Richmond is a big theater town, something that can surprise many locals. But it isn't news to the event planners who brought the hit musical "Wicked" to the Landmark Theatre last March for a 19-day run — matching the number of appearances in such cities as Jacksonville, Fla. and Austin, Texas, which have more than three times our population. The "Wicked" run sold more than 75,000 tickets, representing $4 million in sales and prompting another 11-day "Wicked" run starting Oct. 5.
Despite the fan base here, productions offered by local companies rarely get as much attention as the big tours, even though they're often high quality with tickets costing a fraction of the tour prices.
Perhaps Richmond-area residents just don't realize what their backyard scene has to offer. But it's good to buy local. The stuff trucked in from out of town can have a lot of flash and polish but it's often not as fresh and enriching as the homegrown fare. Here's your ticket to exploring the scene:
Barksdale and Theatre IV
Run by: Artistic Director Bruce Miller; Managing Director Phil Whiteway.
See their shows at: The historic Empire Theatre downtown, a 195-seat house with a thrust stage at Willow Lawn, and the renovated Hanover Tavern in Hanover County.
Around since: 1975 (Theatre IV), 1954 (Barksdale).
Summary: The biggest game in town.
Background: When kid-oriented Theatre IV took over management of the failing Barksdale in 2001, a true arts leviathan was born. With educational shows that tour nationally, a season of nonthreatening fare in Hanover, glitzy musicals downtown and an eclectic mix at Willow Lawn, the combined company reaches an audience of unparalleled breadth. Still, founders Miller and Whiteway don't sit idly atop the local theater heap; they're working to expand their reach with edgier productions such as next summer's "Spring Awakening." Competitors may grumble about Barksdale's ability to import out-of-town talent, but audiences reap the benefits. Also, it uses its superpowers primarily for good, sharing resources and working with smaller troupes such as Cadence and African American Repertory Theater.
Even as it celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Empire this year, this organization is acutely focused on the future. Whiteway says the groundwork is being laid for a "next step" — some significant changes that soon will be announced. Whatever they are, the whole scene is sure to feel the effects.
Next up: Farcical favorite "Lend Me a Tenor" at Willow Lawn starting Sept. 9.
Keep an eye out for: Daring programming including contentious comedy "God of Carnage" in February and world premiere "Scorched Earth" in April.
Contact: barksdalerichmond.org, 282-2620.
African American Repertory Theater (AART)
Run by: Artistic Director Derome Scott Smith.
See its shows at: Gottwald Theatre at CenterStage; Pine Camp Recreation Center.
Around since: 2002 (originally Living Word).
Summary: Virginia's only professional African-American theater company.
Background: AART has seemed to operate according to the lyrics of the old Beatles song, "I get by with a little help from my friends." When working with other companies — Sycamore Rouge on the recent "Jitney," Barksdale on "Crowns" — its productions have soared. But the company's results often have been disappointing when working alone. Moving into CenterStage as one of venue's resident companies forced it to grow up, Smith says: "We really have to make sure all our ducks are in a row now." There are hopeful signs for the future: The recent staging of "Langston Is My Man" was stylish and superb. The production starred Broadway hoofer Eugene Fleming who also will headline next February's "Ain't Misbehavin'."
Next up: August Wilson's "Fences," opening Nov. 4.
Keep an eye out for: A new emerging artist project: five original one-act plays to be produced in May.
Contact: aartva.org, 355-2187.
Chamberlayne Actors Theatre (CAT)
Run by: No artistic director; run by board of directors.
See its shows at: Chamberlayne Recreation Association building.
Around since: Initiated as a community theater in 1964, turned pro in 1999.
Summary: Neighborhood troupe reaching for broader appeal.
Background: "People have a hard time qualifying what we are," Board President H. Lynn Smith says. "Some still think we are not a 'real' professional theater." Though production quality has been highly variable, Smith points to an increasing number of high-caliber actors and designers working for the company. The theater has hired three new directors next season with established credits elsewhere and its board is full of younger members with innovative ideas. The company produced Richmond premieres exclusively last season and is focusing on those this season. This CAT indeed may be on the verge of shaking its kittenish reputation.
Next up: Woman-centered World War II drama "Home Fires," opening Oct. 21.
Keep an eye out for: "The Children's Hour," a controversial drama written by Lillian Hellman, banned in some cities in the 1930s.
Contact: cattheatre.com, 262-9760.
Cadence Theatre Company
Run by: Artistic Director Anna Senechal Johnson.
See its shows at: Theatre Gym at the Empire Theatre complex.
Around since: January 2010.
Summary: An upstart quickly distinguishing itself by producing bold contemporary works.
Background: The announcement in July that Cadence would become the resident company in the black-box space at the Empire surprised many in the local theater world. After all, the troupe has produced only four shows in its short life. But Theatre IV honchos clearly have faith in Johnson's record of success: She co-founded the Firehouse before moving to Idaho where she spent nine years as artistic director of the St. Thomas Playhouse. She has a flair for luring some of the city's best talent to appear in intense dramas such as Sam Shepard's "Fool for Love," which scored a best play nomination from the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle. "I think we can really flesh out what Theatre IV/Barksdale is offering," Johnson says.
