Special/Signature Issues » Fall Arts Preview

Risky vs. Reliable

Theater companies employ dramatically different strategies for attracting audiences this fall.

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Are Richmond theatergoers willing to try something new or do they prefer the traditional favorites? As theater companies around town kick off their fall seasons, they're placing their bets on the answer to that question while doing their best to mitigate the risks.

Those going for familiarity include Swift Creek Mill Theatre, starting its season with the popular fish-out-of-water comedy, “The Foreigner” (opening Sept. 16). Of course, a well-known title isn't always as safe as it sounds: Henley Street Theatre Company ran into trouble synchronizing schedules for its planned production of “Waiting for Godot,” a demanding show requiring top-notch talent, and has pushed that show to the spring.

Staging a well-known show paid off for the Firehouse Theatre Project this summer as their blockbuster musical “Rent” enjoyed consistently sold-out houses. The company follows up this month with a different kind of classic: “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (Sept. 9), the biting 1960s-era comedy familiar to many potential patrons thanks to the award-winning film adaptation starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. But director Rusty Wilson promises a new experience even for those who remember the film. “A lot of the dialogue was updated for the 2005 Broadway production with Kathleen Turner,” Wilson says. “It's profoundly different from the movie.”

The show's familiarity hasn't made Wilson's job any easier. “This is a mountain of a play,” he says. “I think it has more text than Hamlet.” While filled with witty and sometimes vicious repartee, the play has several heavy dramatic moments. To balance the contrasting elements, Wilson says, his main focus has been “to try and facilitate an honest and immediate encounter between the [play's] four characters.”

Surprisingly, Richmond's most established company may be taking the biggest risk this season. Not many people have heard of Barksdale Theatre's Willow Lawn opener, “Shipwrecked! An Entertainment” (Sept. 17), even though it was written by Donald Margulies, the celebrated playwright who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for “Dinner with Friends.”

 

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“Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” at the Firehouse, stars Laine Satterfield, Larry Cook, Amy Sproul and Jonathan Conyers.

But a familiar title isn't the draw here; two of Richmond's most celebrated actors headline the cast. Starring as the show's self-aggrandizing adventurer, Louis de Rougemont, will be Joe Inscoe, a veteran of many a movie and television show, not to mention local favorites such as Theatre IV's “A Christmas Carol” last year. He'll have a worthy sidekick in Scott Wichmann, a comic dynamo who has specialized in spectacular one-man shows. Rounding out the cast is Carolyn Meade, an impressive supporting player in 2009's “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

Barksdale also will offer a new show at its Hanover Tavern location, but one that will seem mighty familiar. “Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming” (Sept. 24) continues the story of the musical Sanders Family, this chapter set at the end of World War II. Based on previous entries in the series, the show will include lots of upbeat bluegrassy tunes and a few earnestly heartwarming moments.

Richmond Triangle Players also plans to build on previous successes with their staging of “The Beebo Brinker Chronicles” (Sept. 15). An adaptation of 1950s-era pulp novels, this story of secret lesbian lovers follows in the footsteps of the players' “Pulp,” the popular play-with-music the company first produced in 2009 and revived this past summer. Comely up-and-comer Emma Mason will play the title character.

Other audience-attraction strategies this fall include: Richmond Shakespeare's canon-breaking production of Tom Stoppard's “Arcadia” (Oct. 14); and Sycamore Rouge's ambitious Paul Robeson bio, “Speak of Me As I Am” (Oct. 15).

Time — and ticket sales — will tell which strategy works out best.

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