Byrd Is the Word 

click to enlarge art03_word_lyric_ave_100.jpg

Craig Watson is finally getting to see his dreams on the big screen -- sort of.

Watson is co-founder of Lyric Ave, a local poetry-based variety show that recently found a new home for its fifth season at the Byrd Theatre. Similar to HBO's streetwise "Def Poetry" spoken-word series, the group provides a live sketch venue for passionate artists of all stripes, from stand-up comedians to actors, musicians and poets.

The theme of the Jan. 18 show is "Living the Dream," timed to coincide with the weekend birthday celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Watson, 32, says the group picks universal themes and hard-hitting cultural messages that often appeal to younger people. You can expect some heartfelt commentary on male/female relationships, families, drug and physical abuse, and issues affecting a broad spectrum of people.

For this show, expect a parody of the evening news from anchors "Cassandra Schauffner" and "Jamal Cauni Bomatta Zulu Nation X" and an infomercial for the "No Child Left Behind Adoption Agency."

"We like to keep it fresh," Watson says. "We have a very live feel, so you never know what to expect. … Our audiences are kind of like family."

Stage manager Pixie E. Curry says that the group's move from its former home at the Empire Theatre to the Byrd should make things run smoother, because video projections of preproduced material can be used during set changes.

"This should allow people to focus more on our talented solo acts," she says, adding that the whole experience has made her "really admire the Not Ready for Prime Time Players, because it's tough work jumping between sketches … like herding cats."

The group has toured extensively around Virginia, mostly at colleges, and loaned its collective talents to several educational endeavors, including substance abuse programs for local high school students, churches and organizations such as the city's Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative and Richmond Behavioral Health Authority. The group's C.O.N.C.E.P.T. program (Community Outreach Network Connecting Education with Poetry and Theatre) seeks to educate and provide role models for youth living in environments where "positive life choices may not seem evidently clear."

Although Lyric Ave has opened for national touring acts such as John Legend and Fantasia, Watson says the Byrd will be its largest regular, non-college venue — which he attributes to the growth of the program during the last five years. The group will perform a regular show there every other month.

Lyric Ave started in 2002, after Watson and his best friend from Huguenot High School, Dontronn Goode, learned a tough lesson in show business when they traveled to New York to approach media mogul Russell Simmons about their poetry.

"We actually got to his brother's door and got the cold shoulder," Watson recalls. "On the way back home, we felt like whatever we could've gotten there, we could still do it on our own, in our own hometown."

That initial enthusiasm was transferred to small-scale performance nights in local clubs, and soon others became interested. The original duo blossomed into an eclectic group of nearly 20 like-minded community performers. They've since created DVDs, T-shirts and studio tapes of performances, which you can check out online (www.lyricave.com). Funding comes from local sponsors, door ticket sales and contributions from co-founder Goode, who moved to New Orleans two years ago as part of the military reserves to help Katrina victims. Goode plans to return to the Richmond area soon, Watson says, if he can secure a transfer.

Both men hope that one day the show can grow to the point where it will become a televised national variety show. "We're all about making dreams real," Watson says. S

Lyric Ave performs at the Byrd Jan. 18, March 14 and May 16, with a five-year anniversary performance July 25. Tickets can be purchased at www.lyricave.com or at Plan 9 Music. For more information, call 344-3390.

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