Is there a giant sucking sound reverberating across Richmond's stages? The local theater scene used to support a substantial population of theater professionals -- aided by production houses that created commercials and training videos for state government departments and companies like Circuit City.
While production budgets have shrunk, however, the local talent pool has started to dwindle and isn't being replenished. The robust drama programs at Virginia Commonwealth University and University of Richmond continue to groom new talent, but as local actress and former VCU student Jill Bari Steinberg says: "These days, after people graduate, they leave for bigger markets. It leaves an awful hole behind."
The collapse of TheatreVirginia five years ago is generally cited as the precipitating event behind the talent drain. "TV provided employment for local theater people in a [pay] range you couldn't make at other theaters in town," says Rick St. Peter, the theater's former associate artistic director. The loss of that flagship theater has trickled down through the theater scene.
There are still some actors who thrive here, though. Angela Shipley has worked nonstop since graduating from VCU in 2006, winning starring roles in several productions, including the upcoming "Little Women" at Swift Creek Mill Theatre. "There's work to be had, but it's like any other job," the vivacious actress says: "You have to be proactive." Unfortunately, her experience seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
Plays Well With Others: B-
Richmond may be one of the best cities on the East Coast for young talent, thanks largely to local juggernaut Theatre IV. The company's many educational touring productions provide an excellent introduction to the itinerant life of an actor. Also, theme parks Busch Gardens and Kings Dominion are nearby, offering dozens of song-and-dance and street-performer spots for eager Harlequins.
But what about actors who've already cut their teeth and are looking for the next step up more exposure, more challenges and, of course, more money? David Leong, chairman of VCU's theater department, puts it bluntly: "You can't really make a living as a full-time actor here."
Jack Parrish moved to Kentucky last year after working locally for eight years as an actor and director. "Theater becomes more of an elevated hobby for many Richmond actors rather than a profession," he says.
Potential for Development: C+
St. Peter, now the artistic director of Actors Guild of Lexington, says the Richmond theater scene will continue to decline without a large theater that employs Actors' Equity (union) professionals.
"Richmond needs to augment its local talent pool with folks from outside the community," he says. "Otherwise it stagnates, the audience gets bored and you don't move forward."
While Barksdale Theatre and the Firehouse Theatre Project frequently hire union actors, a full-fledged Equity theater is currently a non-starter here.
The downtown CenterStage project may inject some energy into the scene. But Justin Dray, a long-term local actor who is planning to leave town after "The Late Henry Moss" closes at the Firehouse this spring, says it won't be enough.
"There simply aren't enough outlets for stage actors," Dray says. "My fear is that there is not a lot of support [in Richmond] for more."
Opportunities still exist in Richmond for ambitious actors, and the entrenched talent pool is often surprising in its depth and breath. But unless more reasons are provided for young actors to come here or experienced actors to stay, the talent drain will only get worse.
David Timberline has written for Style Weekly, Backstage and the (now defunct) 64 magazine and is awaiting acceptance into the American Theatre Critics Association.