally getting a crush on Laura Linney (OK, renewing a crush on Laura Linney) because of the way she sings a cute little song on a collection called “Philadelphia Chickens.” I’ve heard this CD numerous times – my kids have listened to it off and on over the years while going to sleep. But I heard her rendition of “Please, Can I Keep It” with fresh ears last night or something because I realized that she puts as much of her astounding acting prowess into that little song as I’ve ever seen her put into a performance on the big screen. It’s a great reminder of what an vital and versatile tool an actor's voice can be. If you’ve never heard it, it’s definitely worth a listen.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Share the Love

On this Valentine’s Day, I’d just like to put out a suggestion to check out shows at venues you may not usually frequent. Have you ever seen a show at the Science Museum’s Carpenter Theatre? The “Mysteries of Plasma” is appearing there through the end of next week. Learn AND enjoy! The Modlin Center has a cool dance piece called “Leap” opening next week. You know Petersburg is just a short drive down the road? “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” opens at Sycamore Rogue there this weekend. It’s August Wilson! When’s the last time you saw an August Wilson play?

(And what a great way to whet your appetite for the August Wilson festival at the Kennedy Center starting up next month! This festival should be pretty awesome – almost makes me wish I lived in DC again…)

Theatre VCU’s got “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf” which has been called spellbinding and piercingly truthful (opening tomorrow). Take your sweetheart to that and you’re guaranteed to have plenty of stuff to talk about into the wee hours. If you love theater, there’s plenty of theater around town to love right now!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Mr. Green

Be sure and check out MaryB's review of "Visiting Mr. Green" in this week's Style.

A better answer

One of the questions at yesterday's Coffee and Conversation concerned delineating an actor's performance from direction and script. Following some meditation time, I feel that I might provide a little better answer to that question here on the blog.

For me it takes a while to digest a performance. My knee jerk reaction is to blame or praise the actors. I think this is common amongst theatre goers because the actors are the element of a production that is "out there" doing the work of interpreting the text and direction. The acting peice is starting point.

If an actor's execution of the text is good and the elements of her/his craft are well interpreted and problems remain I next will look for problems in the script. A weak script will stand out even with the best actors "playing" it, so often that judgement is easy to make. But in some cases a script is cleverly written but does not clearly make a point- those are more difficult for me to call because I may be concentrating on other factors while watching a show.

After filtering acting and script I look at direction. For me this is the hardest thing to judge if it is not rediculously clear (as in actors moving around the stage for no reason). I remember the worst director I ever worked with. It was in DC in a production of "Tartuffe". We (actors) were running all over the stage like chickens in a yard at feed time. The director was unable to communicate his "vision" for the play nor did he pocess the strength to reel in the over zealous performances or coerce the weaker ones. The sad result was performances all over the map - an uncohesive mess. Everyone suffered for it -especially the audience.

I hope this is a clearer answer to the process I personally go through to disect these three elements of a play.

See you at the theatre!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Measure and More

Thanks to everyone who came out to the Coffee and Conversations gathering at the Barksdale this morning. What a good time! It is always fun to see Mary and I was especially happy to finally meet Susan Haubenstock. And the mix of theater folks and theatergoers in the crowd came up with some great questions. Jill Bari did a great job of hosting – perhaps my biggest thrill to come out of the morning is that I can now say that I’ve shared a stage with JB Steinberg!

Also, I wrote up my review of Measure for Measure this past weekend and I don’t want to give away too many details but I use the word ‘gratifying’ in my summary of the show. It’s kind of a weird word to use, particularly when you expect theater to be “exciting” or “engrossing” or “enthralling” or “electrifying” – and that’s just the adjectives that start with ‘e.’

But I think gratifying really fits this show. M4M certainly deserves the moniker “problem play” as there are many comic moments but there are some very serious elements, specifically a death sentence and sexual extortion. Even though there is a resolution that makes what happen not rape, exactly, it’s still a little oogy.

Even so, what made me happy about this show is that, while I thought there were some rough spots where the mix of comic and potentially tragic was a little awkward, in the end it all came together beautifully. I find plays often lend themselves to culinary metaphors and with ‘Measure for Measure’ there were courses that were purely delicious (Liz Blake’s Isabella) and some that bordered on too tart (John Moss as Lucio). But I left feeling grateful that I attended, thoroughly sated in terms of my theatrical appetite, and full of interesting things to think about (that would be the aftertaste, I guess).

