The new artistic director of TheatreVirginia plans to shake things up and welcome new voices. And what's wrong with that? 

The Many Worlds of Benny Ambush

Benny Sato Ambush doesn't just enter a room. He bursts in, reciting the prologue from Shakespeare's "Henry V." His large, expressive eyes are alive with enthusiasm and ideas.

Ambush, the new producing artistic director at TheatreVirginia, arrived in July with a mission: to bring multiculturalism to both the stage and audiences at TheatreVirginia. And he's prepared to shout it from the rooftops.

"I came here to make an impact on a city that's ready for an impact," he says, acknowledging the hurdles he's about to face. "People may not like what I'm about, but you've got to know me before you dislike me. I'm asking people to take a leap of faith because I took a leap of faith coming here."

Ambush arrives as TheatreVirginia — nearly 50 years old — prepares to move from its home at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to a new $65 million facility in the Virginia Performing Arts Complex downtown. The move will require TheatreVirginia to more than double its $2.3 million annual budget, increase its production schedule to fill two stages in the new complex, and greatly expand its offerings to reach larger, more racially diverse and younger audiences. TheatreVirginia is looking to Ambush to lead this effort, and it won't be an easy task.

"These are big times for TheatreVirginia with a lot of crucial decisions being made," says Don Bachman, TheatreVirginia's general manager. "[Ambush is] going to be very instrumental in determining the future of TheatreVirginia. He's arrived on the scene at a very critical time in our history.

"We need to expand the theater, expand our programming, increase our community involvement and our service to the community as a whole. There are tremendous limitations that we're operating under. To balance all of that and still make progress in the areas that we need will be a difficult challenge."

Virginia Museum Director Leslie Cheek founded the not-for-profit theater in 1954 as the country's first regional theater located in a fine arts museum. In 1972, it became a professional theater and is the only member theater in Central Virginia of the League of Resident Theatres (LORT), a consortium of about 60 regional theaters. In 1984, the theater became independent from the museum and changed its name from the Virginia Museum Theatre to TheatreVirginia. Actors, directors, producers and other theater professionals from all over the country are employed in the creation of the theater's productions.

Ambush has work to do. In recent years, TheatreVirginia has seen a graying of its audience and a subscription base that has fallen to about 3,800 this year. In addition, TheatreVirginia's operating agreement with the Virginia Museum expires on July 1, 2003, at which time the company must leave its performance space to make way for a major museum expansion. However, TheatreVirginia's home in the new performing-arts complex is not scheduled to be finished until 2006. It has the option to extend its lease with the museum through June 2004. But even taking that into account, TheatreVirginia will probably be homeless for a year or two before construction on the new complex is completed.

"TheatreVirginia is in more of a period of transition than any of the other performing-arts organizations [in Richmond]," says Brad Armstrong, the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation's CEO. "They must leave a home to find a new one. They will certainly have to rethink their own fund-raising. ... They have a new artistic director and a new artistic vision which is expanded from its old vision. They will require more energy and more money. [They have] a lot of hard work to do."

If anyone is capable of rising to the challenge, it is Ambush, says David Leong, chairman of Virginia Commonwealth University's theater department and a friend of Ambush's since the early '90s. "In order for TheatreVirginia to make the move toward national prominence, it must have an artistic director that is known in the national arena," he says. "Not only does [Ambush] have the professional credentials, but he brings an immediate level of reputation here which [TheatreVirginia] needs now."

Theatre IV and Barksdale Theater artistic director Bruce Miller is also excited about what Ambush's arrival means for Richmond theater. "I think that Richmond theater has tremendous positive momentum, and the time is right to bring in someone with a national reputation, an experienced perspective and an objective energy to help us all figure out the best way to take Richmond theater to the next step," he says. "And I think Benny's the man for the job."

rowing up in Worcester, Mass., the youngest of five children in a working-class family, Ambush, who is 50, was exposed to the arts at an early age. His father worked as a dental technician and played several instruments. His mother, who worked as a medical secretary, had studied piano at the New England Conservatory of Music and enjoyed writing poetry and short stories. The house was alive with music and dance. All the Ambush children played instruments and held jam sessions in the living room. Every Saturday, radio broadcasts of the opera sounded throughout the house, and frequently the family would drive to Manhattan to attend the Metropolitan Opera.

Ambush appeared in his first play in sixth grade. He played a Peruvian man and wore a costume his mother had made from a bedspread. In high school, he performed in a couple of plays because people had asked him, but it wasn't until his sophomore year at Brown University in Rhode Island that he became seriously interested in theater.

