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Behind the Curtain

What happened during Benny Sato Ambush's reign at TheatreVirginia, and what will he do now?

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Nonetheless, idealism and perseverance do not close a theater. Close-mindedness and a staggering debt do. Now TheatreVirginia is gone, along with Ambush. And many people associate Ambush with the theater's failure.

TheatreVirginia was in a serious pinch when Ambush began as artistic director in July 2001. Its debt had reached $456,000 in the season before he arrived, and he knew it.

"TheatreVirginia was dead when he got there," says Rick St. Peter, who worked as Ambush's assistant. "If he could have saved it he would have been a miracle-worker. The theater community knows that, certainly the funding community knows that, and anyone who paid attention would know it."

Ambush is hesitant to talk about his experiences at TheatreVirginia. But he is clear about one thing: "I don't regret coming here." Even though he is insistent, it is obvious he is disappointed, in himself and in Richmond.

For 25 years, Ambush says, he had dreamed about and worked toward becoming the artistic director of a LORT theater. (LORT is a consortium of regional professional theaters.) There are fewer than 10 African-American leaders of the country's 75 LORT theaters. That's why, despite TheatreVirginia's difficulties, Ambush says, he jumped at the chance to become its artistic director.

From the beginning, it must have been obvious to the board what Ambush was about. He isn't shy about his social conscience and agenda to present "common humanity" on the stage. When Ambush was being courted in 2001, the search committee assured him TheatreVirginia was ready for a change. They also told him the Virginia Performing Arts Complex would be ready in 2004 or 2005 — they probably believed that at the time. Ambush says he was told he would have a say in the design of the complex. None of this happened.

"Benny Ambush was clearly the top candidate who could share a vision and be a 'Mr. Theater' to the business community," says former board Vice President Robert Mooney. The board wanted someone who understood that theater is a business, Mooney explains: "The other thing that we clearly recognized was that we wanted greater diversity, not just racial but cultural and age as well. I think Benny was able to represent the theater to all sorts of groups, not just because of his personality but because of his experiences."

Mooney cites Ambush's selection to unveil the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce's new slogan for the city in October 2001 as proof that Ambush became a sort of ambassador for Richmond.

But at the same time, Ambush was being criticized, mostly in private circles, for some things he says were out of his control. For example, after just two days on the job he discovered that the returning director and lead actor in "A Wonderful Life," which had been a big success the year before, dropped out, and Ambush says he was forced to change the play. "I got nailed for that," he recalls.

Robert Albertia a longtime actor who worked as group sales manager for TVA, says that after Ambush was hired, but before he arrived, things were not managed well with the play, resulting in the loss of the director and lead actor. He also says that Ambush's decision to change the play angered several local equity actors with long-standing relationships with the theater. "Some of the actors have not stepped back into the theater since then," Albertia says.

Yet Albertia and Ambush agree that it is customary for a new artistic director to make slight changes to a season if he or she begins after it has been planned.

In addition, Ambush was forced to take over the responsibilities of managing director, too, because there weren't enough funds to hire a qualified managing director. Donald Bachmann was not supposed to be a permanent managing director, according to St. Peter. So Ambush was forced to assume the role and work on things outside his job description, like finding a new venue for the group. Bachmann could not be reached for comment.

Ambush also was faced with a drastically reduced budget in 2002.

"I was doing everything I knew to do to make a penny stretch as far as it could go," Ambush says. He planned the 2002 season with 32 actor/musician contracts — 22 less than the year before. "I couldn't do a recognizable musical, I couldn't do 'Our Town' — 'Our Town' has an army of actors!" The season went from six to five plays, two of which were cast locally.

"It was economic slavery, we couldn't do anything," says St. Peter, who was scheduled to direct the "The Laramie Project" in March.

Ambush arrived with what he believed was a "mandate to change." His mantra to theatergoers was to take a leap of faith with him "because I took a leap of faith to come here." But his attempts failed to get much feedback. "[Much] of it was of a supportive nature; I just think that was a missed opportunity for people to engage with me and to participate in the future of the new theater."

