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Richmond's loss is Staunton's gain as the town moves forward with a proposal to build a replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre once planned for Oregon Hill. 

Love's Labours Lost

After a recent meeting in a Richmond coffee shop, a patron stops Pete Wiggins and Tom McLaughlin as they get up from their table "Excuse me," the man says. "I couldn't help but overhear you talking about Shakespeare. Are you involved with that Globe Theater they're building?"

A look of exasperation — and satisfaction — washes over Wiggins face as he stops to explain the complicated answer to that question.

Wiggins, a Renaissance literature professor at the College of William and Mary; and McLaughlin, a local architect; are the chief backers of a proposed plan to build a $16.9 million historically accurate replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theater in Oregon Hill. The theater would serve as the home of a destination Shakespeare festival, drawing theater lovers from around the world.

When a $16,000 feasibility study released last summer gave the project the thumbs up, the two were encouraged that their dream, regarded by some as quixotic, would become a reality. And now it looks like it will — only not in Richmond.

The Shenandoah Valley town of Staunton has embraced the idea enthusiastically, granting the newly relocated Shenandoah Shakespeare Express (SSE) a $200,000 interest-free loan to pursue the project, which is expected to be completed in 2004-2005. The first phase, a 300-seat indoor Elizabethan Theatre designed by architect McLaughlin, should be finished by late 2000.

Staunton sees the project as an educational, cultural and economic benefit to the community. In Richmond, the Globe Theater project was viewed more as an ill-conceived pipe dream — despite the feasibility study, published by the Institute for Outdoor Drama at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, predicting it would generate an economic impact of more than $11 million with more than 102,000 visitors in its first year.

"The RSGC [Richmond Shakespeare Globe Center]... has high prospects for success," the report states. "Its merit and potential for artistic, cultural and economic prosperity are very high and it is the opinion of the study team and the Institute of Outdoor Drama that the project should be aggressively pursued."

"There was enthusiasm while this was in the works, but as soon as [the feasibility study] demonstrated that the project could be successful, the people who would be necessary to see this through turned their backs," Wiggins says, his voice rising in frustration. "Staunton has seen the feasibility study and believes they capture the same audience. Richmond paid for a feasibility study so Staunton could use it."

Ralph Cohen, co-founder and executive director of SSE, explains that Wiggins invited his group to be a part of the proposed Globe Theater project in Richmond, but "we just found too many closed doors there," he says. "We're finding only open doors in Staunton and that's a big difference."

Staunton first invited SSE, previously located in Harrisonburg, to relocate there in 1995. When the promise of an indoor theater was added a few years later, SSE agreed, but told the town that they were also committed to the Globe project in Richmond. " I think that from the very start [Staunton] was salivating about maybe having both things here," Cohen says.

By last summer, SSE and Staunton's economic development officials began talking seriously about the possibility of building a Globe Theatre in Staunton. "It became clear that there was just more of a will to do it here than there was in Richmond," Cohen says.

Wiggins says Richmond Renaissance, the downtown redevelopment organization that funded $8,000 of the study, the Metropolitan Area Planning Strategy (MAPS) and existing cultural organizations failed to support the plan.

Existing cultural organizations feared that "should a project of this magnitude come to town, they would lose support they desperately needed," Wiggins says. "There is fierce competition among existing cultural organizations ... who have very limited funds."

However, the feasibility study points out that in Ashland, Ore., and Stratford, Ontario, home to two of the world's largest Shakespeare festivals, the opposite has happened — the success of these festivals has meant success for the town's other cultural attractions.

Wiggins says the Richmond Shakespeare Globe Centre Inc. was "kicked out" of MAPS when the group decided to focus on obtaining city funds to improve existing arts organizations, rather than support something new. "They basically said we will do nothing new," he says. "We were called 'speculative.'" Stephanie Micas of the Arts Council, who headed the arts planning portion of MAPS, could not be reached for comment.

Jack Berry, executive director of Richmond Renaissance, says that once MAPS didn't include the Globe Theater project on its priority list, it became difficult for Richmond Renaissance to support it.

"Richmond Renaissance tries to be a catalyst for projects downtown but normally does not implement projects on its own," he explains. "In order for a project like the Globe to succeed, a champion with financing capability must emerge. ... Unfortunately, that didn't happen."

Wiggins says the failure of Valentine Riverside scared off some potential investors, who were leery of supporting a radical, unproven idea. He also cites Richmond's Civil War legacy as a deterrent to the proposed Globe Theatre. "The Civil War does not bring tourism to Richmond," he says. "It breeds damaging controversy... there needs to be an attraction to bring people to Richmond." The Globe Theater, he argues, would have been the logical midpoint on Richmond's new canal and would have provided a reason for hotels and restaurants to be built along the canal. He does not believe the new Civil War visitor's center will have the same draw.

"Regardless of the lack of results we've had in Richmond, our project has been vindicated," Wiggins says. "Staunton has the vision, the will ... and they will have the project Richmond needs. I'm disappointed it won't happen here, but I'm not disappointed in the project."

Even Berry is not surprised Staunton is pursuing the plan. "It's a great idea and the feasibility study was very positive," he says. "I would still like to see it happen, but we're not going to be the ones to do it."

For more on Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, click here.
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