This is not damning with faint praise; it’s just me struggling in my own inarticulate way to say that while I don’t think M4M was necessarily a knock-you-off-your-feet “Wow!” show, it was a sitting-in-an-easy-chair-after-Thanksgiving-dinner ‘Ahhhhh…” kind of show. And that to me is gratifying. Make sense?

coffee and conversation

Just got back from Barksdale's Coffee and Conversation in which local theatre critics were invited to answer questions from today's "hostess" the fabulous Jill Bari and the audience. Lots of great questions and conversations! There was a big turn out and it felt good to see so many theatre fans and professionals in one spot talking about theatre.

Thank you Chase Kniffen for putting this together and to Bruce Miller and Phil Whiteway for continuing to provide ways for people to connect with the theatre arts. It was an honor to be there with my peers Susan Haubenstock and Dave Timberline. It feels good to get away from my computer and be a part of the scene in a different way. We (meaning the Richmond Community at large) are lucky to have such a smart, supportive theatre company as Barksdale/TheatreIV. Although I do not love every show they do, they do our community a good service by promoting Richmond Theatre and always striving to do better.


The Empty Spaces

The article Rick posted last week (look about 4-5 comments down on this post) could be the grist for several posts. I have to admit I’m not qualified to speak to several of the points made – I don’t know enough about the ins and outs of theater management and the financial fine points. But the article did spur a few thoughts – and to the extent possible, I’d like to spill those out and see what other people think.

“She's a fantastic actress, one of the best in the city.”

There is a bitterness in Daisey’s article that seems to spring at least in part from feeling like great work is not getting fairly rewarded. I understand this bitterness. There have been dozens of times when I’ve seen an actor deliver a particularly awe-inspiring performance and thought, man, I wish everyone in the city could see this. Or thought, what justice is there in the world when Martin Lawrence is getting millions of dollars for getting hit in the crotch when XYZ is making $300 a week for redefining acting as we know it?

But I think on another level, you have to realize that in the weird intersection of art and commerce there is no justice. Sometimes talent and perseverance are rewarded, sometimes they are not. This is not specific to theater. I have a friend who has two great novels gathering dust in boxes that can’t find a publisher. It carries over into the business world as well: I worked with a freakishly smart programmer who had a killer website idea (and the smarts to make it work) who couldn’t get the site off the ground. This is not to deny that great work should be rewarded but, in our lovely capitalistic society, there are no guarantees.

“There are clear steps theaters could take.”

Daisey specifically mentions reducing ticket prices and I tend to agree with this one, at least on an intuitive level. I recently checked out the Virginia Stage website and noticed that tickets to their preview performances are $9. $9! It gave me a brief flash of excitement, wondering what would happen if all theater admission prices were on par with movies. I can’t help but think that attendance would grow across the board.

Now, I’ve read over at the Barksdale Blog that they depend on ticket sales for a larger proportion of their total income than the less than 50% Daisey mentions. So there are clearly limitations to this. But I’d be really interested in seeing a pricing / opportunity cost breakdown on this. Not to be crass about it but, after you get a production up and running, you have a fixed-cost commodity. If you have audiences at 70% capacity at $35 a ticket, might you get 85% at $25? Or 95% at $15? And what’s the profitability breakdown on that? I’m sure someone out there is running the numbers; I just have no idea what the results would show.

I think as or more important than ticket prices, however, is the “cool” factor. As was mentioned somewhere in the comments on this blog, kids will pay $70 to see a concert but not $25 to see a play. What’s up with that? More thoughts on this subject somewhere down the line.

“Corporations make shitty theater…Corporations don’t understand theater.”

I get what Daisey is saying here but I think he is also being disingenuous to say theater needs to innovate and broaden its appeal and then say corporations suck. This is actually exactly what corporations (good entrepreneurial corporations) tend to be good at. And where has the locus of some of the most explosive growth in theater been in the past decade or so? At Disney. I’ve done my share of belly-aching about the Disney-fication of theater but Disney has certainly brought new things to the stage and took what “Cats” started and ran with it in terms of appealing to a broad audience. And they’ve employed hundreds of singers, dancers, and actors in the process.