Next up: Black comedy "Kimberly Akimbo" opening Oct. 14.
Keep an eye out for: The first local production in February of "August: Osage County," the mother of all dysfunctional family comedies that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008.
Contact: cadencetheatre.org, 233-4894.
Firehouse Theatre Project
Run by: Artistic Director Carol Piersol.
See its shows at: Firehouse Theatre
Around since: October 1993.
Summary: Off-Broadway on Broad Street.
Background: Staging shows in a converted firehouse on Broad Street, this company's mission is to produce contemporary American plays. While Firehouse has become a fixture of Richmond theater, it wasn't always so. When Firehouse started, Piersol says the local theater scene was very conservative. "Richmond in 1993 was still shying away from nudity and curse words," Piersol says, noting that people couldn't believe a theater would perform works by playwrights such as David Mamet in conventional Richmond. Recently Firehouse has been branching out from its contemporary roots, staging Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" last year and Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" this fall. Still, the majority of its season is dedicated to shows that never have been performed in Richmond, and the theater frequently holds staged readings of new works. Firehouse won big at the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle Awards last year for its production of "Rent." Can it repeat its success with "Woolf"?
Next up: Tennessee Williams' Cotton Belt drama, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," opening Sept. 15.
Keep an eye out for: Christopher Durang's "Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them," a recently penned satire on post-9/11 America.
Contact: firehousetheatre.org, 355-2001.
Henley Street Theatre
Run by: Artistic Director James Ricks; Managing Director Jacquie O' Connor.
See its shows at: The black box theater at the School for the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community.
Around since: 2007.
Summary: A newly retooled company with a new home.
Background: Henley Street has undergone some major changes recently. A new mission statement, new logo and new website are just the tip of the iceberg. Henley Street has moved from Pine Camp Cultural Arts Center in North Side to the school's black box theatre in Scott's Addition. The company originally modeled itself after the ensemble-style productions of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company. "We've been working hard to reshape our artistic mission," Ricks says. "We tend to go for shows where the language is kind of advanced. We try not to do a style more than once a year." The past season saw two critically acclaimed joint productions: "The Winter's Tale" with Richmond Shakespeare and "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" with Richmond Triangle Players. Rounding out the season was the theater-of-the-absurd classic, "Waiting for Godot," and a Bootleg Shakespeare production of "Titus Andronicus." Going into its third year, Bootleg Shakespeare requires actors to learn their lines independently and supply their own props. With only minimal rehearsal, actors perform for an audience the same day that they meet together for the first time. Audiences love to watch the train wrecks, Ricks says: "It's not museum-piece Shakespeare."
Next up: Shakespeare's' tragi-comedy "The Merchant of Venice."
Keep an eye out for: "Bootleg Shakespeare: Troilus and Cressida," a rowdy, thrown-together take on the Bard.
Contact: henleystreettheatre.org, 340-0115.
Run by: Artistic Director Grant Mudge.
See its shows at: Agecroft Hall in the summer, Gottwald Theatre at CenterStage other seasons.
Around since: 1984 (originally Encore Theatre Company).
Summary: Focuses on Shakespeare (duh) plus language-intensive contemporary works.
Background: It's been an erratic year for our local Shakespeare troupe. The company's annual summer festival featured an exceptional "King Lear," followed by a shaky "Two Gentlemen of Verona." Ticket surcharges at CenterStage have raised ire and the staging of contemporary works such as Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" have confused some patrons. Mudge says such confusion has played a part in the formulation of a new mission statement that allows the company to expand its offerings. While not sticking strictly to the Bard, Mudge hopes to illuminate the influences Shakespeare has had on modern theater. He's also committed the company to one big free performance a year, with last spring's "Romeo and Juliet" drawing hundreds to Maymont.
Next up: A reading of "The Tempest" as part of the company's intriguing Second Tuesdays series of staged readings in October.
Keep an eye out for: "A Christmas Carol for Two Actors" at the holidays, a perennial favorite that will be mothballed after this year.
Contact: richmondshakespeare.com, 232-4000.
Richmond Triangle Players
Run by: Managing Director Philip Crosby; Artistic Director John Knapp.
See its shows at: Richmond Triangle Players Theatre.
Around since: Spring 1993.
Summary: A company dedicated to putting on shows for and about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Background: Beginning with Harvey Fierstein's "Safe Sex" trilogy, Triangle has never wavered from its mission of performing works for its community. The company's first home was in the top floor of Fielden's, an after-hours club on West Broad Street. In 2010 Triangle enjoyed two significant victories — opening a converted radiator shop in Scott's Addition as its permanent home, and winning the best play award from the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle for Richard Greenberg's "Take Me Out." Triangle doesn't shy away from nudity or edgy plays, and its seasons normally balance serious shows such as "This Beautiful City" with campier works such as "Devil Boys From Beyond." "We're mission specific," Crosby says. "The intent is serious, but we don't want to put people off."
Next up: Tennessee Williams' one-act "Suddenly, Last Summer," opening Sept. 28.