Ambush entered the famously liberal Ivy League university in 1969, majoring in economics. During his second semester, the school was shut down because of student protests. The air was alive with the social and political movements of the time — the Vietnam War, free speech, black power - and it invigorated Ambush to know that he could make a difference. It wasn't long before he abandoned economics and took up theater.

"I was not only galvanized by that time," he explains, "but found theater as a way of expressing myself, and a way of making a difference in this swirl of activity."

Ambush calls the late Brown University theater professor and playwright George Bass his mentor. Together the two started the Rites & Reason Theatre Company in Providence, R.I. - a performance component of the Afro-studies program at Brown - through which they brought theater to the streets, bars and community centers. "[Bass] showed me the power of theater," recalls Ambush, "that it can and should entertain, but it can do much more."

The lessons Ambush learned during those years stayed with him while he earned a master's degree in stage directing from the University of California at San Diego and apprenticed at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. And those lessons remain with him in his professional career.

"It wasn't about fame and fortune, it was the other dimensions," he says of his career choice. "It's a life's work, a personal ministry in a way. There's a lot of work to be done."

Prior to assuming the post at TheatreVirginia, Ambush was the director of the Institute of Teledramatic Arts & Technology at California State University, Monterey Bay, a multidisciplinary program that studies all the storytelling mediums: theater, radio, film, television and cyberspace. In this position he developed the curriculum, taught, fund-raised, recruited students and worked on public relations for the program.

"He had a profound effect on the students, he really built a team that functioned like a family," says Ambush's former boss at CSU, Marsha Moroh, the dean of science technology and information resources. Moroh says Ambush infused the program with his goals of multiculturalism and new media, while introducing the idea of "theater with a purpose."

"He moved into a brand-new theater here and he built up the presence in that theater from nothing to the thriving program it is today," Moroh adds. "He left a legacy of students that are very dedicated to theater and who appreciate the values he brought to the program and the university … and he is sorely missed."

One of Ambush's students at CSU, Briana Krank, who also served as his assistant, wrote an essay praising him for a student-government-sponsored contest to recognize faculty and staff members. In it, Krank wrote: "Benny Ambush. The best thing that ever happened to TAT, the best thing that ever happened to the heart and soul of this department. ... He cultivated a department that is buzzing with creativity and collaboration. ... By nurturing his faculty, staff and students, he made TAT into the jewel of CSUMB."

Krank learned about life from Ambush, she says. "Benny always had different kinds of music playing in his office — one day it was salsa, the next it was the blues," she says. "He wore clothes and collected artifacts from different places. Through example, he taught me to embrace other cultures. … I am proud to have been his friend and student. I learned about speaking your mind and living your dream. I know he will bring creativity, passion and light wherever he goes."

Prior to his work at CSU, Ambush worked as the associate artistic director of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre from1990 to 1995; as director in residence at Florida Stage; as producing director of Oakland Ensemble Theatre; and as co-artistic director of San Francisco Bay Playwrights Festival. He has directed more than 30 productions nationwide, from Ford's Theatre to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

"We were very lucky to get Benny," says Rejena Carreras, the TheatreVirginia board member who headed the artistic-director search committee. "He had a good perspective on theater in this country. He came with a wealth of knowledge. You would expect someone with those credentials to have an ego off the charts, but if he's got one, it's hidden very well."

Ambush first got to know Richmond about five years ago as an artist in residence at Virginia Commonwealth University. In the past, his friend Leong had tried to get Ambush to move here, offering him a teaching position at VCU as enticement. But Ambush resisted. What brought him to Richmond this time was the opportunity to run a theater again.

Ambush thrives on having an audience. He's quick to point out the ancient definition for theater: "a place for seeing," and hopes that by producing more "intercultural" plays, Richmonders of all races and beliefs will become more open-minded to how they are connected with one another.

"I came here because I thought it was possible to make a difference, a time when the region is in a spirit of rebuilding and renewal with the canal and the arts complex," Ambush explains. "I came to be a part of that, to make a contribution. …

"I've seen it for 30 years, what theater can do for people. I've seen the power of theater to transform a community. It does it because it is an art form that deals with ideas and deals with the heart and soul. When you elevate consciousness, you elevate people, and you can change the world. I know this sounds lofty, but I believe it and I'm committed to it."

Clearly Ambush is a child of the '60s, and that idealism is still with him. "I still believe I can change the world," he says.

efore he can change the world, however, Ambush will have to change the way Richmonders think about theater. The future success of TheatreVirginia and of the proposed performing-arts complex is dependent upon engaging a wider audience. At the same time, Ambush knows he cannot afford to alienate the loyal subscribers who have supported TheatreVirginia through the years. "As I reach out to new sectors, I am equally reaching to our traditional subscribers," he says. "I've got big arms!"