What I’m getting at is that I think theater needs to reconcile its commercial nature with its artistic foundation in a way it hasn’t done so far. I think the commercial has to be embraced – not simply endured – and then balanced with more challenging, interesting fair. I think people need to look at the success of a phenomenon like “High School Musical” and not dismiss it as dumbed-down teenie-bopper lameness but ask the question, if millions of kids will watch movies, buy CDs, and go to concerts – all of which celebrate the creation of a ‘high school musical,’ what can we do to get even a small slice of those kids in to see a REAL musical? For theater to remain vital and possibly even grow to reach its potential, I think it’s got to do whatever it can to bring in audiences. And if that means appealing to teenie-boppers who want to sing along with a Zac Efron look-alike, that’s better than hearing crickets in those empty spaces.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Critics and Coffee

If you want the chance to grill most all of Richmond's theater critics at one time, come to the Barksdale's "Coffee and Conversations" soiree tomorrow morning at 9:30. Mary B, Joan Tupponce, Susan Haubenstock, and I will all be on the panel. I volunteered to be the one critic secured in an undisclosed bunker to guarantee the sustainability of Richmond theater criticism should some terrorist attack or other tragedy take place, but was told that this would not be necessary.

I'm looking forward to a) seeing if anyone actually shows up (besides my mom), b) seeing if anyone has questions for anyone else but Susan, and c) hearing what people are most curious about. Come armed with questions so Jill Bari doesn't have to do all the work!

Friday, February 08, 2008

Midsummer Night's Dream

Went to see Richmond Ballet's collaboration with the Richmond Symphony and apparently Richmong Shakespeare at the Landmark tonight. Great entertainment! I was pleasantly surprised to see Cynde Liffick and Grant Mudge seated onstage reading parts of Shakespeare's text to enhance the action on the stage. Would have popped backstage to say "hey, nice work!" but forgot to warn Stoner Winslet of my coming and did not have a backstage pass.

Theatre fans, if you get the chance to see this fab production DO. It was quite lively and fun which I am not at this hour.

Good night.

Couldn't stay away

To paraphrase “Godfather III,” every time I try to leave the blog alone, I get sucked back in. Unfortunately, I only have time for bullet points worth of thought right now. To wit:

I have many things to say about the provocative article posted by Rick. In particular, I’d like to focus on the line “There are clear steps theaters could take.” More later.

Over at the Barksdale Blog, Bruce has recently put up a couple of posts that refer to this here blog and even to this here writer (and his beautiful talented wife). In my last real post, I mentioned people who were lovely to me back when I was just another guy wandering around backstage. Bruce was #1 among those people (in a near-tie with Phil). What is particularly heartwarming to me these days is that Bruce is also wonderful in his interactions with my son, who I’m thinking is still not completely sure who the heck Bruce is. Bruce, we T-lines would be happy to hang out with you and Terrie anytime; can your daughter babysit?

Bruce responded to my Actors report card piece and I have to say I appreciate his “glass half-full” perspective. I don’t disagree with anything he said. In fact, I think he essentially reinforces a point that I made in my piece that Richmond is one of the best places for actors to start out. I still remain concerned, however, that Richmond is – and may become more of – a flow-through location. That may just be the reality based on the size and shape of the Richmond audience. I still don’t really like it.

Many things shaped my perspective in that piece. Mostly, it was what I heard from the people I talked to. It may seem like I’m being pessimistic but notice that most of what I say is prompted by or backed up by a quote by a current or former Richmond theater professional (not being defensive here, BC, just doing some ‘splainin.)

As an aside, I must say that one of the things that has hit me hardest re: this whole actors market topic is the eminent departure of Stephanie Kelley and Justin Dray. Not only are they both extremely talented actors, but their work with Yellow House was unfailingly intriguing, particularly some of the stuff they did with Clay McLeod Chapman. I feel Richmond will be taking both a talent and an organizational hit when they go. But I’ll try to take Bruce’s perspective and look forward to the possibility that they’ll come back. Them, and Robin Harris-Jones who I didn’t even get to know until she left town. Sniff. (I guess I’ll always have Stephanie licking garbage can lids in the tobacco ads but it’s just not the same…)

On the more distinctly positive side: saw Richmond Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” last night. Just a couple of quick thoughts: Liz Blake is absolutely gorgeous and she is enchanting in this play. And Andrew Hamm has definitely grown as an actor…and he was pretty darn good before!

Also, the stars aligned so that I will be able to see “Rumplestiltskin’s Daughter” this weekend. I’m way looking forward to it.

OK, those were big bullet points. Imagine how big they’ll be when I actually have time to write! Yeesh.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

And one stinkin last thing

I've got a hectic few days coming up so may be a little silent on the blog front. Y'all talk amongst yourselves, K?


