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Familiar Faces in New Spaces

Encore and Barksdale open new venues and expand offerings.

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Well, yes and no. While it was a record-breaking summer for both Encore and the Barksdale, their new venues have more to do with years of planning, and less to do with recent attendance figures.

"We've been thinking about this for about 10 years," says Grant Mudge, Encore's artistic director. "Then this opportunity came up and it couldn't be more perfect."

Encore is best known for producing the summertime Richmond Shakespeare Festival for the past eight years, using the stately courtyard of Agecroft Hall to lend verisimilitude to the Bard's great works. It would be difficult to imagine a place better than Agecroft to see Shakespeare, but at Second Presbyterian, Mudge seems to have found it. The soaring arched ceiling, wrought-iron chandeliers and spectacular stained-glass windows make a dramatic impression even before the play begins.

In addition to having the opportunity to explore "authentic Elizabethan staging structure" at the church, there are two very practical reasons why Mudge is ecstatic about the new location. It's a downtown facility with adjacent off-street parking — "No other theater in town has that," Mudge says — and for once he doesn't have to cancel a performance when it rains. He'll follow up "Romeo & Juliet" with "A Christmas Carol" next month and "Othello" in the spring.

For the Barksdale, producing shows in its "new space" will be more like going home: The theater company was first established at Hanover Tavern more than 52 years ago. The location was as famous for its relaxed, homey atmosphere as it was for the challenging shows that played there. Founders Pete and Nancy Kilgore and Muriel McAuley lived upstairs, so it wasn't unusual to see the family dog wandering around the premises.

But the historic building — first licensed as a tavern in 1733 and, at one time, Patrick Henry's home — was in serious need of renovation in the mid-1990s, forcing the Barksdale's move to the Shops at Willow Lawn. Now, after more than $3 million worth of improvements at the Tavern, Barksdale Artistic Director Bruce Miller says he can't wait to start offering shows there again. "All of the charm and warmth of the old theater is there," Miller says. "When people walk in, they'll feel like they are returning to the same space as before."

The Barksdale will kick off a four-play season in January with Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park" and, in general, will offer classic comedies and mysteries. Its 2005 summer production of "Anything Goes," which sold out every performance, was an indicator to Miller that there was the potential to draw new audiences by offering popular titles from years gone by: "Our Willow Lawn location will continue to offer what you might call a Masterworks Season," he says, "while the Tavern will be our Pops Season."

While the character of the Tavern was preserved, at least one charming aspect had to be replaced. "The old bathrooms were somewhat legendary as being one step up from an outhouse," Miller says. "Now we've got terrific bathrooms, and that's a big step forward." S



For tickets and information on the Richmond Shakespeare Theater, call 232-4000 or go to www.richmondshakespeare.com. The Barksdale Theater box office can be reached at 282-2620 or at www.barksdale richmond.com.



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