“Free” is a word beloved by consumers — and one that James Ricks has employed liberally to attract audiences to live theater performances. He also knows what it's like to work for free.
Ricks is a classically trained actor with a master's of fine arts degree from the Shakespeare Theatre's Academy of Classical Acting in Washington. Last year the native Canadian took over as artistic director of Henley Street Theatre Company on a volunteer basis so the company could solidify its financial foundation.
While subsisting on savings from regional and national commercial work, Ricks quickly brought a higher level of professionalism to the fledgling troupe. He interspersed flashy video segments among scenes in his production of “Richard III” to enhance its contemporary context. And under his leadership, Henley Street's third season set records both for box office receipts and critical accolades.
But Ricks' most exciting contribution has been the sense of insurgency he's brought to the local theater scene. His admission-free “Bootleg Shakespeare Project” provides actors a chance to challenge themselves — an entire production is pulled together with just one rehearsal — while making classical theater fun (and affordable) for patrons.
He's also developing plans to establish a classical clown troupe that will perform free at local festivals where, Ricks says, “local theater is grossly underrepresented.” Perhaps most significant for the future, Ricks has committed himself and his company to the Richmond Region Cultural Action Plan. “There are areas in town that are gorgeous but that don't have any real cultural center,” Ricks says. “Theater can be key to revitalizing this city.”