Staging a Revolution 

Faced with a burgeoning debt, TheatreVirginia is trying to reinvent itself. Will Richmond respond?

But getting people in the door has become an increasing problem for TheatreVirginia. Over the past decade, TVa has accumulated a debt of nearly half a million dollars. The deficit is largely due to a dwindling number of season subscribers, down from nearly 11,000 in 1990 to less than 4,300 last year. The theater company has long been renowned for intricate sets and lush costuming, but these expensive trappings haven't always translated into big box-office sales.

Also, when its lease at the Virginia Museum expires in two years, TVa will need to move to a new facility, a move bound to cost a pretty penny. To try to energize the company to face these challenges, Ambush is promoting a new artistic vision that he hopes will draw a bigger and broader audience into the theater. "I think we had an image that was exclusive, elitist," says Ambush. "We are making a conscious attempt to tell the community that the doors are open to everybody."

This inclusive vision involves plays that are more challenging with casts that are more diverse than what has traditionally been seen on the TVa stage. When Ambush, who is African-American, added a production of the "urban" drama "Crumbs from the Table of Joy" to a season that already included the Harlem-based musical "Bubbling Black Sugar," he faced criticism that he was focusing on "black plays." Ambush's response is pointed: "Two out of the six plays we did last season came out of the African-American culture. How sad that people may think that is too many in a city where 58 percent of the population is black. … All I'm asking is that people make room at the table for their neighbors."

The hubbub over Ambush's artistic vision has tended to obscure the practical business steps he has taken to address the theater's debt. Many of the changes he made to last year's season were implemented to reduce costs. He has planned a shorter 2002-03 season of five productions (not the usual six) that will require smaller casts, fewer musicians and less elaborate designs. Overall, the TVa budget for next year includes 18 fewer actor and musician contracts than this year's.

To assist him in his goal of attracting younger people to TVa, Ambush has hired accomplished director, Richard St. Peter, as his executive assistant. St. Peter brings a load of street credibility to TVa, having worked for almost every other theater company in Richmond. St. Peter has clearly become a TVa convert: "The excitement in town is going to be here," he asserts. The young director will be the guiding light behind TVa's New Horizons Project, special Tuesday night presentations of alternative performances and staged readings.

While details about TVa's debt have emerged just recently, the situation reflects the financial challenges facing theaters across the country. Most of Richmond's troupes have been affected in some way.

Financial woes drove the Swift Creek Mill Playhouse — the only private, for-profit theater company in the region at the time — to go nonprofit last year. Spurred by its own six-figure debt, the Barksdale Theatre gave itself over to Theatre IV in a unique management agreement that essentially has one staff running both companies. Since the agreement was inked last year, Theatre IV has been effective in reducing the Barksdale's debt from almost $170,000 to less than $60,000. "Communication is the key," according to Managing Director Phil Whiteway, "communication within the organization, to the people you owe money to and to the community. People need to know what to expect and that you are taking definitive steps to address the situation."

At TVa, communication has been Ambush's mantra since he signed on last summer. The director has held regular community dialogues to talk about changes in the theater's programming. He has written a six-part opus called "Our Journey Ahead" that has been excerpted in production playbills and that appears on the company's Web site. And next season, he will institute two free discussion series: "Mondays with Benny," a show-and-tell session held the Monday before opening night of each production; and "Folk Talk," facilitated discussions held after every Thursday evening and Sunday matinee performance.

Ambush hopes that providing opportunities for open discussion will lessen the resistance patrons may be feeling toward the changes he's making. And he is seeing some progress. "We raised $1 million in contributed income this 2001-2002 fiscal year, a substantially larger than normal effort that our trustees and development staff worked hard to produce," says Ambush. "We are also getting support from communities who historically have had little to no association with us: the Jewish community, the gay and lesbian community, the Asian community."

But though he is pushing himself and his staff to overcome the debt situation, he says the ultimate fate of TheatreVirginia isn't in his hands. "There's an open question out to this community right now: Does it want a resident professional theater?" Ambush remains hopeful but concedes, "We're in a race against time. Will we make it? I don't know yet." S


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