Monday, January 24, 2011

Buy local

Susan Haubenstock’s review of The Fiddler’s House was in Sunday’s T-D. Worth a read if you haven’t read it yet. My thoughts on the production will wait until my review is published but I will say that I concur with many of Ms. Haubenstock’s observations.

One of the intriguing things about Fiddler’s House is that is was written by – and the Chamberlayne Actors Theatre production is directed by – Richmonder Sheryle Criswell. Criswell’s play is the first in a whole season of Richmond premieres that CAT will be producing this year. That’s certainly a bold choice by the ever-intriguing company and it opens the door to a topic that I’ve wondered about for some time now.

Over the years, people have talked to me – or challenged me – with questions along the lines of “what would it take for Richmond to be a major theater town?” Some people have argued that we need to promote local playwrights like Ms. Criswell because only when we have home-grown talent doing significant new work will Richmond become a location of note in the theater world. Others have said that, regardless of the playwright’s home town, theaters in Richmond need to be doing more world premieres. This is certainly worthy of attention given the substantial amount of press directed towards Virginia Stage’s recent opening of SCKBSTD and work that the Signature in NoVA has done in the past that has eventually made it to the Great White Way (specifically Glory Days.)

I’m always intrigued by those who assert that only when Richmond gets better theater critics will Richmond theater garner world-class status. While I definitely think there are arguments to be made about the role of critics in the development and growth of a theater scene, I think that particular one puts the cart before the horse. Then there are those that tell me that, even with several fantastic collegiate theater programs in the area and one of the largest touring companies in the country located here (i.e., Theatre IV), Richmond is simply not big enough to foster a theater scene that could ever become significant on a national level and everyone should just focus on doing the best theater that can be done given the fiscal, demographic and institutional constraints inherent in producing theater in Richmond.

As always, I’m interested in what others – particularly others who are involved in local theater in a more day-to-day, livelihood-depends-on-it kind of way – think about this question. Or if they even think it’s a question worth asking. What do you think?


Markus said...

Well, Richmond would have to become a minor theater town first. As it stands, Richmond lacks the hallmarks that would make it respected on a national level. There's only one theater that pays artists a semi-livable wage, and even it doesn't pay enough to allow adult actors to quit their day jobs. There is no LORT theater. There's no first-rate training to produce young actors, directors, or writers of national prominence. There are no prominent festivals or events. If there are grant-giving organizations, they're certainly not challenging theater artists to answer any sorts of higher calling. Have any nationally prominent actors, designers, writers, or directors worked in a Richmond theater in the last twenty years (not counting tours)?

Financially, Richmond absolutely can sustain quality theater. But most wealthy people are wealthy for a reason, and they know a good investment when they see it. Why would they invest in local theater when local theater doesn't have too much to show for itself? Once Richmond's theaters find a way to appeal to even a slightly broader audience, donors will line up to give. Do theaters in Richmond have a red carpet on opening night? Nope. Press the flesh with celebs? Nope. Mingle with the local wealthy? Nope. Give them something they want, make 'em feel special, and they'll give.

I'd be curious to see answers to these questions:

1 - Why would a talented young artist move to Richmond? What is in it for them?
2 - Why would someone invest financially in a theater in Richmond?
3 - What does theater in Richmond offer that cannot be found in NoVA/DC/Norfolk?
4 - What company has the greatest potential to break through to national recognition, and why?

Anonymous said...

There is a lot of home-grown work in Richmond, but a lot of times, due to the category that critics and people want to use to classify it, it doesn't get recognized as it should.

Paul Deiss and Tom Width combined together to write the delightful "Two Bits", an original show that has peeked the interest of off-Broadway producers back in 2003, and Deiss himself pens a new "Drifty the Snowman" each holiday season. Jason Marks wrote beautiful music to an adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" last year, and he and his mother's incredibly charming "The Twelve Elves of Christmas" played to sold out houses at SPARC this year as a world premiere. Bo Wilson's "Mona's Arrangments" played the Tavern for the first time last year. And let's not forget Irene Ziegler's wonderful "Full Plate Collection", which is getting a table reading at the reputable Barrow Group in New York next month.

As for festivals, SPARC hosts "New Voices for the Theater" each summer for up and coming young high school playwrights, and the Firehouse Theatre does its own one-act festival each year. Richmond should also consider doing a festival of new musical works to help cultivate the future of musical theater. There's certainly enough talent in the community to do, at the least, a staged reading of new musical works.

Will any of these productions go very far, or anywhere, for that matter? Perhaps - perhaps not. But Richmond writers ARE developing new works, and no matter whether they fall under the category of "professional", "non-professional", or even "educational", they should be honored and recognized for breathing new life into an otherwise often dull theater town.