Ambush said he was frustrated by the lack of response he got; his attempts at "community dialogues" failed. "Nobody would speak their mind," he says. He also says that little of the response was direct, "most of those were in letters and phone messages — the worst, the nasty ones were annoymous."

Mooney says he saw the direction as more of a "mandate to broaden."

"I grew up in Richmond and I like to think of us being an open community always embracing ideas, and we do embrace new ideas, but we also spend some time talking about how great the old idea was," Mooney says. "Sometimes change is seen as a negative thing; we weren't trying to drop one audience."

No doubt Richmonders anticipated the biggest change Ambush would bring: encouraging the African-American community to participate (onstage and in the audience) in a theater that has for 47 years been mostly populated (onstage and in the audience) by the middle- to upper-class, white community.

Perhaps his most controversial move occurred when, in reaction to poor subscriptions in the 2002 season, Ambush wrote a two-and-a-half-page letter to 750 black community leaders to encourage and invite them to attend the theater.

"And while I will always leave the door open for [subscribers who didn't renew to] return, I must — and here's the crux of this letter — replace and outnumber them with new subscribers in order for TheatreVirginia to survive even one more year!" he wrote in July 2002, encouraging them to become members of "Benny's Posse."

This didn't go over well.

In response to the letter, the Richmond Free Press ran an editorial by Hazel Trice Edney in which she quoted Ambush's letter and drew conclusions, which enraged many of the remaining subscribers. She referred to the "white elitists" and their "racist actions" — and immediately Ambush was associated with these slurs.

Ambush says his letter was quoted out of context and that he meant for blacks to "replace and outnumber" the subscribers who left the theater, not the white patrons. "Why would I want to drive away patrons who are supporting us?" he wrote in a recent e-mail.

"I do think there was a push back to change that Benny didn't anticipate … [that] I didn't anticipate," Mooney says. "There were some things that were misinterpreted."

That wasn't the message he intended to send, says Sarah Marsdon, former TheatreVirginia director of patron services. "His intention was to say to the black community that you are welcome here [though] you may not have felt welcome before," she says. "But it just didn't work out that way."

Albertia agrees. "Benny was trying to open up what had essentially been a country-club theater for many years, and it kind of backfired," he says. The late-summer timing of the editorial had a detrimental effect on sales, he adds. "Once the editorial came back, subscriptions fell off. We kept extending the deadline [but it] slowed subscriptions considerably."

Shortly after the Free Press editorial, the Richmond Times-Dispatch published a story in which an anonymous source said there was a strong possibility the theater would go dark. It was the truth, but after the news hit, it was difficult for board members to raise any money. The prediction more or less sealed the fate of TheatreVirginia.

But until the last performance, Ambush stood onstage pleading for donations. In a final blow, Ambush has been criticized for that, too, by theatergoers.

"People are saying how dare he get up onstage and ask for money from us," Marsdon says. "The board had to know they were going to close, but I think I know Benny well enough to know that he never would have done that if he knew."

Sources close to the theater say the board knew in August 2002 the theater would close, but they didn't tell employees until the day before it was announced in December.

Mooney denies the allegation, saying the board was optimistic until the end that a donor would step forward and save the theater.

Today, after working 16-hour days for a year and a half, Ambush is out of work. He's looking for jobs outside of Richmond — and away from the state of Virginia, he says. He has applications out all over. He says while he's waiting for something to happen, he will spend the next five weeks guest directing near West Palm Beach, Fla.

"Benny has taken it so personally," says John Porter, TheatreVirginia's former public relations manager.

"If the city doesn't learn from this, it would really be a shame," Ambush says.

When asked what he thinks about the chances of a future professional theater surviving in Richmond, Ambush says, "I don't think a professional theater could be supported in this community without the support by the black community — not to the exclusion of the white, but both together."

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