So a couple of posts ago, an anonymous commenter who alleges years of work in town said “[D]on't you think it's a little audacious for you…[to be] informing the community about socializing with its "stars" and "movers/shakers?" …[S]uch statements will easily provoke such responses from others as, "Well, I've worked MY butt off in this town. What do *I* have to do to hang out with Mr. Timberline and Co.??"

For one thing, I was not being audacious – I was being honest.

For another thing, I have gone over similar territory before in this post and don’t really feel the need to repeat myself. If you question my socializing with theater people, read what I wrote back in October and come back to me with a more specific question or concern. I acknowledge there are all sorts of possibilities for conflict of interest when you are a critic but I’m pretty comfortable navigating mine. Style’s fantastic dance critic, Lea Marshall, runs a dance company. Former theater critics for the publication have been playwrights. I believe they have had harder rows to hoe than I.

And yet another thing: Anon is probably vastly over-estimating the extent of my socializing with anyone, let alone the movers and shakers of local theater. I have four children, I go to grad school and I have a 9-5 job. I can count the nights I’ve spent “socializing” in the last 6 months on one hand. When I do manage to sneak out to see a show to review, I usually go alone. (I'm a critic, for god's sake; how many real friends do you think I could possibly have anyway?)

Finally, I’m going to risk extreme pedantry (it’s a word, honest) and use this question to tell an instructive little anecdote about me (because, you know, it IS all about me…) When I started in the theater scene here, I ran props backstage for Theatre IV. After that, I was lucky enough to convince a beautiful and talented actress to marry me, after which I was often relegated to the role of ‘semi-silent not-a-theater-person spouse sitting in the corner’ during those post-opening nights on the town. There were people who were friendly and personable and absolutely lovely to me back in those days when I was just an anonymous hanger-on. Those are the people I tend to still be friendly with now. There were people back then who I introduced myself to 3 or 4 times and they still couldn’t be bothered to remember me. I don’t really reach out to those people anymore. I think there’s a Buddhist principle wrapped up in this story somewhere. If you want to hang with people of ‘status,’ stop worrying who has status and be nice to everybody. And someone you are nice to might end up being a mover and shaker some day. Just a thought.

Monday, February 04, 2008


First off, I appreciate that the anonymous poster who was hatin on Rick was enough of a mensch to cop to liking “Laramie.” Thanks for setting a good example of how to be opinionated but also willing to make a concession (not a trait overly common in the blogosphere).

Second, I’d like to address some of what the other anonymous poster who talked about “stars” and “status” was saying. He/she said so much it’s hard to know where to start. While I don’t necessarily agree or don’t fully understand everything he/she said, I believe there are definitely some salient points in his/her post.

Since there’s no way I can address it all, I’ll try a couple of general statements that I hope at least show that I appreciate the comments. One is that any scene I’ve been involved in personally or professionally has certain elements of ‘high school’ in it. There are people who for some reason are perceived as popular and others who aren’t. But perception and reality are often (usually) different. Here’s one example from the theater world: I knew nothing about Chamberlayne Actors Theatre until they turned pro and I went to a couple of their shows. What I was surprised to find is that this sleepy little company had a large and fervent following. And from what I could tell, the people in the audiences of the shows I went to could care less what the critics said, they loved the work that CAT did. CAT was getting more and better support than the Barksdale was, for instance, which was in the process of going through financial and organizational turmoil at the time. The point I’m trying to make – and really trying (probably unsuccessfully) not to step on any toes – is that particularly in a town like Richmond, ‘star’ and ‘status’ are totally relative terms and, as Frank said, the most important critic is the theater-goer. I personally think Scott Wichmann is a star – thousands of people in Richmond have no idea who he is. But there are people who think Amy Berlin is a star (and rightly so!) and have never heard of Randy Strawderman.

Now some folks might complain that I’m being disingenuous because, if being a ‘star’ or having ‘status’ is relative and subjective, how come Barksdale / Firehouse / etc. always get the press coverage. I have two possibly contradictory things to say about that:

1) size does matter – some companies will always be looked to first for stories because of their budgets, the size of their audiences, the caliber of the people they hire (based on Equity membership for instance), their longevity in the community, etc. That’s life.


