There’s a bit of “calm before the storm” happening in Richmond theater right now. Only two shows opened last week but this coming weekend FIVE productions will debut and, over the next several weeks, the curtain will rise on at least NINE shows. Even with our production of TO DAMASCUS closing yesterday (hope you got to see it!), that means there’s a crazy amount of theater to take in over the next month.
And that’s just talking about the locally-produced shows that are opening. The fine folks at Broadway in Richmond have kindly scheduled several schedule-clogging additions that will be swooping in from out of town. First off, FINDING NEVERLAND starts its glitzy, over-produced, over-priced, distinctly non-intimate 5-day run on Tuesday and then CABARET will slink through in February, sucking thousands of theater patrons into the echoey Altria mausoleum.
Do I sound bitter? Hm. Sorry about that; I know it’s not a good look.
Don’t get me wrong: I have seen a bunch of the BiR productions and have thoroughly enjoyed the majority of them. While I essentially punted my last review of one of their shows, before that, I found BOOK OF MORMON hilarious and JERSEY BOYS almost revelatory.
These productions usually have very talented casts and they put on a big fancy show. They also have significant ad dollars to spend and often draw a staggering number of people downtown. As per this RTD story, BOOK OF MORMON “grossed a little over $1.8 million the week it played Richmond” in 2014. I’m ballparking it here but that figure for one week is likely more than the budget for an entire year for all the theater companies in Richmond COMBINED that aren’t Virginia Rep.
The reality is, of course, that I’m envious. It has been my pet peeve for decades now that many Richmonders consider the BiR shows “real theater” and locally-produced shows somehow “less than.” In my humble opinion, the only way in which many homegrown shows are “less than” is in how less expensive they are to attend.
There are a number of factors that play into this disparity between the popular tours and the less-attended local productions. There are “marquee” shows that always draw a crowd, in a similar way that a handful of fiction authors sell millions of books while the average author is lucky to move more than a thousand. People know what they’re going to get from Stephen King and are willing to pay for that familiarity. I was exploring this idea 7 years ago when I made this little video about thousands of die-hard theater fans streaming in to see LES MIZ in Los Angeles at a time when there were two local theater festivals going on. At the festivals you could literally see a dozen shows for the cost of one ticket to LES MIZ.
Correlated to that factor is the ongoing tension in the big-time theater world between “art” and “spectacle.” This seemed to peak with SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK back in 2010, a show predicated on spectacle, crazy wirework, and pyrotechnics. That show was a mess but it still ran for 3 years on Broadway and a stadium tour is apparently in the works. Its predecessors going back arguably to STARLIGHT EXPRESS still draw significant crowds. Richmond-area theaters do a pretty good job of employing special effects when needed (the Mill’s Tom Width in particular being a wizard with illusions and other magical elements) but there’s no way they can rival the way Elpheba defies gravity in WICKED.
The stagecraft of THE LION KING, for example, is incredible and being a known quantity guarantees that it will draw large audiences forever. But, when it comes down to it, the story is watered-down HAMLET. And that to me is the most unfortunate aspect of the situation. Theater is about telling compelling stories and a more expensive story is not necessarily a better one. For the price of one ticket to FINDING NEVERLAND, you could see both our upcoming production of WINGS and our next show, AN OAK TREE. And as good as the BiR production may be, I doubt the story it tells will be twice as involving or entertaining as the story of either of those shows.
And when expensive props or effects aren’t essential, like in CABARET, the experience of seeing a top-notch local show like RTP’s production a few years ago in an intimate space where you can hear the actors clearly -- not to mention practically reach out and touch them -- is actually better than any fancy out of town show.
I don’t know how to get people to come to more locally-produced shows, but I know if even 10% of the people who only see the BiR shows substituted a local production for a tour it would make a significant impact on the local performing arts ecosystem. How do we convince people to make that change? I’m open to any thoughts, schemes and strategies you might have.