June 24, 2018

A couple of months ago I wrote about the Empathy Gap. This past week, there were news stories and events that brought the phenomenon into sharp focus. Some people were able to sublimate the natural human reaction of seeing children in distress to a policy position about the importance of sovereignty. On the other side, others were moved beyond empathy to true compassion, going against others in their tribe to speak up against the horror.

This is not a political post. But there is one statement made as the situation was reaching its turning point that caught my attention. In a meeting before eventually signing an executive order presented as a solution to the problem, our Commander in Chief said, “If you're strong, [then] you don't have any heart.”

No sir, I disagree and present as Exhibit A the character of Zach in A CHORUS LINE, particularly as portrayed by Alexander Sapp in the production currently playing at Richmond Triangle Players. Zach is strong, he’s tough, he’s demanding, he ski...

June 17, 2018

I’ve been very frustrated the past couple of weeks. Even though there has been a lot going on -- end of school-year events, a primary election, prepping for our talkback with Michael Goldberg, etc. -- I found myself the recipient of an amazing gift: an unscheduled Saturday night!

Once this became clear, I thought, “cool -- now I can finally go see TOPDOG/UNDERDOG!” I had been hoping to get out to see the show ever since it opened. But, much to my dismay, the show didn’t have a Saturday night performance. Phooey.

Then, to my surprise and delight, a similar situation happened this past Thursday: kids off on their own, spouse otherwise engaged -- free night! Checked the website -- no TD/UD performance! Grrr.

Forced to look for alternatives, I checked around for other theater possibilities. There was no Thursday performance at the Mill and no tickets whatsoever for RTP’s A CHORUS LINE. Feh.

So this was the week that I came face-to-face with one of the ways theater suffers in comparison to movi...

June 10, 2018

I have been catching up on the second season of “Westworld,” the HBO drama starring a fleet of amazing actors including Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton, and Ed Harris. The second episode opens with some dramatic piano music that, thanks to exposure to our recently extended musical PRELUDES, I recognized as Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# Minor.

A key line of dialogue repeated in “Westworld” many times is “these violent delights have violent ends.” This phrase is taken from ROMEO AND JULIET, the Shakespearean tragedy that is currently playing in a fine production by Quill at Agecroft Hall. I’ve talked to a couple people recently who are in rehearsal for the upcoming production of Virginia Rep’s WEST SIDE STORY, the slice of musical genius that is, of course, based on the story of Romeo and Juliet.

The point being that, as I sat down to lose myself in the pop culture escapism of a buzzy TV show, I could not help but be pulled into the web of connections that binds different a...

June 3, 2018

I am not proud of this but I have to admit: I am a Melissa Benoist superfan. The star of the CW show, Supergirl, Benoist first rose to prominence when she joined the cast of a fading Gleeand was charming and low-key in stark contrast to Lea Michele’s increasingly needy and pushy headline performance (IMHO).

I would have just called myself a fan -- I tune into Supergirl every week; again, I am not proud -- until the ads started popping up promoting her planned stint in Broadway’s BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL. I immediately started figuring out how to convince my wife that a trip to NYC to see that show was a priority for our summer plans.

This was not rational behavior. I knew it intellectually and I internally scoffed at myself for the thoughts I was having. Still, it was not long before there was an email in my in-box with two tickets to BEAUTIFUL attached.

Fandom is sometimes unfathomable. Benoist is a great singer and a good actor, but she’s not Celine Dion or Meryl Streep. I kno...

May 28, 2018

I was a little surprised when I read last week that HAIR was going to be the next NBC “Live” musical. Surprised for critical reasons: HAIR is a problematic musical in terms of plot and a bit antiquated when it comes to women. It’s also going to be challenging to stage for TV, e.g., there’s going to have to be some very careful lighting if they are going to stay true to the nudity involved.

But more surprised in terms of the timing: the adjective “anti-war” is virtually inseparable from this show and the announcement was made during the week leading up to Memorial Day. Maybe the culture at large pays little attention to theater but I was expecting there might be folks a little irked by that juxtaposition.

It also came during a week when patriotism as a concept has been buffeted by another round of rhetorical bluster thanks to the NFL’s announcement about kneeling during the national anthem. The cacophony on social media about it all led one friend of mine to declare “I’ve never been less...

