Sunday, August 30, 2009

What we have here is a failure to communicate

Deep within the sporadically fascinating correspondence between representatives of CenterStage and Roy Proctor, you can find this exchange:

CS: “[This] is very interesting and a wonderful piece for the book depicting exactly the type of historical activity we want to commemorate.”

RP: “I never saw this book as a matter of the commemoration of historical activity, whatever that means, and I was never told that that was its intent, either.”

To me, this exchange pretty much captures the essence of this spat: two parties that had very different goals and who both realized way too late in the process that they were on different pages. If I had to pick two words to sum it all up, I’d have to go with “miscommunication” and “unfortunate.”

As he is wont to do, Bruce Miller has written an exceptionally even-handed blog post about the conflict with a “Viva la difference” theme that reflects many of my sentiments about the whole thing. And maybe most of the world (or at least Richmond) has moved on from this and really doesn’t care to hash it out any more. That’s fine.

But what still holds fascination for me are the suppositions and tendencies evident in the back-n-forth between the two parties. When I first read about the situation, I was ready to chock this up to another public miscue on the part of the CenterStage folks, trying to spin history and quash negativity. Being at least marginally a journalist, I was all set to take up the side of Mr. Proctor and defend his journalistic integrity.

But I have been on both the hiring side and the "being hired" side of the client/freelancer equation and, looking at things in that light, I find that neither of the parties in this situation are blameless.

It seems clear (to me, at least) that the CenterStage folks had no idea what they were getting with Roy and even approaching him to write a piece of marketing (which is what they wanted, not a piece of journalism) was an error in judgment. Having secured Roy’s services, they seem to have compounded the error by not being specific in exactly what they expected from him – an error I’ve seen many clients make and that can lead to all sorts of confusion and frustration later on in a project. Any number of folks could have steered CenterStage to one of the other equally talented writers in town who could have delivered exactly what they wanted, but nobody did. Unfortunate.

Peruse the correspondence, however, and you get a sense of a writer who does not appreciate being edited, even a little. I’ve had clients tell me to toss out entire pieces, reorder and rework large swaths, and focus more distinctly on this or that, for whatever reason. And, as an employee being employed, and as long as I’m not lying or committing slander, I’ve generally done what I’m told. Instead, Roy responded thusly:

CS: “The focus on TheatreVirginia on page 2 and 3 feels like an unnecessarily large part of the narrative.”
RP: The demise of TheatreVirginia and its place in the Richmond CenterStage scheme of things is one of the most dramatic chapters in the entire saga of Richmond CenterStage…I think the length is justified, and I oppose changing it.

Excuse me? Your editor tells you to cut, you cut. Or you quit and forfeit your commission.

Beyond this kind of testy exchange, there is also some professorial editorializing in Roy’s responses that, again, seem to me wildly out of place in a client/freelancer relationship:

CS: “We have a fear that the number of mentions of the News Leader and RTD are so numerous that the copy reads as a recount of newspaper clippings. Is there a way to minimize the number of mentions?”
RP: “Newspapers, with their day-in-day-out, on-the-spot, you-are-there reporting, are an incomparable source for the kind of writing we’re dealing with here. They reveal the truth and essence of a situation in a way that any number of after-the-fact interviews with image-conscious people or document perusals cannot.”

Again, excuse me? First there is the simple editing thing: the editor says fewer clips, generally I would tend to say OK, I’ll cut some clips. Furthermore, I do a lot of historical research as part of my graduate program and, while newspapers are undoubtedly an invaluable historical resource, they have their own inherent biases, some of those biases making them virtually useless in historical research. Also, they are only one source among many. But perhaps most relevant in this situation: if I’m going to give my client a lecture, I tend to do it in a slightly more friendly tone.

But my favorite exchange of them all is this:

CS: “Can we not refer to CenterStage as ‘costliest?’”
RP: “Again, why? I have a vast knowledge of Richmond theater history going back to the building of the New Theatre in 1784, and Richmond CenterStage is indeed the most expensive and extensive arts project ever achieved in downtown Richmond. I oppose changing it.”

