Even though a new professional theater company opened in town in 2007 -- Henley Street Theatre Company the Richmond theater scene has virtually stagnated in the last five years. The closing of TheatreVirginia in December 2002 marked the end of major resident Equity theater in Richmond. Since then a couple of professional companies have come and gone, and an attempt at an avant-garde venue for Barksdale, in the form of the Theatre Gym, has been, at least temporarily, put to bed. It's sad to think that the most major change has been that Barksdale and Theatre IV merged, making the Barksdale Theatre the biggest game in town.
Bruce Miller, artistic director of Barksdale/Theatre IV, thinks this is a good thing, though. "I've been a proponent for the last 10 years to have one major professional theater company in town rather than two or three that are always struggling," he says. The benefit of one semi-equity head-honcho theater in town, Miller says, is that more local theater artists are working than ever. That's a good thing, but so is consistent high quality.
Plays Well With Others: D-
Baltimore, about as far from Washington, D.C., as Richmond and with a smaller population (that's taking into account Richmond city and surrounding counties, which is about 1.2 million people, while Baltimore city is about 640,000), boasts 76 professional and community theaters to Richmond's 22. Why such a huge disparity? Elaina Telitsina, executive director of the Baltimore Theatre Alliance, says the people of Baltimore simply appreciate theater: "The number of local theaters has increased in the last couple of years. Our community is rich in culture. People are receptive and want to see different types of theater. We have over 70 theaters running shows, and we still have audiences in all of these theaters."
Miller notes the discrepancy in state and local funding for the arts as a reason why Baltimore has such a healthy theater scene. "The Maryland Arts Council funds nonprofit arts at $2 per capita. The Virginia Commission for the Arts funds are close to 62 cents per capita." Ouch! Maybe putting money into the arts could actually employ even more local artists?
Potential for Development: A
With all the funds and energy going into CenterStage downtown and a bright start-up like Henley Street, there's hope for growth. Sources guess that CenterStage's 200-seat Libby Gottwald Community Playhouse will house both Richmond Shakespeare and the African American Repertory Theatre's regular seasons, with Barksdale throwing in a show or two. Having a state-of-the-art facility downtown should allow all of those companies to grow artistically, which is good for all local theater.
Alex Previtera, Henley Street's artistic director, remains optimistic about his company's chances for success and the ultimate improvement of the Richmond theater scene. "There is enormous potential to start professional theater companies here," he says. "There is a lot of room to grow."
Grant Mudge, artistic director of Richmond Shakespeare, rates it like this: "Definitely a terrific time to be in the theater. [The] overall impact of [CenterStage] will help galvanize other projects."
Lack of growth and a full-blown Equity house may make the status of the Richmond theater scene appear stale. But when things flat-line, there's nowhere to go but up. Perhaps with an increase in support through a new venue (CenterStage), a hike in state and local arts funding, and the nurturing of larger theatergoing audiences through theater education programs such as SPARC, Richmond's theater culture can thrive and grow.
Style Weekly theater critic Mary Burruss is a freelance writer, business professor and theater lover who spends her free time cheering for the arts.