June 7, 2019


by John Porter

“Daddy, tell me a story…” The best thing my two children ever said to me.

No matter what the medium, story is king. True, the story derives from characters, but it’s what those characters do, and how they do it that keeps us on the edge of our seats waiting to see what happens next.

When my children were small, single digits small, I used to love to put them to bed as it was one of the few times we could spend together. It was usually tricky as I was working a couple of jobs, none of which paid very much, to try to keep the lights on. Sometimes I would be getting home just as they were off to bed, so to give my wife a break, I would take them to their room and sit with them awhile.

Like every child ever, they wanted a story, and not necessarily one out of a book. They wanted stories out of their father’s head (and voices). They got stories of pirates, princes, evil beings that lived just out on the edge, and anything that might crop up in their imagination.


May 28, 2019

I once wrote the line in a review, “Every generation has to define theatre for themselves.” It may possibly be the one and only profound thought I had about the theatre, and I stand by that now and forever. If I remember correctly, it was about a play that I wasn’t crazy about, but the audience of mostly younger people seemed to greatly enjoy it.

As a reviewer, all I ever tried to do was to be honest and consistent with my reactions. I always felt that the best thing I could be was a signpost. There were people who generally agreed with my assessments, and others who generally disagreed. It’s okay, as long as I was consistent, the listeners or readers could judge for themselves whether they wanted to see the play.

That line has come to represent a philosophy of theatre that gets battered around. My generation of theatre goers lived through the experiential communal style of theatre in the 1960’s and the big splashy musicals of the 1970’s. We saw Broadway move from stalwarts such as Tenne...

May 16, 2019

Lately I’ve been thinking of the changing landscape of writing theater reviews.

1. Over the past year or two, we have experienced a notable reduction in the number of reviews published in the local daily newspaper.

2. In January I attended a conference where I participated on a panel with the publisher of a dance magazine and we debated the future of print publications.

3. Earlier this week I led a workshop on writing theater reviews with a musical theater class at a local high school and I was surprised to learn that the vast majority of these young artists in training prefer print to digital publications.

What, first of all, is the purpose of a review? Despite what some may think, it is NOT to allow a snarky writer a platform to show off his or her voluminous vocabulary while tearing down the latest stage production. One definition found online describes a theater review as “a subjective and educated response” to a piece of theater. It should help an interested reader know a little, but...

April 22, 2019

Coming up very soon, on May 17 to be exact, Firehouse will present the official-honest-to-God-no-longer-being-workshopped World Premiere of WRONG CHOPPED. Co-written by Dixon Cashwell and Levi Meerovich and directed by Connor Scully, this trio form the theatrical entity Dog Stuff. Cashwell and Scully were two of the VCU students I coached through a stand-up and sketch comedy program at TheatreVCU and I’ve gotten to know Meerovich through the plays he’s written and performed around town.

If you think I’m going to go easy on them, forgetaboutit…

You see, I have this deep affinity for avant-garde theatre, and that’s how I view WRONG CHOPPED. The creators even bill it as a “dada comedy,” but while I don’t necessarily agree with that assessment, if they wish to identify as dada, who am I to disagree?

That’s part of the Rorschach Test of Theatrical Absurdity. We, as audience members, look at what’s on stage and see different things. Think of the fable of the five blind men experiencing their fi...

April 2, 2019

Recently I had the opportunity to catch up with Chandler Hubbard about his upcoming world premiere of ANIMAL CONTROL, which we will be presenting starting April 17. It was a fun and lively conversation that will be on the Firehouse Podcast soon.

Something that has always fascinated me is the development of new work. As an undergrad student I learned the ropes working with a few playwrights and the directors of the various shows during my time at college. As an older graduate student, it was part of my life to mentor new artists and help them develop.

I have no idea about what playwright Hubbard and director Joel Bassin have cooked up for ANIMAL CONTROL, as I have yet to read the play or even sit in on a rehearsal. As the late Freddie Prinze used to say, “It’s not my job.” But I can tell you that I’m excited to see this new work – a fresh piece of theatre with no preconceived notions. That’s a rare thing.

How many times have you gone to see a play that you’ve seen before? Pretty much every...