This is a clear case of CenterStage trying to mince words and dodge the thornier aspects of a project that has had its problems from the start. But Proctor’s response where he talks about his “vast knowledge of Richmond theater” (is he talking about firsthand knowledge of the 1784 theater???) is dripping with ego. Whoever the people were that were laughing and chatting amiably when this project started, these people are clearly not the ones interacting anymore. The naked intent of the marketer had run head-on into the naked ego of the veteran journalist. If Mr. Proctor wants to write a journalistic history of CenterStage, he is still free to do so and maybe a publisher will buy that book. But that doesn’t seem to be what CenterStage thought they were buying.

In the end, I agree with Mr. Miller: this is not a fight with a clear winner. But it’s also an instructive example to everyone involved in this venture – and I include all Richmond-area artists, writers, and citizens in that cohort. It’s easy to see CenterStage as the “big bad” here and I’ll be the first to say that I think many –maybe most -- of the ways that this project has been pursued have left me scratching my head.

But there is plenty of ego, prestige, influence, and plain old money on the table here. There’s a lot at stake. When that’s the case, even a simple client/freelancer relationship can be fraught with complication and nuance that blurs the simple good guy / bad guy dynamic into a murkier post-modern stew of intention, misperception and clashing purposes.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Front and Center

Not to be too naked in my advocacy of my part-time employer, but Style with its truly comprehensive coverage of the opening of CenterStage (listing of all the articles here) is absolutely a cover-to-cover read this week. I say that because, beyond all the nice and informative pieces including Ms. Burruss's interview with Richmond Shakespeare's Grant Mudge, you really need to keep going all the way to the end and take in Roy Proctor's Back Page piece on his commission to write the CenterStage history.

I am delighted to see Mr. Proctor's byline in Style, I think it is an intriguing story, and it marks another puzzling aspect of this whole 70-plus million dollar excursion into the unknown. The countdown to the grand opening continues...stay tuned!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Fully Committed nearly fully committed

Are you doing anything this Saturday afternoon? If you haven't seen "Fully Committed" out at the Tavern, that's looking like your last chance to do so. As I'm writing this, there are a handful of seats left for the 2pm show but there may not be by the time you read this.

I saw FC last Thurs with the whole family and we all left the show thoroughly star-struck. This feeling only increased during our brief interaction with Scotty after the show, during which he was totally interactive with my kids in a charitable, empathetic way that is unusual for most adults (at least in my experience). It took me back to an interview I did with the stars of “Ella and her Fella Frank” ten years ago where I had my girls with me, 4 and 6 years old at the time. Scott was engaging and friendly back then in much the same way.

As I get older, I am more surprised by the things that don’t change than by the ones that do. I think part of the cynicism of advanced age grows out of continually being disappointed about reality not living up to memory. Among the few things that combat that process are those things that remain true. It sure appears to me that, while his talent and interests have obviously grown over the past decade, Scott’s core attributes – funny, generous, smart – have not changed. It’s enough to give an old man hope.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Questions, questions

Since my post of the nominees yesterday, I've received a lot of questions, some highly rhetorical, some just wanting more information. Here are a couple answers, more will come later, others will have to remain unanswered:

All nominees, presenters and critics will need to buy tickets to attend the awards events. We kept the ticket price low so that this hopefully does not inhibit anyone from coming. We realize that it's a little weird to require people to pay for entry into an event where they've been nominated for an award. But it's the only way we can make it work, both administratively and financially. No one is lining their pockets with the prodigious sums that will be collected: Any and all profits from the event will be donated to the Theatre Artist's Fund.

Most people can purchase tickets online (there's a link on the Theatre IV site) but nominees need to call the Theatre IV box office directly. Some seating has been reserved to allow nominees easier access to the stage should they need to accept an award. Nominees are also encouraged to send an email to rtccva@gmail.com if you want to be kept apprised of any nominee-specific (mostly logistical) news that might be pertinent down the road.

The Critics Circle selected nominees and winners for the awards in a collaborative process involving all 6 members. Those who are preparing to rail against me personally – or who have already done so – can cool their jets. Just like other theater lovers, I am disappointed that some of my favorites are not included among the nominees and bewildered about some of the ones who are included. But I have a “defending the First Amendment”-like assertion about the nominee list: I may not agree with everything on it, but I staunchly defend the process – and the people who slogged through it – that resulted in the final list.

