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Instead of taking a sabbatical, Theatre IV's founders spent their summer reinventing educational theater. 

Vacation Deferred

Less than two years ago, the Virginia Standards of Learning took a big bite out of the Theatre IV budget. The results from the first round of state-mandated tests had come out and they didn't look good. Statewide, schools were panicking and redirecting large chunks of their budgets to tackling the SOLs. Almost immediately, more than $200,000 in bookings and group sales for Theatre IV's educational touring plays disappeared. Suddenly, the cornerstone of Richmond's largest theater company seemed to be crumbling. The company's co-founder and artistic director Bruce Miller remembers the phone calls: "People were saying, 'I don't know how to coordinate your shows with the SOLs.' So the easiest thing for them to do was just cancel everything."

Though the lost income amounts to just 4 percent of the company's $5 million budget, Theatre IV's other co-founder and managing director, Phil Whiteway, says, "Whenever you lose $200,000 from your core business you have to pay attention to that." Miller and Whiteway did more than pay attention; the pair has spent the last year and a half aggressively responding to the SOL shock wave, launching a new initiative to extensively augment their already well-respected educational plays. There had been a plan for the two founders to take a sabbatical this past summer, to get away from the office so they could focus on more strategic, long-range planning. "As soon as we started on this initiative, the sabbatical was like," — Miller kisses his hand and waves — "Bye-bye."

The company has bounced back from the SOL setback by securing $1.5 million in grants from school boards around the state, money targeted for the development of an SOL-specific curriculum. Working together with teachers and other advisers, Theatre IV developed the Great Kids Virginia program, which is hitting schools this fall. The program includes a series of eight plays; the first one, "The Magic Book," opened in Short Pump last week.

To support their theatrical offerings, the company has built an entire educational system around each play, including specialized teacher-training programs; teachers' guides; take-home materials for the students and Web site support for everyone concerned. All materials state clearly and often exactly which SOLs are covered by each show.

Theatre IV is the largest professional theater in Virginia. Its educational touring program is the second largest such program in the country, reaching 1.4 million children in 29 states. In 1996, Theatre IV increased its range by merging with ArtReach Touring Theatre of Cincinnati, a rare merger between nonprofit performing arts organizations.

But even with all of Theatre IV's acclaim and accomplishments, in recent years, schools have resisted paying for plays that didn't specifically address the SOLs. "The irony is that a good number of our shows have always had strong instructional programs built into them," says Miller. "These were plays that directly tie into the curriculum that the teachers are teaching."

The Great Kids program shows that the plays are just one aspect of a strategy for using the arts in education. According to Theatre IV's Director of Education, Donna Coghill, "People used to say, 'That's great, you're bringing a play in.' But there's really much more than that. We're making sure the program produces something that can resonate for much longer than the one hour the kids spend in the auditorium." Coghill is directing the second play to be rolled out in the series, "The Mysteries of Ancient Egypt," which was developed last year in partnership with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

The effort Theatre IV has poured into the Great Kids program has not come without side effects. In the past, the company has produced well-loved shows such as "Quilters" and edgy fare like last year's "Jails, Hospitals, and Hip-Hop" but it doesn't have a single adult production planned for the 2000-2001 season. "There has been a temporary pullback in our adult programming," Miller concedes, but he stresses the "temporary" in that statement. "I fully expect that Theatre Gym, our small play initiative, will pick back up in the foreseeable future [but] I'm not going to put a date on it."

Miller hopes the Great Kids program can serve as a national model for arts groups struggling to respond to mandated educational standards. He is working on commissioning a university study to empirically prove the success of the program. "A lot of this is not very sexy," Miller says, "We're not doing the Richmond premiere of 'Cats.' But we're trying to establish something here in Richmond that's never been done before in the country. And that is pretty
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