March 12, 2019

I’ve always had a problem with Venn Diagrams. Wait, come back, I promise it’ll all make sense in just a little bit. Seriously, I have a plan. Stick around, please…

See, way back in school, I was kind of a math prodigy, even though I hate that word. In a working class neighborhood that didn’t exactly win me any friends, but I didn’t really care. I loved set theory, you know, putting things into categories and looking for connections. My stuffed animals were inventoried and kept in one box, army men in another, and my comic book collection was alphabetical by title and numerical within the set of titles.

If you asked me for Hawkman Number 98, I could pinpoint its place within a couple of seconds. If anyone else picked it out, well, I would have to make sure all the comics were put back correctly. It wasn’t that I was neat or anything; I was, and continue to be, an agent of chaos, but I do know my systems.

One portion of set theory involves the use of Venn Diagrams. You remember those circle...

March 5, 2019

Long before I fell in love with the world of theatre (Children’s Theatre of Norfolk’s production of ROBIN HOOD when I was six years old), I was already under the spell of another performing art – magic. I was all of four years old when my parents hired a magician for my brother’s birthday party.

It was the usual birthday party stuff; a live rabbit that came out of an empty top hat, silk handkerchiefs that changed color, and a grand finale of links of steel that connected and unconnected at will. The whole thing lasted maybe half an hour and the magician probably had to do a couple of more shows the same day.

My bother was hooked, and since he was older than me I followed along. Trips to the library meant we would come home with books telling us how to make coins disappear and certain cards to show up. I couldn’t find anything about making that rabbit appear, or even where to buy a silk top hat in my size.

Eventually my brother moved on to other interests: girls being the most important, f...

February 20, 2019

As I scribble down these words Firehouse is getting ready to close its sold-out run of OEDIPUS REX, a show that had its world premiere sometime around 429 BCE. Give or take a few years, that means we helped celebrate the play’s 2439 birthday.

That’s a lot of candles on the cake, especially for a company that prides itself on producing new work!

What’s somewhat exciting for me is the fact that so many people came to see the production – which by the way was an outstanding effort by director Vinnie Gonzales and his amazing cast and designers. Way back in my undergrad years, shortly after we invented fire and the wheel, it seemed as if the only people who got excited by the early classics were my fellow theatre nerds.

You remember them, wearing all black and breaking into choreographed show tunes in the middle of the street? No? Just me? Okay, moving on…

Sure, there were always productions of Shakespeare’s works scattered along the way. Many of them were less than memorable if we’re honest, b...

February 13, 2019

When I first moved here from New York more than twenty years ago, my friends in New York were shocked. How could I give up all that New York had to offer for. . .well, for whatever it was there was in Richmond? Well, it didn’t take long to realize that I wasn’t losing anything in terms of theater, as I soon found that Richmond has a thriving and high quality theater community. However, I can’t say the same about the dance community.

Before I address that potentially explosive statement, allow me to take a moment to digress on the “community” aspect of the RVA theater community. People know me as a reviewer or critic (a word I don’t care for, as it sounds as if my job is to find fault, rather than share, explain, discuss, educate, or question – but that’s a whole ‘nother topic).

In my NY experience, reviewers were not usually embraced by the theater community. Not so in RVA. In May 2018 I had two surgeries, six days apart. The second procedure, a spinal fusion, left me immobile for six we...

January 31, 2019

Theatre is one of the most collaborative of all the arts. Writers conceive a world that can take place on a stage, actors give those words voice and depth, directors work up a vision, and audiences watch the finished product and render their judgement. For musicals, add composers who create music that adds to the characters or drives the plot forward and musicians who bring that music to life.

Let’s see, am I forgetting someone?

Oh yeah, you better believe it. I haven’t given proper respect to the designers who flesh out the world of the play with set, costumes, sound, light, and video. Or to the technicians who build, sew, hang lights, and make sure that every patron can hear what’s being presented on the stage.

Many of these artists are not given their due – either in reviews or in discussions, but without their contributions, the play would not be as powerful as it could be. Although I always tried to recognize the designers in my reviews, I rarely had enough time to express my thought...

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