Is the selection process perfect? Of course not. Are worthy candidates overlooked? Very likely. But in some categories, there were 10 or 12 worthy contenders. Consider this: I know for a fact that there is at least one person out there who thinks the entire Best Actor nominee list should be Scott Wichmann (Richard III), Scott Wichmann (This Wonderful Life), and Scott Wichmann (Fully Committed). Given the breadth and depth of choices, and the wide variety of tastes and opinions among us critics, I am both proud of the final list and moderately amazed that we were able to come up with one at all.

This event was organized last year by advocates of theater who believe it will assist in raising the profile of live theater in Richmond. We really believe that by doing our small part in drawing more attention to this often-overlooked arts discipline, all boats will rise, as it were. Recognizing some people and productions because of our perception of their excellence is not meant to diminish the hard work and exceptional talent of the scores of worthy theater artists who are not on this list. Whether you are listed among the nominees or not, I strongly encourage you to please come to the event on October 18th. It really is a party for everyone. And, if last year was any indication, it should be a blast.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Nominations announced

Sorry for the delay in getting these out. Below is the text of a press release that will go out later this evening. Sorry if the formatting makes it hard to read. Congrats to all of the nominees. If you are getting to this page from Facebook and have questions, some may be answered by this post. More commentary to follow...

Theatre awards to feature new categories, special recognitions
Second annual "Artsies" to be held at Empire Theatre on October 18th

Richmond, VA - The Richmond Theatre Critics Circle (RTCC) has announced the nominees for the Second Annual RTCC "Artsies" Awards for the 2008-09 season, including several new nomination categories and several special recognitions. The group, which was organized to recognize excellence in professional theatre produced in the Richmond area, will hold a black-tie awards gala at 7:00 P.M. on Sunday, October 18th at the Empire Theatre with local NBC newscaster Aaron Gilchrist acting as Master of Ceremonies. Nominations for the Awards are listed below.

"We really hope to kick it up to the next level with this year's awards," asserts RTCC's newest member, John Porter, theatre critic for WCVE Public Radio. "A bigger venue, more star power, and an expanded number of nominees should help us build on the tremendous success of last year's inaugural event." The awards ceremony will feature musical performances from productions nominated for Best Musical. Scheduled presenters include Mayor Dwight Jones and best-selling author David L. Robbins.

RTCC has made nominations in twenty categories, adding recognition for Best Ensemble Acting, Outstanding Achievement in Sound Design, and Outstanding Achievement in Hair or Makeup Design. The Liz Marks award in recognition of extraordinary ongoing contribution to the Richmond-area theatre scene will be presented to the families of Wamer "Buddy" Callahan and Lou Rubin, two of the co-founders of the Swift Creek Mill Theatre.

"There were so many wonderful productions this year, it was difficult to narrow many of the categories down," adds Mary Burruss, an RTCC co-founder and theatre critic for Style Weekly magazine, citing the seven nominees included in the category for Outstanding Achievement in Set Design. RTCC is also giving special recognition for outstanding Fight Choreography to Vanessa Passini for her work on Richmond Shakespeare's "Henry V" and for Outstanding Dialect Direction to Amanda Durst for her work on several productions this past season.

Winners in each of the categories will be announced at a black-tie gala awards ceremony is being sponsored in part by the C.F. Sauer Company and Richmond CenterStage, with media sponsorship provided by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

All proceeds from the awards ceremony will go to support the Richmond Theatre Artists Fund, a fund established by the Richmond Alliance of Professional Theatres to help those in the Richmond theatre community who fall on hard of times due to illness, injury or extenuating circumstances. Members of the RTCC include Mary Burruss (Style Weekly magazine), Susan Haubenstock (Richmond Times-Dispatch), Julinda Lewis (Richmond Times-Dispatch), John Porter (WCVE), David Timberline (Style Weekly magazine), and Joan Tupponce (JoanTupponce.com).

Formal attire is encouraged for the awards ceremony, which is open to the public. Tickets for the event are $10 and can be purchased from the Theatre IV box office by calling 344-8040.

