Bruce Miller has offended some local theater-goers with some bad language in one of his productions, but on the other hand, he's preventing child abuse in Israel. If the sign of a great artist is the ability to be interpreted on many levels, to initiate discussions and provoke thought, then no one in Richmond theater is doing a better job of producing great art right now than Miller. Miller holds the distinction of being artistic director of the two biggest games in town: Barksdale Theatre (with locations at Willow Lawn and Hanover Tavern) and Theatre IV (which is one of the largest touring children's theater companies in the country). According to the Barksdale Theatre blog (firstname.lastname@example.org), more than 100 people have complained about the strong sexual content, onstage nudity and language of its current show, "The Little Dog Laughed," and as many subscribers have refused to see it.
Miller has also been fielding calls about Theatre IV's production of "Peter Pan" and its "obscene" content. So he's lately caused some controversy with his artistic decisions and seems satisfied with that, but what may well be one of the crowning achievements of his career won't be at a theater near you.
Style: Producing "The Little Dog Laughed" [now playing at Barksdale at Willow Lawn] is a courageous choice in what can be a very conservative market.
Miller: Many people support a myth that there is one generic type of theater audience in Richmond that direct[s] the choices [of plays] that Barksdale makes. It just isn't true. Throughout my years as artistic director of Barksdale, I have always tried to offer a variety of work. ["The Little Dog Laughed"] is not the first play of its kind Barksdale has ever produced, but it is the first of its kind we have done in a long time.
I just felt I had to do something in reaction to the marriage amendment which passed in Virginia. Marriage issues have shifted over the decades from interracial marriage being taboo to gay marriage. As an artist, this is what I do. I chose this play because it is a funny, lighthearted way to address this issue.
Are you surprised by people's reactions to "Peter Pan"?
I'm getting a huge barrage of angry parents and teachers because James Barrie in 1904 wrote "Peter" -- translating what Tinker Bell says about Wendy and he says, "You silly ass" [as in a donkey]. This line is in the play twice and has been since 1904, but in 2008 you can't say "ass" anymore. I just don't get it.
Theatre IV recently won an award for your groundbreaking child sexual abuse prevention touring show, "Hugs and Kisses," which is 25 this year. Tell me more about that.
[Theatre IV] just received an award from the Governor's Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect for "Hugs and Kisses." The biggest award we ever won was the Commissioner's Award from the Department of Health and Human Services in 1993 when Donna Shalala was head of the department. [And] Governor's Award for Service to the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1988.
The play was adopted by the nation of Israel [in 1988] as their official child sexual abuse prevention program and also by the state of New York [in the early 1990s]. In year two or three [of the production] we were invited to perform at the national conference [of] the National Committee [to Prevent] Child Abuse in Chicago and later for a Senate subcommittee for child sexual abuse. Because of that national exposure, the language from the play has been universally adopted by all child sexual abuse organizations and used in all of their literature. I give credit to the 17-person advisory council who worked to craft that language.
How many children have been served by "Hugs and Kisses"?
Anecdotal evidence suggests that over 12,000 [closer to 13,000 now] children have come forward to disclose for the first time their sexual victimization following performances of "Hugs and Kisses." Over 1.2 million schoolchildren have seen the show over the 25-year period.
This ["Hugs and Kisses"] must be a really satisfying part of your job?
It is. It always has been. It is certainly something I am proud of but I think Terry Bliss [the co-author] and Richard Giersch [the composer] would say the same thing. There have been so many people involved with this show.
We have been in a 25-year partnership which is amazing all by itself with the Virginia Department of Social Services and Prevent Child Abuse Virginia, which is a testament that we all are dedicated to this project. S
Read more about Bruce Miller and "Hugs and Kisses" at www.richmondvatheater.blogspot.com. "Peter Pan" runs through May 18 at the Empire Theatre, 344-8040 or www.theatreivrichmond.org. "The Little Dog Laughed" runs through May 18 at Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn, 282-2620 or www.barksdalerichmond.org.