2) if you want to be treated like a professional, act like one. Just because a show or a program exists, does not mean that I (or Mary or Style) know about it. Anon said that some great work is going on at inconspicuous companies. That’s great but if those companies want to stop being inconspicuous, they are going to have to market themselves. Even if you are the biggest company in town, marketing is key. If you want more coverage, pitch a story – and not just “this production is going to be really great” – but something new or different or interesting – something that you’d want to read about even if you WEREN’T involved in the production. And if a pitch is not picked up the first or second or even third time, keep trying! It’s a lot like auditioning – there are a lot more actors than roles, and a lot more stories than there is space to print them.

OK, I’m sure I’m rambling now. I know I still haven’t addressed my audacity at saying I hang out with some people in the theater scene. More on that later. Must sleep now…

Social Climbing

Dear Dave,

What does it take to get to hang out with the Timberlines? I undersstand that according to a responder a few blogs ago (was it Frank Creasy?)I am just someone who writes an occaisional theatre review but I feel that I am vital to the "scene" anyway. Plus we have kids the same age who could be entertained by each other. We might even have some mutually interesting topics for conversation like uhhh, I don't
know..local theatre?

Just asking.

PS: Will do blog on "Little Women" soon. My opinion should count on this one because I am getting paid to see the show and review it rather than just going to see it for pleasure as in the case of "Rumplestiltskin's Daughter". Apparently someone thinks my thoughts on a show are invalid unless I am on official critic duty. Does that mean if an actor is not getting paid to do a role their performance doesn't count?

Saturday, February 02, 2008


It’s Saturday night and I should be sleeping. Or working on the prospectus for my term paper. Or doing my taxes. Or watching college basketball.

But you lovely people have given me SO much to write about, I feel I must at least knock one thing off my list of things to respond to before turning in tonight.

My wife has encouraged me to find that kindler, gentler DaveT wrapped up under those February doldrums so, instead of dashing off a vociferous response to the mr. or ms. Anonymous who is hatin on Rick St. Peter (I would have said dissin’ but that’s so 1990s, right?), I’ll use this as an opportunity to talk about the transformative power of theater.

It is because of Rick St. Peter that I tear up every time I hear the song “What if God was one of us” by Joan Osborne. His placement of that song at the end of his phenomenal production of “The Laramie Project” forever linked that melody with the confused feelings of sorrow and pain and torment and uplift and hope that I felt watching that show. It’s easily one of the top 5 great moments in theater that I’ve ever been lucky enough to experience. His direction of Rick Brandt in that production -- much like his direction of Scott Wichmann in "Hip-Hop" -- resulted in an exceptional actor delivering an incredible, exhilarating performance.

That play was the capstone to an amazing career for Rick here in Richmond, a tenure that redefined for me what theater could be. “suburbia,” “Stop Kiss” and “Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop” were among the most challenging, vital, fervent, engaging productions I have ever seen. Beyond what he has done on stage, I have been lucky enough to interact with Rick outside of the theater and have found him to be one of the most thoughtful, intelligent, insightful, and unpretentious theater people I have ever met.

I included comments from Rick in my piece because he has a perspective on theater that I don’t think I could get from anyone in Richmond. While here, he worked at many different levels of the theater scene, from TheatreVCU to independent productions at Theatre Gym to big budget Equity productions at TheatreVirginia. Since leaving Richmond, he’s run his own theater program as well as guest-directed for various others. He remains connected to the local scene via the many friends he has here and the Richmond actors he casts in his shows in Lexington (not to mention, those he outright steals from town altogether – lookin at you Parrish). He is beholden to no one here and can provide an informed, unbiased and coherent opinion on theater here and elsewhere, more so than few other people I can think of.

Rick is a source that any theater writer would be lucky to have. Even more so, I am lucky to have been able to sustain regular – if sporadic – contact with him over the years and feel great personal affection toward him, his lovely wife and his two children. That doesn’t mean I take his every word as the bonafide, unqualified gospel (check out the comments here for an example) but I feel honored that he still feels willing to share his thoughts in this space and am always delighted when he does.

Are we veering back into annoying love fest territory? Yeah, well, for Rick, it’s worth it. I'm glad to finally have an excuse to do a full-scale gush about Mr. St. Peter.