Nominations for the Second Annual Richmond Theatre Critics Circle Awards
for the 2008-2009 theatre season

Category
Best Musical
Altar Boyz, Swift Creek Mill Theatre
Annie, Theatre IV
The Great American Trailer Park Musical, Firehouse Theatre Project
Thoroughly Modern Millie, Barksdale Theatre
tick, tick...Boom!, Stage 1 Theatre Company

Best Direction - Musical
Robin Arthur, Annie, Theatre IV
Patti D'Beck,, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Barksdale Theatre
Chase Kniffen, Children's Letters to God, Stage 1 Theatre Company
Chase Kniffen, tick, tick...Boom!, Stage 1 Theatre Company
Tom Width, Altar Boyz, Swift Creek Mill Theatre

Best Actor - Musical
Brett Ambler, tick, tick...Boom!, Stage 1 Theatre Company
Gordon Bass, Annie, Theatre IV
Zak Resnick, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Barksdale Theatre
Christopher Stewart, Summer of '42, Stage 1 Theatre Company
Paul Valley, The Great American Trailer Park Musical, Firehouse Theatre Project

Best Actress - Musical
Kim Jones Clark, The Great American Trailer Park Musical, Firehouse Theatre Project
Audra Honaker, tick, tick...Boom!, Stage 1 Theatre Company
Maggie Marlin, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Barksdale Theatre
Robyn O'Neill / Angela Shipley, Side Show, Swift Creek Mill Theatre
Joy Williams, Annie, Theatre IV

Best Supporting Actor - Musical
Timothy Ford, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Barksdale Theatre
Chris Hester, The Great American Trailer Park Musical, Firehouse Theatre Project
Christopher Hlusko, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Barksdale Theatre
Drew Seigla, Summer of '42, Stage 1 Theatre Company
Sean Williams, Altar Boyz, Swift Creek Mill Theatre

Best Supporting Actress - Musical
Ellie Atwood, Summer of '42, Stage 1 Theatre Company
Nancy McMahon, The Great American Trailer Park Musical, Firehouse Theatre Project
Linda Poser, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Barksdale Theatre
Maggie Roop, Annie, Theatre IV
Ali Thibodeau, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Barksdale Theatre

Best Musical Direction
Sandy Dacus, tick, tick...Boom!, Stage 1 Theatre Company
Paul Deiss, Altar Boyz, Swift Creek Mill Theatre
Paul Deiss, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Barksdale Theatre
Jimmy Hicks, Children's Letters to God, Stage 1 Theatre Company
Tony Williams, Summer of '42, Stage 1 Theatre Company

Best Choreography
Robin Arthur, Annie, Theatre IV
Patti D'Beck, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Barksdale Theatre
Mickey Nugent, Altar Boyz, Swift Creek Mill Theatre

Best Play
Children of a Lesser God, Barksdale Theatre
The Clean House, Barksdale Theatre
Eurydice, Firehouse Theatre Project
True West, Henley Street Theatre Co
Well, Barksdale Theatre

Best Direction
Steve Perigard, The Clean House, Barksdale Theatre
Bruce Miller, Children of a Lesser God, Barksdale Theatre
Bo Wilson, True West, Henley Street Theatre Co
Rusty Wilson, Eurydice, Firehouse Theatre Project
Keri Wormald, Well, Barksdale Theatre

Best Actor - Play
David Clark, True West, Henley Street Theatre Co
Tony Foley, True West, Henley Street Theatre Co
Joe Inscoe, Eurydice, Firehouse Theatre Project
Landon Nagel, Children of a Lesser God, Barksdale Theatre
Scott Wichmann, Richard III, Henley Street Theatre Co

Best Actress - Play
Robin Arthur, The Clean House, Barksdale Theatre
Bianca Bryan, The Clean House, Barksdale Theatre
Laine Satterfield, Eurydice, Firehouse Theatre Project
Erica Siegel, Children of a Lesser God, Barksdale Theatre
Jody Strickler, Well, Barksdale Theatre

