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Left Behind

With a more aggressive board, things might have been different for TheatreVirginia.

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But at the show Wednesday, Dec. 18, there was no Ambush. There was no curtain speech, no appeal. That morning the Times-Dispatch had reported that TheatreVirginia, Richmond's only fully professional theater company, would close after the run of "Beguiled."

In a whiny press release to local news media, the theater blamed state budget cuts, reduced largesse from fewer locally based corporations, uncertainty about a new venue and even, for heaven's sake, the sniper attacks.

What the release didn't mention was institutional dysfunction.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts founded TheatreVirginia (then The Virginia Museum Theater) in 1955. Leslie Cheek Jr., then the museum's brilliant and mercurial director, pushed the effort. Community theater would be part of the museum's ambitious, post-World War II programming at a time when Richmond was culturally challenged. The company was housed in a new, handsome, state-of-the-art facility inside the museum.

In the 1970s, the theater went professional and joined the League of Resident Theaters (LORT).

Over time, many state officials argued that a theater company should not fall under the thumb of the commonwealth of Virginia. Thespians cited artistic freedom. And some citizens asked whether tax dollars should subsidize controversial themes or condone rough language.

So in 1984, TheatreVirginia became independent of the museum. Sort of.

TheatreVirginia wanted it both ways. The board wanted intellectual and institutional freedom without giving up the financial benefits and considerable amenities of the venerable, state-owned museum. So trustees clung to the museum — and benefited. The theater paid only modest rents and utility fees. The Virginia Museum Foundation made financial grants regularly. And few could argue with free surface parking, good security, two restaurants and on-site scenery- and costume- building shops.

But that arrangement would have to change soon. The museum wanted to grow.

In 1999, museum trustee Paul Mellon died. A legendary philanthropist, he had been one of the theater's biggest backers and had financed the theater's construction in 1955. Now, the museum no longer feared offending him. Armed with ambitious expansion plans, the museum needed the TheatreVirginia space.

But like a comfortable child who won't leave home, TheatreVirginia put its head in the sand. Despite searches, no location measured up to the cushy status quo.

"The Virginia Museum should have kicked us out four years ago," says one volunteer who has ushered for decades at the theater. "We've been in denial," he adds, referring to the eviction notice the theater has had from the museum.

But that wasn't the only problem. While TheatreVirginia searched for a new home, it became apparent to some that the company had neither a compelling artistic vision nor a board that could shake, rattle and roll with fund-raising. They were behind compared with other groups. The Richmond Ballet had opened a world-class facility; the Richmond Symphony had spearheaded the Carpenter Center; Theater IV had converted the Empire Theater; and the Virginia Opera had broadened its season greatly. Many of our community's take-no-prisoners go-getters had joined these efforts.

Since the theater's split from the state in 1984, its board has been peppered with current or former trustees of the art museum (all political appointees). Some of them were stuck in the past, nostalgic for the days before the theater was a professional company. They talked about how wonderful Robert Telford, the founding artistic director, had been. And they assumed TheatreVirginia would be at least partially subsidized in perpetuity. Fund-raising was never a priority; ticket sales would create the cash flow.

But theater, like all performing and visual arts, must be subsidized heavily (this fall, the chairman of the New York's Guggenheim Museum donated $12 million just to put the museum in the black). And when it came to coming up with the dough, the theater board either didn't or couldn't. The reported $500,000 deficit (and that's probably a low figure) reflects years of ineffective fund-raising.

Every artistic director who came in was set up for failure: edgy outsiders versus the old guard who remembered the good old days. The artistic director was expected to produce shows that would be box-office hits (not necessarily the finest or best theater choice for that season or this community).

Ambush, in his second season, was probably in the same situation.

Then a panacea appeared with the prospect of an expanded, downtown performing arts center. TheatreVirginia would be the anchor! The company bought more time. It could trade the bosom of the Virginia Museum for the comfort of the new center. But what would it bring to the table? No cash, a shrinking patron base and no strong tradition of an artistic vision.

And if moving downtown was such a swell idea, why hadn't TheatreVirginia spearheaded restoration of the National Theater building in collaboration with Historic Richmond Foundation? It could have been a sexy situation with tremendous private and public support. Sure, the historic building had limitations, but a second stage and shops could have been built elsewhere.

But no. Why would TheatreVirginia give up its country club setting for the grit of the northeast corner of Broad and Seventh streets? Never mind that in Norfolk, the Virginia State Company seems to be doing quite nicely in its renovated Wells Theater downtown.

Theatergoers and potential patrons have obviously voted no to TheatreVirginia's lack of vision and institutional wishy-washiness. The befuddled brew of artistry, show-biz and politics, seasoned heavily with old-line Richmond conservatism, should bewitch, bother and bewilder us no more. Other troupes passed it in the fast lane: The Firehouse Theatre Company, the Modlin Center for the Arts, The Triangle Players and Broadway shows at the Carpenter offer theatrical excitement and diversity. There is a rich theater tradition that exists here.

Will anybody miss TheatreVirginia? Sure. I shall, for one. Some of my most memorable theater moments have been spent there — experiencing "The Cherry Orchid" and "Oklahoma!" in the 1960s and most recently, and finally, "Beguiled."

For dynamism, assurance of presentation and sheer theatrical beauty, professional theater is hard to beat. There is a big place for LORT theater in this town. There is a tremendous role it can play in education. But the time has come for an entirely new cast of characters — perhaps even out-of-towners — to help shape the vision. A theater company that presents the classics and important new work is as important as a museum, public library or a university. Each blends the intellectual, expressive and humanistic achievements of the past with what we need now.

One curtain has fallen. Let's hope another will be raised. S



Edwin Slipek Jr., a senior contributing editor for Style, volunteered at The Virginia Museum Theater in the 1960s and served as a trustee of TheatreVirginia in the 1980s.

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