Crowd Control 

The jury is still out on CenterStage.

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In August, Keith Martin, managing director of the Richmond Ballet, predicted a double-digit percentage increase in attendance for the companies performing at Richmond CenterStage. This was in the days before the long-awaited grand opening of the multimillion-dollar facility, when there was a mix of hype and skepticism about the ambitious, taxpayer-subsidized arts center's prospects for success.

If you go by the official numbers, Martin was prescient. While declining to provide its attendance figures, the Richmond Symphony reports that attendance at its Altria Masterworks series has increased 56 percent over last season. The Virginia Opera's first offering at CenterStage, “La Boheme,” had houses at 90 percent of capacity (the Carpenter Theatre at CenterStage seats about 1,800). Richmond Shakespeare, which performs in CenterStage's 200-seat Gottwald Playhouse, saw its audience increase 30 percent over its previous indoor productions.

 

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Many shows at the new CenterStage have been noteworthy, including the African-American Repertory Theatre's “Black Nativity.” The ticket sales, however, are drawing mixed reviews. Photo by Scott Elmquist.

But percentages tell only part of the story. Last season, the Masterworks concerts and Richmond Shakespeare's indoor productions were performed in churches; moving to any true performance space in a central location was likely to boost attendance. The African American Repertory Theatre produced the most popular show in the company's history — “Black Nativity,” a co-production with Barksdale — but it still didn't draw more than a thousand people to CenterStage, leaving about 800 empty seats.

Not every production performed as well as expected. “Our attendance for ‘The Nutcracker' was down by several thousand people from last season,” the ballet's Martin writes via e-mail. But he attributes the drop not to the move to CenterStage, but rather  the December snowstorm, which forced the ballet to postpone and cancel performances for the first time in its history — as Martin puts it, a “once in a generation occurrence.”

“The Nutcracker” also faced competition from “The Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular,” another dance-oriented show that played at the Coliseum during an already packed performing arts season. That this show was booked by SMG, the Pennsylvania-based management company that also brings shows to CenterStage and the Landmark Theater, points to a source of tension surrounding CenterStage: Will local groups lose out to big-name road shows? While Martin was “caught by surprise” by the Radio City show, he says, he was hopeful that better communication would prevent similar scheduling conflicts.

For their part, the folks at SMG have been working to revive Richmond as a viable location for high-profile touring productions. “Richmond has struggled with Broadway [shows],” says Dolly Vogt, regional general manager for SMG, referring to the abrupt collapse of Baci Management in 2007 and its truncated “Broadway Under the Stars” series that left subscribers making dozens of complaints about canceled shows. Yet, Vogt says, “For a city so wounded from past experiences, Richmond has far exceeded our expectations.”

While the numbers generally look good, it's too early to gauge the full impact of CenterStage on the local arts scene. The remaining shows in SMG's new Broadway series all play at the Landmark Theater, including the long run of the blockbuster “Wicked” (opening March 10). For a city with a fancy new performing arts complex downtown, this may seem like a curious choice. Vogt says that she works with the Broadway tours to give them what they want but also works to create “synergy” between venues. She's finalizing next season's offerings, which she promises will bring two or three noteworthy tours to CenterStage's Carpenter Theatre.

In the meantime, CenterStage staffers have been doing their best to maintain excitement about the downtown facility, most recently with the weekend-long celebration in honor of the opening of the Genworth Education Center. A day of free interactive workshops offered by the resident companies attracted hundreds of eager students, and two gala performances were sold out. CenterStage will look for similar opportunities to engage with the public in the future, according to facility spokesmen, but specifics await the hiring of an executive director, anticipated in March.

 

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Valerie Tellmann and Igor Antonov in Richmond Ballet's “Romeo and Juliet”. Photo copyright Richmond Ballet, 2009. All rights reserved.

Several of the resident companies will offer particularly notable shows in coming weeks. Looking to generate their own scheduling synergy, the Richmond Ballet opens its rendition of the world's most famous love story, “Romeo and Juliet,” over Valentine's weekend. The African American Repertory Theatre's follow-up to “Black Nativity” will be the always-controversial “Othello” (opening Feb. 18), a coproduction with Richmond Shakespeare.

The Richmond Symphony will offer perennial favorite, “Peter and the Wolf” (Feb. 20), as part of its family-friendly Lollipops series, which has attracted more than three times as many patrons as its former “Kicked Back/Family” series. “I think we're seeing the beginning of a landscape change in Richmond,” the symphony's director of advancement, Bob Halbruner, says. The tectonic plates of the performing arts scene may indeed be shifting, but it may be a while before we know what kind of shift it will be.

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