To me, nothing symbolizes the ambition, vision and even audacity of Chase Kniffen’s Stage 1 theater company more than the first production announced for its now sadly canceled second season. If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve seen “Rent.” Would you have ever even imagined in your lifetime seeing “Rent” in a smallish black-box-ish theater in suburban Mechanicsville? Not me. And nothing encapsulates my disappointment about Stage 1’s closing more than realizing that now I probably never will.
From its stirring, astounding debut on the Richmond scene less than a year ago with a concert version of “Ragtime,” there was something almost too good to be true about Stage 1 right from the beginning. Over the years, I’ve seen plenty of fledgling projects bubble up to the surface, poke along for awhile, and then flame out, wither and die, or just move on. Chase never seemed willing to settle for some kind of limp-along existence and his talent and drive clearly transcended one. His concert “Ragtime” was something that I could have imagined playing Lincoln Center or at least Center Stage. It was moving, exciting, emotional, and above all, featured some damn good people doing some damn good work.
This last part was what Chase then carried into Stage 1’s first season. The people who worked with him were among the best in town and he challenged them (or allowed them?) to do amazing things. I’m thinking particularly about the technical folks he employed who guaranteed that Stage 1’s shows didn’t have that slightly shabby, rough around the edges look that characterizes so many productions from young companies, often well into their third, fifth, or even tenth seasons. The sets were innovative, the costumes were consistently impressive and the lighting was simply dazzling.
And of course the actors were often phenomenal. We all knew Brett, Audra and Durron were good but I gained new respect for each of them after “tick tick Boom.” There was plenty (for me, in particular) to love about “Children’s Letters to God” but among the things I’ll appreciate most about it was that Chase brought young Mackenzie Mercer’s whopper of a voice to a wider audience. This spotlighting of young talent carried into “Normal” where Ali Thibodeau and Dave Amadee stole the show from their more experienced costars, who were no slouches either. Perhaps because Chase was a stage prodigy himself, he seemed to expect amazing things from his young actors, whether they were teens, pre-teens or even pre-adolescents. And the kids delivered for him every time.
This gets at my next biggest disappointment. Chase made a conscious effort to keep his finger on the pulse of theater appropriate for and attractive to a younger audience. And it wasn’t only just the “Spring Awakenings”-wannabe material that drips with sensuality and yells “fuck” at you at regular intervals, but shows like “Normal” that make an attempt to address real issues in a way that’s still entertaining. He, certainly more than me or anyone else I know, knew who the hot young writing talents were and kept up with what they were doing.
The final thing that I’ll miss from Stage 1 is the energy Chase infused his productions with. I heard him talk more than once about how little patience he had for lengthy transitions or awkward staging. As was clear with “Summer of ’42,” his productions moved, they practically demanded that you watch, and they rewarded people who paid attention. We’ve all seen the septagenarians who fall asleep halfway into the first act of many shows. I don’t have any stats on this, but I expect Stage 1’s “snooze index” was about the lowest in town.
Bruce Miller has written a fine and elegant post that honors the achievement of Stage 1 and rightly points out that Chase is still around and will continue to do good work. The disappointments I list will hopefully be short-lived and assuaged by future opportunities to shine that will be given to Mr. Kniffen. However, there was something particularly neat about Chase having his own place with the ability to run the show with his unflinching devotion to quality.
As great as Bruce’s post is, I am not quite as cavalier about “lessons learned.” Mostly I fear that there will be a negative lesson learned, that other young, ambitious artists will flinch in the face of the overwhelming challenges that confront a venture like Stage 1. Mr. Miller is more familiar with these than most, given that he was in the same boat a couple of decades ago or more with Theatre IV. I remember last summer, seeing the Stage 1 performance space transformed from a big empty room to an impressive performance venue largely through the blood, sweat, tears, and money that Chase and his small band of compatriots poured into it. One of the most impressive things about Chase was his willingness to work tirelessly and selflessly to make Stage 1 not just another company but something truly exceptional. Regardless of this particular outcome, I hope others will have the drive – the audacity even – to take this same kind of leap in the future. Because, while coming back to earth can be a disappointing or even a painful experience, the flight was glorious.