I had occasion to check back on my year-end wrap-up article in Style online (here’s a link in case you missed it below) and was interested to see several comments posted. I was interested at their existence but somewhat dismayed by their content. Here are a few somewhat disheartening excerpts:
“Most of the shows in Richmond are more like the community theater shows in Washington.”
“The things that Richmond theaters consider cutting edge look like old hat in other cities.”
“[O]ne of the distinguishing features of Richmond's theatre scene from that of other, demographically similar communities, is the lack of professionalism in the industry in Richmond… [A]udiences are to be congratulated for opting not to spend large sums of money to see theatre which is less than fully professional.”
One can go too far in generalizing from a few scattered comments. But I think these are worth attention because they are well-written -- not mean or hysterical rants – and seem to be submitted by people who are actually theater fans (why else would they be going to the article online?)
So what is to be made of these comments? On one hand, I can’t help but feel a little personal gratitude in reading them. I get a fair amount of positive feedback on my reviews but, as would be expected, I also get a fair amount of guff (often second hand) when I am critical of a production. What I tell folks who care enough to ask is that if I notice a problem or are less than enamored with something in a production, you can bet there are at least a dozen others in the audience who are thinking the same thing. I can also assure you that there are plenty of theater fans in the audience who are looking at things WAY more critically than I am.
Beyond that, I would take a couple additional insights from these remarks. One is that theater professionals can only benefit from seeing as much theater as possible. I know this is a challenge for those who are working in theater but it’s clear that audiences make comparisons. Theater folks should know what their competition is (both in town and out) and should continue striving to meet or exceed the best work that they see.
I also would encourage the Artistic Directors out there to push for edgier work. If one thing can be learned from last year in Richmond and the success of “Little Dog Laughed” and “Reefer Madness,” it’s that there are audiences out there for more experimental, controversial or challenging material. Plus, there’s the added buzz factor that comes from pushing the envelope.
Finally, there is this comment: “The symphony and opera and ballet would never dare use non-professionals (except for children in the Nutcracker, of course) why is theatre allowed to get away with doing so?”
It’s a little befuddling to me that in a “free labor” – that is, non-union – state like Virginia that people would consider non-union actors “non-professional.” (Analogously, I spend most of my time working in Information Technology, even though I don’t belong to an IT union. Am I non-professional?) As I tried to touch on in my wrap-up, I think promoting the significant talents of local actors – whether they have their Equity cards or not – can only help to raise the profile of theater in town.