Friday, January 08, 2010

Education and Conversation

Bruce Miller has been blogging up a storm over at the Barksdale Buzz the past week or so. Personally, I’m still in recovery from the holidays. It may take me a week (or 6 or 12) to get back into a blogging groove.

Speaking of grooves, Barksdale’s “Spelling Bee” certainly seems to be in a good one. I called about tickets for the show this weekend and was told they are sold out. Congrats to the crew from Putnam County; seems like this one is turning out to be another winner for the Barksdale.

At some point this past week, I checked back to see what additional comments Ms. Burruss’s review of “A Christmas Carol” had generated. I was surprised and delighted to see that Mary had offered a response to some of the comments. I think there are many down sides to the democraticization of media that the Internet has wrought, for instance, the way so many articles now are met with a flurry of rants and incoherence in the comments section of any online publication. But among the plus sides are the opportunities for useful dialogue – rare but still possible – and also the insight into broader sentiments among a population that comments can provide.

In these particular responses, I was fairly appalled by the comments of “Markus” who called all theater in Richmond semi-professional at best. I think it’s fine that people disagree with a review; by all means, talk back and argue with a critic. But his comments show a basic misunderstanding of Richmond theater in general – one that I fear is more common than people might expect. I have retold several times the story of people who used to ask me when the next “real show” (that is, traveling production) was coming to town. The concept that Richmond professional theater is not professional is a persistent one.

(As a quick aside, I’d be curious what Markus does for a living. An actor paid in Richmond is a professional actor just like a stockbroker or lawyer getting paid in Richmond is a professional. Is a stockbroker or lawyer “semi-professional” because he’s working in a smaller market?)

To be fair, the average consumer has a right to be confused. Traveling shows get bigger hype – regular and splashy TV and newspaper ads. On the other side of the spectrum, you have productions offered by well-healed amateur programs – CYT or VCU – that have production values (and budgets) that easily outstrip those of the majority of Richmond’s pro theaters. The confusion apparent in the Style comments is a testament to the need for some education and awareness-raising among the locals.

The problem, of course, is who is going to do that? Local theaters don’t typically have enough money for widespread public education, let alone to promote their actual productions. I used to try to squeeze the occasional education tidbit in my reviews but it was hard not to make them sound pedantic and I also used to have twice as many words for my reviews. I still think a podcast or regular radio show about Richmond theater would be an awesome thing but who is going to do it (me? Find me 8 more hours every week and we can talk), who is going produce it and would anyone listen to it?

I think the revamped Arts Council could do some great things along this line but I have serious questions about how on the ball they are. I saw in a recent Facebook message from Jerry Williams that the Arts Council is having some meeting about the Regional Cultural Action Plan next Tuesday but their website has no details and I haven’t heard anything else beside that one status post. Anyone else have any details?

Anyway, while some of the comments filled me with dismay, some of the responses to Markus were heartening. I have seen some appalling stuff in Washington and New York and I have had many phenomenal theater experiences in Richmond. Unlike many movies, theater experiences don’t have to involve millions of dollars to be electrifying. And the size of the town doesn’t dictate the quality of the theater. A town with the population of 3 could have the best theater in the country – if the residents were Scott Wichman, Jennie Meharg and a great director (pick your favorite). Anyone who thinks otherwise has a lot to learn.

Of course, maybe we just need to get Brad and Angelina to come see a show down here and the media frenzy alone would fuel a season of sold-out shows, whether they were any good or not.


Jacquie O. said...

Here you go Dave. And FYI - Bus Stop is sold out for our final weekend as well.


Public Arts/Culture Meeting

To Everyone -

At 6:00 pm. Tuesday January 12 at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond there will be a public meeting to discuss the current status of the Richmond Region Cultural Action Plan and to hear an update on the Plan's progress to date. Published on March 16, 2009, the Plan has engaged volunteers and task teams that are working on and accomplishing many recommendations associated with the Plan's six visionary goals. The public is welcome and is invited to join this conversation at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond located at 1812 West Main Street.

P.S. Please share this e-mail broadly.

John Bryan
(804) 340-5284

Dave T said...

Thanks a bunch Jacquie -- and congrats on the sell-out!

Anonymous said...

I have heard Richmond Theatre called "semi-professional" several times by several people. It’s not always meant as an insult, they simply think it is factual. And they may be right; it’s a matter of opinion.

To use your example, if a lawyer in town made 90% of his income from house painting, would you call him a profession lawyer or professional house painter. If your landscaper was a member of the a truck driver's union, but only drove a truck for 6 weeks a year and again only earned 10% of his income truck driving, would he be a profession landscaper or truck driver? He's a member of the profession truck driver's union!

I would call them professional house painters and landscapers, but that doesn't mean their skills at Law or Truck Driving aren't possibly exemplary. Again, that’s my opinion; ask 10 people and you’ll get 10 different opinions. I have been paid in Richmond for acting on stage, in film, commercials, etc. By our local standards, I’m considered a professional actor. But that is not how I would answer when someone asks “What do you do for a living?”

For me the “Professional” debate over Richmond’s Theatre scene isn’t what’s holding the reputation or expectations of our work down. Didn’t Bruce Miller recently catch some heat for saying there needs to be less theatre companies in Richmond? (Or something like that) Well, what if he was right? We all know that Richmond is capable of producing some great work, but if we are to be honest with each other, wouldn’t we say those are very rare? The RAPT website lists 20 members, some of which are out of business. I’ve seen productions at all of them, and the vast majority of that work I’d call sub-standard. Not to be mean, just a fact of life, the production simply wasn’t very good and not worthy of ticket prices up to $40.

If I were to look at the list of members to the “Richmond Alliance of Professional Theatres” and judge harshly (which the local critics need to do more of in my opinion) and ignore how many friends I have working at these companies (something else our local critics need to do more of) I would say there are no more than 9 who should be listed under that title, and that’s just a first cut!

I’m afraid our little market is flooded with below average work and that keeps the overall opinion of the Richmond Theatre scene to those who view it from the outside as “Semi-professional”.

Andrew Hamm said...

I work as an optician, a music minister, a college adjunct, and a theatre artist. My income is split about 60%/30%/5%/5% between those four jobs. I am a professional at all three. I had to apply or audition for each job, I fill out tax forms for all four, I get paid for each, and I work my ass off to excel at all of them.

The companies that employ me have dedicated professionals who raise funds or generate income in order to pay me to be there. All of them have long-term plans in order to raise more money to pay me and others like me more. All four have plans to grow and improve their product and customer base. I would not do any of these four jobs for free, as much as I love each of them.

The money I make as a theatre artist helps to pay my bills. One of my bills is a student loan from going to school to improve myself as a theatre artist. I invest some of it in equipment, books, and other materials to improve myself as an artist.

I am a professional theatre artist in Richmond. You liking or not liking my work or the work of my peers has no bearing on that whatsoever.

Anonymous said...

There was a rant in last week's Style's letters to the editor about Theatre IV's "Christmas Carol" as well.

Dave T said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave T said...

Here's a link to the letter to the editor.