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Nine stage artists crammed into one apartment struggle for survival at the bottom of the Richmond theater food chain. 

Standing Room Only

"Bohemia's a fallacy in your head,
This is Calcutta, Bohemia's dead." — "La Vie BohŠme" from the musical "Rent" Scott Wichmann is trying to tell his story. It's the end of October and the actor has just landed a starring role in a play called "Ella and Her Fella Frank" at the Barksdale Theatre. Wichmann, 26, will portray Frank Sinatra, a role he says he has "waited his whole life for." It won't be long before his name will be in the newspapers, his voice on the radio, his face on posters plastered all over town. For a struggling young actor, it's a dream come true. But right now, Wichmann is having trouble relating the dramatic, true-life tale of his imminent stardom because of the racket in the next room. The diminutive, energetic actor gets up and flings the door open. "Would you all shut the fuck up?" he yells. The half-dozen people gathered in the living room don't even bother to look away from the baseball game. A chorus of responses rises from the crowd: "Fuck you!" and "Yeah, whatever." Wichmann slams the door. "A bunch of animals living here," he says, smiling. "They're just jealous." And you might expect that they would be. Because living with Wichmann are eight other people who work in the theater just as he does. Eight other people — a bunch of actors, a director, a dancer, and a stage manager — all looking for the same kind of break that Wichmann is getting. Nine bodies (plus a dog and a cat) distributed across four bedrooms, stuffed into a few hundred square feet of living space. "This situation is nuts, nine people crammed into one apartment," Wichmann says. "But we all share a passion for what we do. And they are all my closest friends — friends close enough to be called family." This run-down apartment at the corner of Boulevard and Monument is a testament to the vitality of the local theater scene. These nine theater professionals came to Richmond because of the great potential for work here. With four major theaters (the Barksdale, Theatre IV, TheatreVirginia, and Swift Creek Mill Playhouse) and a dozen or so fringe theater companies, Richmond can seem like a land of opportunity to a young actor. Unfortunately, the reality is harsher. Those older, established companies tend to use the same talent over and over. The younger, more experimental companies are dominated by VCU graduates and students. Interlopers from out of state aren't greeted with open arms.[image-1]Photo by Scott ElmquistMeals bring the residents together. "Food is a happy occasion around here," says Steve Bryson. Wichmann and his friends deal with these challenges like other artists do from New York to Los Angeles: they take part-time jobs waiting tables and answering phones, they live on Ramen noodles and nicotine, they scour the paper looking for coupons and sales, they numb their frustrations with alcohol and other substances. As Wichmann puts it, "we're living la vida broke-a." But the people living at this apartment have one advantage that many other theater artists don't have: each other. In their fight to pursue their dreams in a town that doesn't have much to offer in the way of fame or fortune, they rely on each other like true comrades-in-arms. Their battle for economic and artistic survival is reflected in the militaristic nickname the residents use for their apartment: "the Compound." Though packed into a small space, their close contact has many benefits. The most obvious is financial: Each resident pays only $120 a month in rent. There are professional benefits as well: they depend on each other for contacts, references, and insider information — the currency of the theater scene. But the biggest benefit is personal; like shipmates in a lifeboat, these roommates cling to each other for support. When Wichmann says his roommates are jealous, he's really kidding. "They've been more supportive than anything," he explains. "They know what I was going through to get this job. They were there for me when I was hanging around the apartment for three weeks, waiting for the phone to ring." Despite these benefits, the drawbacks of living in such close quarters threaten to split these close friends apart. Sometimes, up to four people vie for the same bathroom. The kitchen garbage can is perpetually overflowing with trash. Wichmann doesn't even have a bed to crash in, sleeping most nights in the papasan chair in the living room. "Yeah, sometimes I wonder how we do it," Wichmann says. "But mostly, it's just cozy." Nine people are just not supposed to live in that place," says Katie Bane. Bane, 23, is tall and rail thin. She has large, dark eyes and wears a serious expression. It's 8 a.m. on a Monday and, while sitting backstage in the auditorium of Bon Air Elementary School, she seems nervous, distracted. She acts like she could use a cigarette. When asked about her living situation, her thoughts reflect a certain beginning-of-the-week grumpiness. "It's just chaos. ... There's always someone around, which can be good and can be bad. But right now I share a room and share a bathroom and then I go out on tour and nothing's my own. Nothing's stable."