Best Ensemble Acting
A Midsummer Night's Dream, Richmond Shakespeare
Altar Boyz, Swift Creek Mill Theatre
Children's Letters to God, Stage 1 Theatre Company
The Great American Trailer Park Musical, Firehouse Theatre Project
Driving Miss Daisy, Barksdale Theatre

Best Actor in a Supporting Role - Play
Larry Cook, Eurydice, Firehouse Theatre Project
Brandon Crowder, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Henley Street Theatre Co
Richard Gregory, Children of a Lesser God, Barksdale Theatre
Michael Hawke, Arsenic & Old Lace, Swift Creek Mill Theatre
Steve Moore, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Henley Street Theatre Co

Best Actress in a Supporting Role - Play
Jolene Carroll / Jackie Jones, Arsenic & Old Lace, Swift Creek Mill Theatre
Elise Boyd, Inspecting Carol, Sycamore Rouge
Jan Guarino, The Clean House, Barksdale Theatre
Marta Rainer, Rabbit Hole, Firehouse Theatre Project
Stefani Zabner, Of Mice and Men, Swift Creek Mill Theatre

Outstanding Achievement in Lighting Design
Joe Doran, Altar Boyz, Swift Creek Mill Theatre
Joe Doran, Of Mice and Men, Swift Creek Mill Theatre
Lynne Hartman, The Clean House, Barksdale Theatre
Kenny Mullens, Children's Letters to God, Stage 1 Theatre Company
Kenny Mullens, Summer of '42, Stage 1 Theatre Company

Outstanding Achievement in Costume Design
Rebecca Cairns / Ann Hoskins, Henry V, Richmond Shakespeare
Sue Griffin, The Clean House, Barksdale Theatre
Sue Griffin, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Barksdale Theatre
Elizabeth Weiss Hopper, Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Theatre IV
Charlotte Schiff / Betty Williams, All My Sons, Chamberlayne Actors Theatre

Outstanding Achievement in Set Design
Brian Barker, Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Theatre IV
Phil Hayes, Eurydice, Firehouse Theatre Project
Lin Heath, All My Sons, Chamberlayne Actors Theatre
Ron Keller, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Barksdale Theatre
Keith Saine, Translations , Sycamore Rouge
Mercedes Schaum, Summer of '42, Stage 1 Theatre Company
Tom Width, Of Mice and Men, Swift Creek Mill Theatre

Outstanding Achievement in Sound Design
Buddy Bishop, Chapter Two, Chamberlayne Actors Theatre
Derek Dumais, Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Theatre IV
Bryan Harris, Eurydice, Firehouse Theatre Project
Derome Scott Smith, From the Mississippi Delta, African American Repertory Theatre
Wendy Vandergrift, Summer of '42, Stage 1 Theatre Company

Outstanding Achievement in Hair / Makeup Design
Sue Griffin, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Barksdale Theatre
Sarah Grady, Annie, Theatre IV
Junior Oxendine, Pulp, Richmond Triangle Players
Elizabeth Weiss Hopper, Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Theatre IV

Outstanding Achievement, in Dialect Direction
Amanda Durst, Multiple productions

Outstanding Achievement in Fight Choreography
Vanessa Passini, Henry V, Richmond Shakespeare

Liz Marks Memorial Award for Ongoing Contribution to Richmond Area theatre
Wamer "Buddy" Callahan, Lou Rubin

Antici…pation

There’s a sense, at least in my little corner of the world, of a lull in the action. Summer camps and swim teams are largely done, kids are hustling up to finish their summer reading before school starts, several coworkers are on vacation.

However, it’s not exactly a lull time as far as local theater goes. Theatre IV is readying its bazillion tours to go out into the field once schools open; other local companies are in -- or soon will be in – audition for their first Fall show. And so I think – and I’m totally projecting here so I may be totally off -- there may be more of a feeling of anxious anticipation among many of the theater folk in town rather than the enjoyment of a brief respite.

