Don't get me wrong. I believe in the promise of Richmond CenterStage. Downtown's new performing arts Mecca is poised to deliver what the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts, its predecessor in the 600 block of East Grace Street, failed to achieve. The $73.5 million complex opening next month is a thoroughgoing theatrical adaptation and expansion of this city's exotic 1928 Loew's movie palace, not just a cosmetic touch-up. With its two additional stages, arts-education center and 13 resident companies, all but two of which are based here, the new complex is positioned to foster the arts in Richmond as well as showcase performers from afar.
Richmond CenterStage would seem to have everything going for it, including an 81-year-history chock-full of colorful characters and real-life cliffhangers rivaling any drama that played on the Loew's screen or the Carpenter Center stage. Sad to say, the complex's parent, the CenterStage Foundation, is not about to tell that story, much less sanction others to tell it. The foundation's peculiar idea of manners has a way of trumping the truth.
I learned this the hard way last month after laboring for a year on a book that the foundation commissioned me to write. The 96-page, full-color, hardcover coffee-table tome, “Richmond CenterStage: A Dream Fulfilled,” was to have told that story in words and pictures, complete with sidebars, timelines and other niceties.
My manuscript, which was in its final edited form by mid-July except for a final chapter detailing the grand opening, will not be published.
No possibility could have been further from my mind last summer when foundation functionaries Susan Fitz-Hugh and Erin Rodman approached me about writing a book. We clicked like gangbusters. We laughed a lot. I went home, wrote a lengthy book proposal discussing options and e-mailed it to the foundation. We met again. Fitz-Hugh, a member of the foundation's board of directors, and Rodman, on staff as marketing director, assured me we were on the same track. We laughed some more. Fitz-Hugh and Rodman hired me on the spot. No restrictions were placed on the content. No foundation oversight was mentioned. I was given freedom to write to my highest journalistic standard. My mandate, according to our contract, was simply to “write all written portions” of the book except for a one-page foreword. By early fall of 2008, I was deep into research.
Perhaps I should have smelled trouble when the foundation declined my request to share some architectural drawings with Preprint Design Services, the Richmond Times-Dispatch department that the foundation had engaged to design, edit and manage the book. The widely published drawings showed a future home for TheatreVirginia and a concert hall that were announced but never built. Including the drawings in the book would be “negative,” Rodman explained. I shrugged it off.
By April, research was complete and the writing was well in hand. As a goodwill gesture, I e-mailed the Loew's Theatre section to Rodman for the foundation's perusal. Rodman later acknowledged that she'd only read the sidebars. Late in June, the project manager issued a series of July deadlines that included sending a copy of the completed manuscript to the foundation. That was news to me, but I welcomed it as another way to assure factual accuracy.
The foundation found only two minor factual errors, which I was happy to correct. It was the rest of the book that propelled Fitz-Hugh and Rodman into outer space. They shot off a four-page “feedback” e-mail that included more than 50 criticisms, suggestions and orders for changes.
Some of the criticisms were petty. They objected to my characterization of 6th Street Marketplace as a “fiasco,” for example. They disapproved of my identifying the late Helmut Wakeham as the Carpenter Center's board chairman, which was his title. They nixed my characterization of Loew's in its 1970s decline as a “mockery” of what it had been in its prime.
Other criticisms were direct assaults on any standard of sound reporting and historical writing. No matter what had been reported in the press, Fitz-Hugh and Rodman didn't want financial figures in the book. A $3 million gift from Stanley and Dorothy Pauley had put the fundraising drive over the top, for example, but it wasn't to be mentioned. In fact, the demise of Loew's Theatre, the Carpenter Center's rocky first five years and the political controversy that swirled around fundraising for Richmond CenterStage could be explained only in economic terms.
More egregious was the foundation's contention that some historical figures should be written out of the book and that no one should be mentioned who did not wish to “participate.” That included the longtime executive director of the Carpenter Center, Joel Katz, who, Rodman assured me, had told the foundation that he didn't want his name associated with Richmond CenterStage.
The suggested and demanded changes, which were reinforced in subsequent correspondence, amounted to historical revisionism on a massive scale. They seemed dictated by a need to falsify history to meet image-polishing, fundraising and other agendas that had nothing to do with writing a balanced and properly analytical account of what had transpired since Loew's opened its fabled doors. They asked me to “erase all mentions” of SaveRichmond.com, the local blog that had become a rallying point for opposition to the foundation's process on economic, cultural and other grounds. These were dictates that no respectable journalist or historian could countenance.
The end came swiftly. The foundation refused to give me the free hand I required, and my integrity was not for sale. When it was evident we had reached an impasse, Rodman invited me to coffee at the Stir Crazy CafAc and told me the book project was being terminated.
I just hadn't told what she characterized as “our story,” she sighed.
I regret that “Richmond CenterStage: A Dream Fulfilled” won't materialize, but in one sense, I'm richer for the experience. It enabled me to learn a lot about my journalistic integrity that I had never known because, in a 38-year career as a staff writer for six newspapers, it had never been put to a real test.
On second thought, life is fleeting.
I wish the foundation had told me from the get-go that what it really wanted was a gigantic piece of puffery in the guise of an honest book.
If it had, it could have saved us a lot of time and trouble. S
Roy Proctor, a freelance writer and theater director, retired in 2004 after 30 years as an arts writer for The Richmond News Leader and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.