Keep an eye out for: Eric Lane Barnes' "The Holiday Stops," a sequel to "The Stops," the most successful show Triangle has ever staged, winning best musical in the National Gay and Lesbian Theatre Festival in 2006.
Contact: richmondtriangleplayers.com, 346-8113.
Swift Creek Mill Theatre
Run by: Artistic Director Tom Width.
See its shows at: Swift Creek Mill Theatre.
Around since: December 1965.
Summary: Something for everyone in an old mill.
Background: Mixing up family friendly plays and musicals with the occasional thriller, Width says that Swift Creek tries to produce shows that keep its patrons in mind. "We're trying to serve a wide audience," Width says. "I try to pick things that are artistic and fun." Last season saw two musicals, a comedy, a thriller and a revue at the converted grist mill. "Once on this Island," a Caribbean-themed musical, was nominated for multiple Richmond Theatre Critic Circle awards this year.
Next up: "Keep on the Sunny Side," the songs and stories of Virginia's own Carter family, opening Sept. 15.
Keep an eye out for: "The 39 Steps," a long-running Broadway comedy adapted from the classic Alfred Hitchcock film.
Contact: swiftcreekmill.com, 748-5203.
Run by: Artistic Director KB Saine.
See its shows at: Sycamore Rouge.
Around since: January 2006.
Summary: Petersburg's only professional theater company.
Background: Sycamore Rouge was formed with the mission to help revitalize the Petersburg community. "We wanted to produce theater in a city that didn't have any," Saine says. "It's a whole different understanding of community." Sycamore Rouge's theater space reflects its desire to create a welcoming environment for everyone, forgoing regular seating for tables, couches and adult beverages. The past season saw "Jitney," an excellent joint venture with the African American Repertory Theater that was nominated for numerous Richmond Theatre Critics Circle awards.
Next up: Langston Hughes' Harlem musical, "Simply Heaven," opening Sept. 23.
Keep an eye out for: "The Darker Face of the Earth," an interracial love story set before the Civil War. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winner and national poet laureate Rita Dove, the play will be staged on the lawn of the historic Battersea house.
Contact: sycamorerouge.com, 957-5707.
Richmond has a growing number of smaller companies that produce only occasionally, specialize in a very specific type of show or are so young that it's difficult to know exactly what they'll be up to next.
Carpenter Science Theatre
(Science Museum of Virginia):
Focus is on storytellers enhancing educational displays, but it's also produced top-notch original shows in the well-appointed Eureka Theatre.
Contact: smv.org/livescience.html, 864-1400.
Far West End company has a nice black box space, focuses on education, only produces a main stage show once a year or so.
Contact: hattheatre.org, 343-6364.
Mostly a dance company but has collaborated with theater troupes to augment special performances.
Contact: kdance.org, 270-4944.
Mystery Dinner Theatre
Specializing in goofy, original, audience-participation mysteries performed between courses of a hotel dinner, the theater started in Richmond but now boasts locations in Williamsburg and Washington.
Contact: mysterydinner.com/richmond, 888-471-4802.
Night Light Collective
A far-flung troupe exploring eclectic plays, including a new work about Marilyn Monroe.
Richmond's newest company produced a show in the summer. Next up: an original work called "Brew," due in November.
Theatre & Co
This independent troupe explores black culture and history through one or two productions a year.
Contact: Tony Cosby, 218-6970.
Educational and Religious Companies
Many of Richmond's professionals make their living wage working for educational and religious theatre groups. Combine these talented artists with the significant funds of these groups often possess and you often get productions close to the pros.
Staging shows that combine young talent and extreme technical know-how, VCU's shows could easily be confused for professional theatre.
Contact: vcu.edu/arts/theatre/dept/index.shtml, 828-1514
University of Richmond Theatre
Though this group usually stages roughly the same number of shows per season as VCU, the performances' extremely short runs mean theater-goers have to catch them fast.
Contact: theatredance.richmond.edu, 289-8000
Christian Youth Theatre
An after-school performing arts non-profit centered on Judeo-Christian values for ages 4-18.The company has six youth-oriented musicals scheduled this year, including "Annie," and "The Music Man."
Contact: cytrichmond.org, 285-2987
Weinstein Jewish Community Center
Run by the Jewish Family Theatre, the only Jewish theater group in the Richmond area. Upcoming shows include "How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying," and "And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank."
Contact: weinsteinjcc.org, 285-6500
School for the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community (SPARC)
A performing arts nonprofit for young people ages 5-18 that stages shows. For 30 years SPARC has trained some of the big talents, including Broadway's Emily Skinner and Jason Mraz.
Contact: sparconline.org, 353-3393
The Conciliation Project
A theater company with a strong focus on fighting social and racial injustice. Last season it worked with Housing Opportunities Made Equal to create a show about housing discrimination titled "UnEqual Access: a Journey Towards Home."
Contact: theconciliationproject.org, 703-946-5217
Several Broadway touring performances will be coming to the Landmark Theatre this season. These shows can sell tens of thousands of tickets, reaffirming the notion that there is a large theater audience in Richmond that has yet to be fully tapped into. "Wicked" kicks off the performances in October, followed by "South Pacific" and "The Lion King."
Contact: landmarktheater.net, 646-0546