There are three things that do have me feeling some of that eager anticipatory feeling: 1) the opening of CenterStage in a few weeks (have you seen the sparkly stars that trail your mouse on their website – it’s pretty way cool!), 2) the arrival of my new boss at Style, Don Harrison, who while running his popular website, SaveRichmond.com, has had many pointed and insightful things to say about CenterStage, and 3) an eminent awards-related announcement. So while I can never fully empathize with my pals deeply engrossed in the business, I can sorta get a glimpse of what it may be like in some corners of the theater world right now. Here’s hoping all of our endeavors turn out well!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Adding it up

Next Thursday, I’ll be seeing “Fully Committed” at Hanover Tavern. I just checked my geeky little spreadsheet where I keep track of company schedules and various other details and noted that it’ll be the 40th distinct local professional theater production I’ve seen between September 2008 and August 2009.

I say “distinct” because I saw Stage 1's “Children’s Letters to God” at least 4 times, maybe 5. I saw Theatre IV’s “Annie” twice all the way through and other additional snippets during its run.

I say “local” because I saw “Oliver!” in Charlottesville 3 times and “South Pacific” in NYC, just once.

I say “professional” because I saw two VCU productions, an exceptional CYT show and a few endearing school plays.

And I also saw a few shows that I don’t exactly know where they fall along these various spectra (is the Playhouse at Fort Lee local? Is it professional? I don’t honestly know either answer.)

So if you add it all up, I can pretty confidently say that I saw, on average, one play a week this past year. Out of all of those productions, I wrote 20 reviews. (I also wrote an indeterminate number of features and interviews, maybe 8 or 10?) This leads me to make a few comments:

People wonder – some out loud, some just to themselves I’m sure – what qualifies me to be a critic. If I was lost in a fit of braggadocio, I could maybe outline some journalistic qualifiers. But one of the most important aspects of being a good critic, I think, is seeing a whole bunch of shows. I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years now and so have seen at least 500 distinct local theater productions during that time. Nothing has given me as much perspective on the range of talent and skill available here in Richmond or versed me as well in the differences between just a good show and a truly amazing one.

I’m realizing slowly but surely that this level of viewership is unsustainable for me. A couple of years back, I was going to fewer plays because I was writing fewer reviews but this past year, because of my son’s activities and because of the whole Critics Circle awards thing, I’ve been seeing more shows. And I am regularly encouraged / invited to see the ones I’ve missed. I can’t keep it up. There’s simply not enough nights in the week or hours in the day.

I’m really lucky. Not many people get to see so much theater. And fewer get paid to do it. If seeing theater and writing about it paid enough to feed my family, I’d do it as my sole vocation (maybe). And whether the number of shows I see diminishes or not, I’ll never stop going. Theatre is simply too much fun.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Style Weekly Names Don Harrison as Arts & Culture Editor

Below is a bit of news released late yesterday afternoon. It's good news for local theater folks to have someone well-versed in the local scene at the Arts helm at Style. I worked tangentially with Don at 64 magazine and am looking forward to working with him more directly at Style.

RICHMOND – Award-winning journalist Don Harrison, a longtime Virginia arts advocate, has been named Arts & Culture Editor of the 27-year-old Style Weekly, an alternative newsweekly covering news, arts, culture and opinion in the state capital.

Harrison, a Style contributor, also has served as contributing editor of the bimonthly lifestyle magazine Virginia Living, associate editor of the former regional arts publication 64 Magazine and helped launch the former Soul of Virginia magazine. He’s contributed to Parade Magazine, AOL-Digital Cities, C-Ville Weekly, the Daily Press and The Virginian-Pilot.

In July Harrison completed a two-year project as chief researcher and writer for “Virginia Rocks! The History of Rockabilly in the Commonwealth,” a 2-CD set and museum exhibit produced in conjunction with the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum at Ferrum College. The project, in partnership with Brent Hosier and Grammy-winning sound specialist Chris King, was partially funded with a grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

Harrison also has been a Richmond representative to the Virginia Commission for the Arts’ Central Virginia advisory council and served on the Arts Council of Richmond’s Arts and Cultural Funding Consortium. (He will step down from those positions in assuming this new role with Style Weekly.) Since 2006 he’s been an active member of the programming committee for the widely acclaimed National/Richmond Folk Festival.