[image-2]Photo by Scott ElmquistScott Wichmann prepares to go onstage at the Barksdale. "I know someday we'll tell our grandchildren about 'the crazy days I spent with those eight other schmucks.'" he says. "For now, I'm having the time of my life." While the residents of the Compound aspire to high-profile gigs like Wichmann's, most make do with a job like Bane's. She has spent the fall working as a technician for Theatre IV's traveling production of "The Velveteen Rabbit." In fact, everyone at the Compound has worked for Theatre IV at some point. The well-established Richmond company sends productions of its children's shows all over the country. These tours have provided a start in the business — and a regular paycheck — for scores of young people. But, on the downside, touring involves grueling hours stuck inside a van full of props and costumes. For residents of the Compound, already stressed by the lack of personal space at home, the toll of touring is intensified. Two other Compound residents are on this tour with Bane. Kevin Edwards, handsome and soft-spoken with unruly dreadlocks framing his face, is a stage veteran, having toured with Theatre IV for more than six years. Tiffany Meade, talkative and quick to smile, plays the title character in the show. Her huge, furry costume has practically no legs, forcing her to shuffle around backstage. Meade, 24, and Edwards, 26, are a couple, the only lovers among the nine roommates. "It's hard sometimes, with everybody knowing your business," says Edwards, speaking in his soft, concise tone. "People can be disrespectful, stealing your food from the refrigerator, climbing on the couch, staying up late drinking and yelling when people are sleeping." But Edwards also concedes the positive side of Compound living. "If there are last-minute emergencies, people pull together. I know that anyone there would do anything for me, anytime," he says. "No matter how hard it gets, they'll be there for me." The show starts and Edwards steps out on stage. The subdued, well-mannered man becomes a romping, stomping horse, all broad gestures and exaggerated accent. The 300 or so youngsters laugh and clap. In little more than half an hour, the show's over and the actors are loading up the van. Bane doesn't look forward to another 10 days on the road. "It's hard in theater, living from job to job. It's even harder when you're on the road and you can't even get in touch with people." Meade chimes in: "I've gained 20 pounds on this tour. We eat out of vending machines. French fries, hamburgers. Then you sit in the van for four or five hours. ... [I]t all goes right here," she says, slapping her backside. [image-3]Photo by Scott ElmquistTiffany Meade in her stifling Velveteen Rabbit costume grabs a breath of fresh air. Eddie Garcia looks several beers into a solid drunk. Beneath dark eyebrows, his eyes are narrowed and rimmed in red. Garcia, 23, is an actor but he's not acting now. Last September, he starred in a one-man show called "Spic-o-rama." Now it's mid-November and it's been almost two months since his last acting job. It may be months until his next one. In the meantime, he's barely making ends meet by working as a host and busboy at Awful Arthur's. "The other day, I put 75 cents worth of gas in my van," he laughs, a loud, staccato sound with a bitter edge. "It was all I had." Garcia is doing what the Compound's residents spend a lot of time doing: hanging out at the apartment. Tonight it's quiet with only four roommates at home. They watch TV and drink 40-ounce Miller beers. Brix (pronounced Bree) Condrey, 22, has folded her petite dancer's frame into the papasan chair. Her dark hair pulled back into a short-ponytail, she chain smokes Camel cigarettes. Steve Bryson, 28, is an actor whose current gig is Theatre IV's "Young George Washington." After high school, Bryson served three years in the Army and still sports the close-cropped hair of his military days. Between draws on his beer, he offers commentary on the news. "Damn all those stupid, fit people," he says as a shot of the Richmond Marathon plays across the screen. With a little prompting, Garcia launches into a critique of working in Richmond theater. "It sucks. It totally sucks. Everything in Richmond is pre-cast. Even when they have an audition, they already know who they are going to cast." "Eddie's disillusioned right now," cracks Condrey. She's referring to the discouraging response to "Spic-o-rama." Despite aggressive marketing, few people came to the show. The critical response was negative. Garcia continues his rampage: "Theaters are being turned into corporations. I hate 'em. They don't fulfill their promises." Jump to Part 1, 2,Continue to Part 2
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