May 20, 2018

I did a class on the “nuts and bolts” of theater a couple of months ago. I invited specialists like fight choreographers, costume designers, stage makeup artists, etc., to talk about what they do and, in many cases, demonstrate their skills.

What was continually surprising was that each “specialist” was invariably skilled at several things. The costume designer started her theater career as an musical theater actress. The choreographer had just finished directing a show. And the makeup artist had more credits than any of them, having worked as an actor, musician, playwright, stage manager, and director.

In last week’s blog post I talked about the under-appreciation of actors. Beyond the fact that acting involves somewhat less tangible skills than other professions, it’s also worth noting that a large percentage of actors are actually multi-hyphenates -- actor-director, actor-singer-songwriter, actor-dancer-choreographer-director, etc. My favorite realization along these lines was when I...

May 13, 2018

I’ve been teaching classes at Firehouse since the beginning of the year and the best part of any class for me has been when a student wakes up to the depth of skill required to create professional theater. I’ve seen the awareness grow as fight choreographers describe physiology or costume designers explain color theory or dialect coaches parse the regional differences among German accents.

Students are regularly impressed, except when it comes to actors. Because actors just have to remember those lines and spit them out. Pretty much anyone could do that, right?

I’m kidding, of course. My students have been appropriately starstruck when interacting with actors. But I do think it’s harder for the actors to impress upon them the skills they have to acquire to be good at their craft.

I thought about this recently on a visit to Colonial Williamsburg. I was lucky enough to end up on a “Walking through History” tour with Stephen Seals, an actor familiar to many in Richmond thanks to his work in...

May 6, 2018

The two biggest subjects in theater are love and death. Love is the obvious topic -- everything from Shakespeare to the latest frothy musical is obsessed with romantic dynamics -- but the focus on death is not nearly as obvious, even though it’s just as ubiquitous. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at

some recent RVA offerings:

  • Cadence’s APPROPRIATE: family gets together because patriarch has died,

  • RTP’s THE NORMAL HEART: all about the AIDS crisis,

  • our production of AN OAK TREE: father deals with the death of his daughter,

  • TheatreLAB’s MOTH: well, not to be a spoiler but…,

  • Quill’s ROMEO & JULIET: love AND death rolled in together.

You don’t see death spotlighted in marketing associated with shows; an exception may be the delicious advertising the Virginia Opera rolled out this season, the Lucia di Lammermoor photos being particularly dramatic. In general, though, death doesn’t seem as sexy a draw for audiences. While a festival called Acts of Faith grabs the interes...

April 29, 2018

For me, it was GODSPELL.

I had no interest in theater. I was a sports kid, played football since I could walk. Lettered in soccer and basketball in high school. One fall a soccer teammate said I should check out this show he was doing. He was a senior and I, a lowly sophomore, idolized him and figured I’d see what he was on about.

Shortly after the lights went down, I heard as clear as a bell from the back of the gym/theater, the a-cappella strains of “Prepare ye, the way of the Lord…” the iconic opening refrain from GODSPELL. As I strained to see who was singing, I was shocked to see it was my teammate. Dashing, athletic, and the best center halfback I had ever seen, he also had a stunning, beautiful singing voice.

I’ve told this story before and I’ll likely tell it again but this was the moment that kicked off my lifelong love of theater. GODSPELL was the gateway to a big wide world I would eventually become engrossed in and it would lead to many of the best things in my life.

Years late...

April 22, 2018

I was in the midst of graduating college when the New Coke marketing disaster happened. I had other things on my mind so wasn’t really paying attention. The high-profile roll-out has become an object lesson for how NOT to enhance a major brand and the near-immediate reversal has been touted as how to make lemonade out of lemons, in the billion-dollar retail sense.

This weekend had an interesting dichotomy in the local theater world as the high-profile world premiere RIVER DITTY opened at Virginia Rep while Richmond Triangle Player rolled out the classic drama THE NORMAL HEART. The seminal Larry Kramer AIDS play debuted in 1985, the same year New Coke hit stores. That’s about where the parallel ends.

But it did get me thinking about new theater versus classic. Nathaniel Shaw made a compelling case for new work on our podcast this week, his three main points being that 1) developing new work is a way for theater artists to add to the canon as part of giving back to the art form that they’v...

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