In accepting this position with Style, Harrison will retire from his participation in SaveRichmond.com, a six-year-old blog that received the 2005 Laurence E. Richardson Freedom of Information Award from the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

Harrison can be reached at Style Weekly beginning Monday, Aug. 17, at 804-358-0825, ext. 347, and at don.harrison@styleweekly.com.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Oh what a night

"Late December back in ’63, what a lady, what a night…"

Oh, sorry, just having a little “Jersey Boys” moment. But, speaking of nights, I caught up with “Night of January 16th” at Sycamore Rouge last Friday and was glad that I did. A show that has a real danger of being a “gimmick” show ended up being a thoroughly involving drama under Shanea Taylor’s focused direction. And even though I have read dozens of detective / mystery type books and should have seen it coming, I ended up being nicely surprised by the second act reveal.

But what made me think of the old “December ‘63” song was Beth Von Kelsch’s excellent performance as “superwoman” Karen Andre. If you read Ayn Rand when you are fairly young (which I did) and then grow up to discover irony, moral relativism, and all the ways that Rand’s philosophy runs into trouble in the real world, the “John Galt” uber-mensch stuff can be almost a little embarrassing. But Von Kelsch made Andre human as well as commanding and convincing as the willing follower of the bigger-than-life industrialist we never meet, Bjorn Faulkner. My favorite moment may have been the mixture of haughtiness, annoyance and impatience when she was offered the Bible to swear on.

Also worthy of special note was David White who essentially owns the third act of the show. He pulled off some startling emotional outbursts, but really shines in the smoothly sinister ease in which he deflects the questioning of the dogged District Attorney. It was definitely worth hanging in there until the end to see Mr. White’s fine work. It was also fun to see his lovely fiancĂ© spending time in the jury box at the performance I attended.

I thoroughly enjoyed Ryan Tiller as the firey Defense Attorney – and have to compliment whoever outfitted him with those fancy shoes in the third act – as well as Marie Weigle as the not-so-convincingly grieving widow, Nancy Lee Faulkner. Both of their performances leaned toward a certain one-notedness but, particularly in the context of a courtroom drama, they were entirely appropriate.

As I think I’ve said before, sometimes it’s quality in the smaller roles that really push a production from good to great. Dean Knight and Elise Boyd both were given opportunities to chew the scenery in their relatively small parts and both did a fine job of it. And Jack Lambert was a stitch as Elmer Sweeney; I hope to see him in something else that will give him more of a chance to show his stuff.

The show isn’t perfect – it starts out pretty slow and some of the courtroom conventions are a little clunky. A couple of the performances were a bit stiff. The night I went, the intermission was fairly interminable, going on for almost a half-hour, but maybe I was just anxious for things to get going again.

But that's kind of beside that point. Perhaps the most fascinating part of the show is how the bold philosophy of an author writing 70 years ago can seem so startling in our “progressive” (or maybe not so much...) culture of today. Rand professed a brazen arrogance of the gifted and an intolerance for anything that hindered their progress. These days we’ve grown uneasy with anything that pushes so hard against our embrace of structure, rules, morality, and religion. On an intellectual level, I wasn’t too surprised when kb told me that audiences had found Andre “Not Guilty” every night – if anything, the show does a fine job of sowing seeds of “reasonable doubt” in a jury. But I would have expected that an older, perhaps more conservative jury along the way would have convicted Ms. Andre.

I certainly do wish I was there on closing night when they stopped the show to allow the cast to weigh in on Andre’s guilt or innocence. Though you might think this would put the gimmick of the show a little too prominently forward, the energizing aspect of the blurred 4th wall sounds like it totally made it worth it. “Night” was an excellent end to exceptional season for Sycamore Rouge. I’ll be looking forward to seeing more of their stuff in a couple of months.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Wine, Women and Song

I know it’s late notice but if you aren’t doing anything tonight, you might check out a staged reading by Deep Water Productions, a newish company that has been doing the occasional reading or event over the past year. “Wine in the Wilderness” sounds like an intriguing show and I would hope that Deep Water will be able to do a full production of it someday (NOTE: I just doublechecked and this staged reading will actually be performed tonight and tomorrow night at the Hickory Hill Community Center. Also note that the time is non-standard: 6pm!)

