Trading Spaces 

Local theater companies are taking audiences into new digs this fall.

click to enlarge Henley Street Theater and Richmond Shakespeare director Jan Powell stands on Grace Street in front of the theater where she will stage Bo Wilson’s four-person adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Many local theater groups are using alternative spaces this season.

Scott Elmquist

Henley Street Theater and Richmond Shakespeare director Jan Powell stands on Grace Street in front of the theater where she will stage Bo Wilson’s four-person adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Many local theater groups are using alternative spaces this season.

While Jan Powell and her combined Henley Street Theatre and Richmond Shakespeare company gear up for a new season, they may have to contend with the ghosts of pasties past.

The company’s staging its first production at Virginia Commonwealth University’s 225-seat Grace Street Theater. Although it now serves as an art history classroom and performance space for the school’s dance department, the theater once screened adult films and featured burlesque dancers.

It’s one of the spaces that Richmond theatergoers may get to experience for the first time this season.

For Powell, Grace Street is the perfect venue for local playwright Bo Wilson’s four-person adaptation of “Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol,” which opens in November.

“I wanted a space that was going to have enough intimacy to feel right for a show with four actors, but also enough capacity for the sort of imagination that happens in the show,” Powell says. “It’s very close to Dickens’ text, but it’s highly theatricalized.”

Powell says the height and depth of the space will allow for some intriguing theatrical decisions, adding that the lights used by VCU’s dance department will help create a more dramatic staging.

Henley/Shakespeare also will make use of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ Leslie Cheek Theater, a space that has rarely seen a dramatic performance since Richmond Shakespeare and Sycamore Rouge’s co-production of Yasmina Reza’s “Art” in 2011. The space once served as the home of TheatreVirginia, which closed its doors in 2002.

“The connection for us between the museum, which suspends itself so beautifully between the cultural past and present, seemed to be a perfect connection for us,” Powell says, “because we are doing the same thing theatrically.”

The company will stage its annual Bootleg Shakespeare offering, “Antony and Cleopatra,” in the Cheek Theater Nov. 1. With Bootleg performances, actors learn their lines independently, rehearse once, and then hold a single show as a fundraiser. In February, Henley/Shakespeare will occupy the Cheek again for James Goldman’s “The Lion in Winter,” about King Henry II.

“I knew that it would be a title that would appeal to people because it has a rich history, but it’s also incredibly relevant today,” Powell says. “It’s very smart and it’s very funny. It has some of the best one-liners in 20th-century drama.”

She says the company will use only the front section of the theater’s seats to create a more intimate audience experience. The reason it has taken so long for another show to happen at the Cheek has been a matter of logistics.

“It really came down more to a scheduling question than anything else,” Powell says, “although we had to work hard to make sure it would work for everyone financially.” In staging productions at these venues, the company hopes to attract new audience members.

Across town at the intersection of Broad and Third streets, a different vision is coming to life in a basement.

After TheatreLab artistic director Deejay Gray appeared in Style’s Top 40 Under 40 issue last year, a landlord contacted him about renting out a storefront as a permanent theater space. While the fledgling company enjoyed presenting work in different theaters, Gray and managing director Annie Colpitts decided to see the storefront anyway.

With its high ceiling and striking windows, the space wasn’t what they were looking for, but they were surprised by the building’s basement.

“It was a little scary because it fit the exact sort of aesthetic we wanted,” Colpitts says. “There’s an alcove already cut into the wall where a boiler used to be that’s the perfect size for a [ticket] booth.”

The company since has raised more than $25,000 to turn the basement into a theater. Now dubbed the Basement, plans for the theater have been developed through Storefront for Community Design’s partnership with VCU’s Middle of Broad program.

“It’s not really going to look like any other theater in town,” Colpitts says. “We want to keep the exposed brick and concrete floor — the historic features that make it unique.”

TheatreLAB hopes to have construction completed in time for the late-October opening of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” a musical about a rock ’n’ roll band fronted by an East German transgender singer. All of this comes as the surrounding stretch of Broad Street continues to undergo revitalization efforts.

“People are just so excited to have us in that area, and the fact that we get to start in that space with ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ is just multiplying that excitement,” Colpitts says.

“That place is not going to be the same place in a year,” she says of the neighborhood. “It’s already not the same place it was six months ago.”

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