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More than a Pretty Face 

Chase Kniffen, the man behind new theater company Stage 1, sells everyone on his vision, onstage and off.

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Successful marketers know that one of the best ways to entice customers to buy is to offer a sample. If the recent performance of Stage 1 Theatre Company's "Ragtime" is a hint of what's to come, the new theater company should prepare for sell-out crowds.

The evening at the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen ended in a standing ovation for the expertly executed performance. As patrons left, they indicated their anticipation of Stage 1's full-blown productions in its inaugural season, beginning with "Tick, Tick … Boom!" in November.

As for "Ragtime," it's rare to see such a reaction to a concert version of a show. But this show was different. Credit the magic of Stage 1 artistic director Chase Kniffen.

Eighty actors, singers and musicians volunteered to present "Ragtime" as Stage 1's first fundraiser, including local big names such as Debra Wagoner, Richard Koch, Brett Ambler and Jan Guarino. But most indicative of Kniffen's pull with great talent is the appearance of Jerold E. Solomon as Coalhouse Walker. Solomon took a night off from his gig as James Hayes in Broadway's Tony Award-winning "South Pacific" just to help out. A young director with that much charisma demonstrates a true gift.

"You have to think big in order to get there," Kniffen says. Stage 1's mission is to bring contemporary, commercially successful theater to the suburbs. (The company's 99-seat black box theatre is on Route 301, just north of Interstate 295 in Hanover.) Kniffen is betting there are many people who will support this kind of theater who don't necessarily want to travel into town or see particularly edgy work. He also believes wholeheartedly in the effect of his enthusiasm as his primary marketing tool.

"I personally love that type of theater so much. That is the number one marketing tool in my mind," he says. "If I am excited about it and get three people excited about it who get more people excited about it — that will build a core group of people who will come. I have to trust that and put out a great product."

Based on the full-house audience for "Ragtime," Kniffen's marketing plan may work. So it's probably a good idea to get tickets now for "Tick, Tick … Boom!" to see if Stage 1's main course is as good as its hors d'oeuvres. S

"Tick, Tick …Boom!" opens Nov. 8 at 8 p.m. with a pay-what-you-will preview Nov. 7. Through Nov. 22. 9130 Dickey Drive in Mechanicsville. For information go to www.stage1va.org or call 427-7548.

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