After a good night’s sleep and maybe a day or so of further rumination, I’ll try to lay out some thoughts about “status,” “stars” and what one has to do to hang out with Mr. Timberline and Company. In the meantime, I’ll be having sweet dreams about “Little Women” and other upcoming productions I’m very much looking forward to seeing.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Chris Brown

In my ongoing – and unsuccessful – bid to stay even marginally hip, I took my teenage daughter and a pal to the Chris Brown concert this past Tuesday. For those who may not know him, this 18 year old Virginia native is a quadruple threat, it turns out. He’s an incredibly athletic and entertaining dancer – capping off the concert with a series of handsprings across the stage – in addition to a great singer, a pretty good actor, and – as my daughter would say – a smokin’ hot hunk of eye-candy.

The concert was a good indication of what youngsters, at least – and I think audiences in general – have come to expect in terms of production values. Sure, the tickets were not cheap. But for twice what it would cost to see a show at the Barksdale, for instance, here’s what you got with CB:
  • a surprisingly exciting 5-minute animated movie featuring Mr. Brown as a Batman-like superhero,

  • two extended “dance offs” featuring a crew of hot and talented performers (plus two pint-size boys who were crowd faves),

  • significant amounts of fireworks and flashpots, lasers and other wild lighting,

  • projected “co-stars” including T-Pain and Rihanna,

  • two little theatrical vignettes performed in the context of songs that were pretty well done,

  • a two-song interlude performed on a rotating hydraulic stage near the back of the Coliseum (which thanks to our seats, put us in the very first row for those two songs and nearly sent all of the women around me into cardiac arrest),

  • performance of some top pop hits, including CB’s “Kiss Kiss,” “Run It,” and “With You,” and Rihanna’s “Umbrella.”
And all of that doesn’t even include the two opening acts, Soulja Boy (of ‘Crank Dat’ fame) and Bow Wow, who each had their own interesting (if less appealing to me) sets.

All in all, it was 3 ½ hours of pretty exceptional entertainment and I came away feeling like I totally got my money’s worth. Maybe it’s not fair to compare a huge concert to a stage show. But I know there are plenty of entertainment consumers out there who do some cost / entertainment value analysis when they are considering what to do with their time and money. And based on what I saw Tuesday, theater is going to have be pretty innovative to compete for that younger audience.


I realized I never provided a direct link to MaryB’s “report card” on theater in town. I will be honest in saying that the demographic comparison to Baltimore – which I questioned deep in the comments of this post -- still sticks in my craw a bit. Starting with it being much closer to DC than Richmond (check Google maps – Baltimore is 40 miles from DC, Richmond 100, or 2 ½ times further), Baltimore just doesn’t compare to Richmond in many ways. I spent some of my childhood years in suburban Baltimore and I used to have a job that put me in Baltimore 1 week a month for a year and it is simply a way different place than Richmond. The metro area population really doesn’t compare, particularly when you consider population density. There’s a reason Baltimore can support major league baseball and football franchises while Richmond can’t even support a triple-A baseball club. I expect there are about a dozen metrics you could look at where Baltimore is 3 or 4 times larger than Richmond, beyond number of professional and community theater companies.

However, having had my little demographic rant, I will say that I agree wholeheartedly with Mary’s basic premise – there’s not a whole lot of growth or dynamism in the local theater scene. The fact that Theatre IV’s Little Theater has been dark for something like 6 months is only one of the many bell-weathers I would point to as proof.

I am not – and I don’t think Mary was – pointing fingers at the local theater community. God knows that the folks Barksdale and RTP and CAT and Firehouse and RichShakes and everywhere are doing everything they can think to do to grow their programs. I think the problem is larger and more systematic. One of many key issues is the antagonism between the city and the counties in central Virginia – most of the money is in the counties and they won’t invest in growing the downtown scene.

I agree with Andrew in thinking it doesn’t do much good to bemoan Richmond’s scene in comparison to other city’s. We have what we have. But I totally disagree that the way things are is somehow acceptable. As I said in my piece, my fear is that good people will leave (have already started to leave) and not as many good people will come here if things don’t change. Richmond has so many of the components that could make it a really dynamic top-notch theater town. I think it’s a shame that the powers that be – money people, government people, arts people – can’t seem to get it together to make it happen.

I think about Baltimore with its thriving Harbor, Cincinnati with the popular river-side development, even Cleveland – my true hometown – has done wonders with an area that used to be a dirty mess (the Flats) and made it into a bustling scene. Maybe we’re heading that way with Toad’s Place and the National and more riverside happenings downtown. But at least where theater is concerned, it’s like Richmond is rewriting Beckett’s play as “Waiting for CenterStage.” Will it get here? What do we do in the meantime? When it gets here, will it be enough? I guess we’ll see.