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driven to perform

Theatre IV brings theater to children across the country


According to Gordon Bass, production manager for the company, it's not unusual to have 14 different shows simultaneously touring nationwide at any given time. Many are playing in 2000-seat venues.

That hasn't always been the case. The theater's early touring years were a work-in-progress. Bass recalls the days when the six-person staff would load ill-equipped cargo vans for day-trip performances. "Bruce's wife would paint the sets, and we'd secure them — and the sound equipment — to the driver's seat with rope," he says. "We took the seats out of [another] car and put them in the back of the van, and we'd pile in and drive to schools the same day we'd have to do the show."

Today, the vans are fancier and the cast travels with a road manager. Still, in order to keep the production running smoothly, all actors are responsible for general technical knowledge, such as set repair, fixing sound difficulties and costume mending.

To accommodate the rigorous touring schedule, sets, sound and technical aspects of the production remain relatively simple. Two recent, sizeable shows, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," ran back to back for weeks and stopped in North Carolina, Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Indiana, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and other points along the way.

Founded in 1975, Theatre IV began producing professional performances in local Richmond schools before touring other cities and states. The local and national shows have grown their shoestring start-up budget of $17,000 to more than $5 million this year, though it hasn't been an easy ride.

"Arts organizations are extremely fragile institutions," Miller says. "About five years ago, when Virginia Standards of Learning test scores came out, 98 percent of schools failed. There was a statewide panic," Miller says. Administrators, parents and teachers decided to teach to the test and to "get rid of anything extraneous."

Within one month, Theatre IV had $300,000 worth of show cancellations. Miller and Whiteway realized they would have to adjust to the shifting climate. "In order to continue, we had to be committed to changing the company in strategic ways for continual success," Miller says.

Miller and Whiteway began a dialogue with educators and administrators, stressing the importance of the arts in education. They also adapted their local and touring shows, fine-tuning the educational component of their programs to the SOLs.

Miller recalls how his company tailored one play about George Washington for Virginia schools. "We cross-checked the entire production with the SOLs and referenced the specific (SOLs) represented, either in the text of the play, in the Q&A session or in the teaching materials that we distributed."

"Buffalo Soldier," written by Miller, is also an active part of Theatre IV's touring repertoire. Named one of the 12 Best American Plays for Young Audiences, the production blends historical, multicultural, musical and biographical elements, and addresses several SOLs across 10 grade levels.

Miller sees the role of Theatre IV as a very important supplement to classroom learning.

This year, 25 out of the 26 touring productions listed on Theatre IV's Web site reference how active productions address Virginia's numbered SOLs. Additionally, most of the plays, such as "The Wright Stuff,""The Song of Mulan," and "Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad," have online study guides and interactive quizzes and accompaniments known as "Sidekicks." Other resources offered include printed educational materials, onsite postproduction "Q & A" sessions and teacher workshops.

The one play that wasn't designed to address the SOLs focuses on one of Theatre IV's other original principles: human services. The "Hugs and Kisses" program, co-sponsored by Prevent Child Abuse Virginia, has been produced since 1983 to help raise awareness of and to foster prevention of child sexual abuse. This program is billed as "a time-tested prevention and early-intervention program that has transformed many lives" and is just one element of Theatre IV's extensive community outreach efforts.

Supplementing Theatre IV's touring productions are locally executed Family Playhouse shows. Most productions take place at the Cultural Arts Center in Glen Allen and are geared to ages 3-9. The Cultural Arts Center is currently gearing up for productions of "Lyle, Lyle Crocodile" beginning January 23, and "The Golden Goose" which debuts late March. For older children, the downtown Empire Theatre houses productions such as this season's "Charlotte's Web," "Huck and Tom and the Mighty Mississippi," and "The Song of Mulan."

Miller cites community leadership as another priority for the organization. "We feel a sense of community here and are compelled to stay," Miller says. When asked about why he and Whiteway chose to build their theater company in Richmond rather than hosting the troupe in a bigger city with more resources for the arts, Miller answers, "We can make a difference here."

Currently, Miller and his staff are focusing efforts to revive, support and combine various arts organizations in the Richmond area. "We need more coordination and less competition," he says.

He also is involved with plans to create downtown arts facilities and says that he and Whiteway remain active with major arts initiatives in the area. "We've been called the Grandfathers of Arts Administration and we're not that old," he says with a hint of amusement in his voice. "For the first 10 years, Phil and I would look at each other and say, 'Wanna keep on doing this?' The answer was always 'Yes.'" FS

Tickets for Richmond productions and further information about Theatre IV are available online at www.theatreiv.org or by calling 804-783-1688.

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