As long as anyone can remember Robert Watkins, 89, and deVeaux Riddick, 84, have been significant players on the Richmond theater and dance scene as producers, designers, and in Riddick's case, as an actor.
A one-night gala, “As Far As Love Can Reach: An Evening of Staged Readings of Love Stories,” will salute these two impresarios Feb. 26. Appropriately, the performance will take place at the Theatre at the Bolling Haxall House at the Woman's Club, where since 1985, the company that Watkins and Riddick co-founded has staged 33 productions of 29-drawing room comedies. The company's encyclopedic repertoire includes such classics in the genre as “The Importance of Being Earnest;” “Blithe Spirit,” “Hay Fever,” “Present Laughter” and “The Constant Wife.”
Among the actors featured in this week's tribute will be Robert Albertia, Ann Belk, Jeanne Boisineau, Richard Koch, Vicki McLeod, Jim Morgan, Dan Stackhouse and Kristen Swanson. Riddick also will participate.
In addition to the Theatre at the Bolling Haxall House, Watkins and Riddick were involved in founding the Richmond Ballet in the 1950s and, in 1976, the Concert Ballet of Virginia.
Style recently interviewed Watkins and Riddick in the elegantly appointed parlor of their Fan District home.
Style: What's the key to the longevity — some 25 years — of the Theatre at the Bolling Haxall House?
Watkins: The dedication of the performers. We developed a stable of actors that was as dedicated as we were and the fact that the Woman's Club was committed to this, and trusted us. We never felt that anybody was looking over our shoulder.
Riddick: And we persevered. Also, I believe the average person becomes more informed as time passes.
Who are your favorite playwrights?
Watkins: Noel Coward [1899-1973] and Somerset Maugham [1874-1965].
Riddick: Shakespeare and Noel Coward.
What is your favorite play produced at the theater?
Watkins: “Blithe Spirit” by Noel Coward. And along the way we discovered some plays such as the “The Circle” by Somerset Maugham.
Riddick: I enjoyed our first production, “The Kingfisher.” It featured only three actors: Suzanne Pollard, Bob Albertia and myself. We had high hopes.
If drawing room comedies are comedies of manners, what do you consider the worst human characteristic?
Watkins: People with high personal opinions of themselves.
Riddick: Egos. I suppose that's the same thing but I had to phrase it differently so it wouldn't look like a cop-out
What does Richmond need culturally?
Watkins: [Long silence] That is a good question. The average person [both artist and patron] doesn't have a sense of what's gone before. Their knowledge doesn't even go back to the 1930s. There's a world of art they don't even know about. There's a world of theater that's obscure to them.
Riddick: There have been efforts to get theater groups to work together on such things as sharing mailing lists and talent. But most [performing arts] groups are covetous of what they have. On the other hand, most of these groups still exist so each one has its own niche.
In addition to theater you have built careers as interior designers and have designed some 50 Bal du Bois debutante balls for the Junior Board of the Sheltering Arms Hospital. Who or what has been the biggest influence on your sense of design?
Watkins: Cecil Beaton [an English set designer, decorator and photographer, 1904-1980]. He was the first stage designer who would become a household word.
Riddick: Andrea Palladio [Italian architect and designer 1508-1580]. How's that? Growing up in Charleston, [S.C.], I first felt his influence through the scenery designed for The Footlight Players.
What is your favorite color?
Watkins: Fushia — red with purple in it. It's a gala color.
Riddick: When I painted with tempera in graduate school I liked blue-green best — a darker shade, not pastel.
Over the decades as you have developed your aesthetic through interior design, productions for ballet and theater and sets for charity events, were you consciously aware of developing a “brand”?
Watkins: Life and art are interwoven. And when you get to know a lot of people you realize that there is a common bond.
Riddick: Our dear friend Berle Weinstein, who was a New Yorker and wrote plays and poetry when we were all at R.P.I. [Richmond Professional Institute absorbed into Virginia Commonwealth University in 1968] in the 1940s and early '50s used to say that “everything touches.” Everything does relate. Everything does overlap.
What play would you like to stage next?
Watkins: We have done some plays twice, but with different casts so you get a whole different take. “The Circle” by Somerset Maugham.
Riddick: “Ring Round the Moon.” This is from a whole different school of plays: It is French. The wit is devastating.
Finally, you have worked with literally hundreds of artists, dancers and actors. What Richmonder, living or dead, do you most admire?
Watkins: People in the arts. I admire professionals who give themselves to the arts. There have been a great many of these people. Emma Gray Trigg [Richmond writer and poet, 1890-1976] was a gracious and gentle lady. There have also been some pills.
[As Riddick is about to respond Watkins interjects: “You'd better say me.”]
Riddick: “Yes. Robert Watkins.”
“As Far As Love Can Reach: An Evening of Staged Readings of Love Scenes” will be presented Feb. 26 at 7 p.m. at the Theatre at Bolling Haxall House, 211 E. Franklin St. Tickets: $20. For information call 355-2717.