Do an Internet search on how to be an effective leader and several phrases turn up repeatedly: “think strategically,” “communicate effectively,” “build relationships,” etc. What you’re less likely to see? “Be nice.”
Add the words “success” and “artist” to that search and articles will pop up like The Guardian’s “Being an Asshole Is the Way to Get Ahead” or Fast Company’s piece about artistic sensibilities subtitled “You Might Be a Bit of Jerk.” Popular media fuels the image of surly, brusque creative types, whether fictional like Don Draper of “Mad Men” or based on reality like Mark Zuckerberg of “The Social Network.”
Virginia Repertory Theatre announced last week that one of Richmond’s most successful leaders, Bruce Miller, will step out of his role as his company’s artistic director next year. In his 40 years working together with Virginia Rep’s managing director, Phil Whiteway, Miller has been not only a giant in the arts world, but also a steadfast proponent for positive change in the Richmond community. Along the way he’s picked up more than a dozen prestigious civic, social and arts honors.
And in stark contrast to the image of a volatile artist or a hard-driving firebrand, Miller’s most distinctive trait — a trait that’s undervalued as important to success more generally — is that he’s always been a basically good-natured, respectful, nice human being.
Whiteway and Miller started a gadabout company called Theatre IV back in 1975. The troupe worked out of a van and performed mostly children’s shows in schools. Working that niche with aplomb, the company steadily grew and, after merging with the Barksdale Theatre in 2012, has become one of the largest arts organizations in central Virginia. With four stages at its disposal and an annual budget more than $5 million, Virginia Rep entertains more than half a million audience members a year.
Sure, Miller ticked people off along the way, and he had to make tough decisions to keep the stage lights on during lean years. But rather than stomp on rivals or undercut competitors, Miller has always shared resources, assisted others who are struggling, and held fast to the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats.
More than one fledgling company has been allowed to raid the Virginia Rep costume shop through the years. Many a wayward organization looking for a stage or a venue has found one at Virginia Rep, including the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle, of which I am a member. Miller permitted our group to hold our annual awards show in the company’s downtown theater free for two years until we were able to get funding together.
Around town, you’ll hear some envious grumblings about Virginia Rep’s success — but nothing but praise for the man himself. “Over 30 years of producing, he has done more to create future audiences for theater than anyone I can think of,” summarizes Philip Crosby, the managing director of Richmond Triangle Players. “I am thrilled he is still planning to continue his work, just in a different role. Because I would miss him terribly.”
The artistic director of 5th Wall Theatre, Carol Piersol, who was supported by Miller after her ouster from Firehouse Theatre, says, “Talent is not enough — it’s his character that has brought him such great success.”
Certainly, being nice hasn’t been the sole reason for Miller’s success. He’s opportunistic, staking a claim at the Empire (now November) Theatre downtown years before Virginia Commonwealth University’s expansion rejuvenated the area. Artistically, he’s consistently found the sweet spot between pushing the envelope and satisfying the crowds.
And he picks exceptional partners, a talent he claims is more luck than skill. Beyond professional partners such as financial whiz Whiteway and exceptional associate artistic directors such as John Glenn and Steve Perigard, he has a devoted life partner in his wife, Terrie Powers, an accomplished visual artist and also an exceedingly nice person.
Asked about his congeniality, Miller says: “I am my father’s son; he was the nicest person I’ve ever known.” But he’s more likely to talk about respect. “Most of all, I’ve tried to be respectful of the people I’ve worked with,” he says. “You don’t pull off anything big by yourself and team sports require you to forge relationships that are based on respect.”
I first met Miller in 1985 working backstage for a Theatre IV production. Thirty years ago he had the same charming mix of boyish enthusiasm and paternalistic warmth that he maintains today. I often worried that our friendly relationship would end when I crossed over to the dark side and became a critic, a concern that was tested when I dissed his direction of “No Sex Please, We’re British” in 2006.
I expected a cold shoulder, at least. But instead, the next time we ran into each other, he tackled the awkward subject head-on. “You were probably right,” he said. “It really wasn’t my kind of show.” I can count on one hand the times someone has responded as good-naturedly about a criticism.
Bruce didn’t have to be nice to me. I’m only one among dozens of media types that orbit the local arts world. Maybe if you develop the latest killer iPhone app or have Picasso’s talent, you write people off if they criticize you — but that’s never been Miller’s style.
Being less cutthroat and more kind won’t guarantee anyone success. Still, what’s the harm in being nice? You’ll increase the number of fans who will cheer your victories and, perhaps more importantly, decrease the likelihood you’ll have to face failure alone. S
David Timberline has been a theater critic for Style since 1999.
Opinions on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.