And even though there continues to be productions to see in town (“Night of January 16th” closes at Sycamore Rouge this weekend!), you might look into a trip northward to see Richmond native and still favorite Emily Skinner in Signature’s “Dirty Blonde” starting next week. It’s still hard for me to think of Emily as anything but that sweet, innocent and insanely talented teenager I first met over 20 years ago. I expect seeing her do Mae West would finally and permanently change that paradigm for me!

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

I may reach for thuhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh gun

I did my semi-regular check of the theater-related stories at Entertainment Weekly and came across this item, which about made my stomach turn. I caught Springer on Dancing With the Stars a couple of times and he came across much more self-deprecating and normal than he has when I've seen snippets of his repugnant TV show. But still: can he really hold that note in "We Both Reached for the Gun?" I'd have to see it (hear it) to believe it. I don't have a categorical aversion to stunt casting like I know some people do (it's show biz folks!), but you gotta have at least the minimal level of talent to make the part work or it just doesn't make sense.

I also saw this nice little piece on "Burn the Floor" which made me curious enough to go read this somewhat more snarky Times review of the show. I've got at least one dance-crazed daughter that I expect would love this show to death so I hope it sticks around for a while.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Pre-Critic

I’ve said before that I think stage directors don’t get enough credit. I’ve said this because I noticed only within the past few years that I’ve often been guilty of not recognizing or not acknowledging the tremendous work directors do. This hasn’t been a universal tendency; in fact, for me it tends to run either very hot or very cold. I’ll be enamored of the work of a director – like Rick St. Peter or Chase Kniffen, for instance – and so I’ll trumpet their triumphs nearly every chance I get. I won’t apologize for doing so because one of my true (one of my few…) pleasures as a reviewer is to dole out praise where I think it is deserved.

But I’m afraid that the impression that can sometimes be given is that productions where the director is not mentioned specifically just kind of spring into existence, the actors and technicians just doing their jobs and the pieces magically falling into place.

For instance, my last post mentioned “Driving Miss Daisy” and I had a little back-n-forth in the comments about the merits of the various actors. Neither I nor Mr./Ms. Anonymous brought up Joe Pabst who certainly must be commended for shepherding this production to success. As I mentioned below, I think it is easy for any of the characters in “DMD” to fall into caricature – crotchety old white woman, servile but proud black man, etc. For DMD to really succeed, these characters have to be real and it’s the job of the director to pull the reins when any of these really broad tendencies start to take over. Though they might not think of themselves this way, I think there are situations when a director has to be a sort of pre-critic, looking at a show the way a critic or an audience member will look at it, giving perspective and of course, imparting their own artistic vision.

Another tricky situation is a one-person show. It’s easy to think that when an actor is flying solo on stage, he’s been working that way all along. One actress who I respect tremendously, Jill Bari Organ (nee Steinberg), has always been exceedingly generous in her praise of Keri Wormald who directed her in “The Syringa Tree” and was similarly appreciative of Amy Berlin who did “Shirley Valentine.” As much as anyone else, she has opened my eyes to the true collaboration that happens between actor and director in situations like that.

Similarly, Scott Wichmann specifically gave kudos to Steve Perigard for his work on “Fully Committed;” I included one of his quotes in my piece on Scott a couple weeks back. There is no doubt that Scott does amazing work in this show but, perhaps even more succinctly than in ensemble shows where they may be some interactional correction of aberrant acting, it is also clear that Scott was guided by someone with a keen theatrical sensibility and a clear vision. As straight and true as a train may be, it'll jump the track if it doesn't have someone modulating the speed.

Beyond that, as anyone knows who has worked on a show, the director gives the final word on all aspects of a production and the good ones are aware of everything from the largest thematic issues to the smallest cut of a costume’s hemline. Another thing that I find kind of amazing about directors is most of the ones I know are among the least self-aggrandizing people in the theater world. They usually are uncommonly focused on getting the job done and, as Patti D’Beck recently told me, making everyone else look good. A somewhat unfortunate side-effect of this characteristic, however, is that when the reviews come out, or the blog posts get written, the director’s name does not get enough prominence. So this post is a small attempt to rectify that. Good work Joe and Steve with your recent dazzling successes, and retroactive kudos to all of the other directors I so often neglect. You are appreciated, if not always singled out.