Financially-ailing Barksdale 

The Shows Will Go On

f the past six months at Barksdale Theatre were turned into a play, it would have all of the ingredients for a successful melodrama.

From the central crisis of Richmond's oldest nonprofit theater struggling to survive in the face of a $100,000 deficit, to the heroes (or villains, depending on whom you ask) of Theatre IV stepping in to help salvage the ailing company, the story is ripe with intrigue, suspense, drama and interesting characters. What has yet to be determined, however, is the ending.

The final act begins Friday, Sept. 7, when the stage lights go up on the season-opener "Italian-American Reconciliation." The story will play out during a seven-show season, as Theatre IV attempts to manage Barksdale's nearly $160,000 debt, rebuild its board of directors, mount a serious fund-raising campaign and present an audience-pleasing season. Should it succeed at all of these objectives, Barksdale should find its happy ending. But the saga could unfold just as easily into a tragedy.

"It is a three-year job and we need to do it all immediately," says Bruce Miller, artistic director of Theatre IV and now Barksdale. "I am not making any bets [on succeeding], but I know that all of us are trying our hardest. I know we're good at what we do. I feel like [Theatre IV co-founder] Phil Whiteway and I are uniquely equipped to handle this."

In July, the two companies signed a year-to-year agreement that puts Barksdale under the managerial control of Theatre IV. The two companies continue to operate as independent nonprofit corporations with separate names, missions, seasons, governing boards and annual budgets, but they now share a common professional staff. Though Theatre IV hired about seven new employees (some of them former Barksdale staff) to work for both theaters, the arrangement means a lot more work for Theatre IV founders Miller and Whiteway, who now also hold the respective titles of artistic director and managing director for Barksdale. But both men say saving Barksdale Theatre is worth the extra effort.

"With all of my heart I think it is desperately important for Barksdale to continue to exist," Miller says. "The theater scene would be far less exciting if Barksdale would cease to exist. … Fewer new audiences members would find a place where they could enter the theater marketplace at a cost they can afford, and fewer artists would be able to earn a living in Richmond. If those two things were to happen it would have serious negative impact on the other theaters in town and the plans for the new [performing arts] facilities in downtown Richmond."

Barksdale's management agreement with Theatre IV may be unique to Richmond, and perhaps the nation, but Miller predicts it won't be for long. "If you look at the for-profit sector, mergers and strategic collaborations are the name of the game for a simple reason: It allows you to achieve your mission in a more cost-effective manner," he says. "I think it's going to be incumbent in the nonprofit community to explore new innovative ways to share resources."

Founded in 1953, Barksdale is Richmond's oldest nonprofit theater company and has built its reputation on presenting cutting-edge contemporary theater. As his first task, Miller set out to program a season that would also be commercially viable.

"Part of what has helped Barksdale to thrive over the decades is the ability to find the right balance between daring work and commercial success," he says. "I tried my best to find the appropriate balance of artistry, daring and commercial appeal to attract the smart, savvy and fun theatergoers that have always been the cornerstone of Barksdale Theatre."

On tap for Barksdale's 2001-2002 season are: a comedy, John Patrick Shanley's "Italian-American Reconciliation (Sept. 7-Oct. 7); a classic, Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes," to be directed by Miller (Oct. 19-Nov. 18); three Richmond premieres, "Fully Committed" (Nov. 30-Dec. 30), "Dinner With Friends" (Feb15-March 17) and "The Exact Center of the Universe" (April 5-May 5); a world premiere, Bo Wilson's "War Story" (Jan. 11-27); and a musical, "Olympus on my Mind" (June 14-Aug. 4).

Whiteway's immediate challenges lie in helping to rebuild Barksdale's board of directors, mounting an organized fund-raising campaign to move the theater back into the black, and introducing more people to Barksdale's Willow Lawn location, where it relocated from Hanover Tavern about five years ago.

While the average theatergoer won't notice much of a difference at Barksdale while they sit in the audience this season, Miller says he hopes they do notice that the theater has "a renewed commitment to professionalism and a seriousness of purpose that is made possible by more secure financial health."

Miller adds, "We are doing all we can to ensure that Barksdale survives."


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