Once it moves into the new performing-arts facility, TheatreVirginia will begin programming yearround — currently it produces an eight-month season. The company will also have the use of two stages, one a 600-seat theater, the other a 300-seat black-box theater. TheatreVirginia's current subscriber base simply cannot sustain such growth.

Attracting Richmond's African-American community is one of the primary challenges Ambush will face. Although many area theaters, including TheatreVirginia, have in the past targeted African-Americans with specific productions, never has a major Richmond theater company courted that audience like Ambush will.

Those who attended the opening night of "Bubbling Brown Sugar," a musical revue celebrating the Harlem Renaissance, got a firsthand look at the new, inclusive TheatreVirginia, as Ambush marked his debut with an African libation ceremony.

Before the show started, Ambush appeared onstage with the play's director, George Faison, Janine Bell of the Elegba Folklore Society and an African drummer and bell-ringer. As Bell chanted and poured clear water into a bowl, the group asked Esu Elegbara, a god of the Yoruba religion of West Africa, to open the gates and welcome TheatreVirginia. Ambush then honored the theater's ancestors and invoked the spirits of his late mother and his mentor Bass to bring creativity to the theater.

"I'm honoring the past while I'm moving into the future," Ambush explains. "Granted, that was different for many people, [but] it's the new millennium, how about some new ideas?"

Ambush must also get younger audiences excited about theater. "The audience right now that TheatreVirginia has is composed primarily of senior citizens," says VCU's Leong. "It's going to need to establish an annual calendar of events that are going to appeal to a younger audience, and at the same time, not lose the people who already subscribe. ... [Ambush is] going to have to create a season that is cross-cultural and hip, and that spans the ages."

Ambush and Leong are already working to develop a formal partnership between TheatreVirginia and VCU, one that would be mutually beneficial and might include joint productions, cooperative funding and shared staff and facilities. In addition, General Manager Bachman says the theater needs "to reach out to do some alternative programming," which may mean producing shows on stages other than the theater's own.

"[Ambush] has to make the Richmond community understand that the table, the theatrical table that we set, is big enough to include everyone," Bachman says.

"Benny is not this sort of wild and crazy guy who's going to come in and fight people," Leong adds. "An artistic director who is sensitive is going to keep the needs of the community in mind when they select a season. He can't just come in and say, 'I don't care what the community needs, this is the way I want to do the job.' ... Benny is going to reach into the community. Obviously he has to stretch them, he has to challenge them. The community hasn't been challenged in quite a while."

his summer, after less than a month on the job, Ambush began to put his artistic stamp on TheatreVirginia by changing half of the season that had been set by his predecessor, George Black. He replaced the repeat of last year's holiday musical "A Wonderful Life" with the Richmond premiere of Truman Capote's "Holiday Memories," a play in which the writer recalls the holidays in the small Alabama town where he grew up.

He scrapped "Spinning Into Butter," a play about a controversy surrounding an African-American student at a mostly white liberal arts college, and added "Crumbs on the Table of Joy," a play about teens from many different cultures. It is only the second play written by a black woman to appear on TheatreVirginia's stage. "It's about time," says Ambush, who will direct this show in February.

And he removed from the schedule "The Mystery of Irma Vep," which TheatreVirginia first produced in 1992, in favor of the world premiere of "The Company of Women," a play that examines women in corporate America. The play is filled with an all-female cast, which will be directed by Ambush in April.

A few longtime subscribers have asked for refunds because of the changes. Some have written letters expressing their fear that "all of a sudden this theater is going to be about political correctness," Ambush says. But what may seem like radical changes to some is really just the way a theater works, says Miller of Theatre IV.

"I'm surprised he changed it as little as he did," he says. "I think he showed restraint and respect. ... It's traditional when a new artistic director arrives to make changes in the season, so what Benny did was honor that tradition while also showing his regard for the season that George Black had selected on his behalf."

Ambush welcomes this feedback and discussion. In September, before the start of the season, Ambush invited the community to join him for two evenings of open dialogue about the theater. During these sessions, he shared his ideas with about 50 board members, season ticket-holders and other interested theater patrons.

During an inspiring speech about his ideas of theater, his voice soared and quieted with a minister's fire and inflection. He spoke of TheatreVirginia's potential to be a catalyst in the community; the changed role it will have once it moves downtown; and his desire to hit on topics that are in the hearts and minds of the people. His excitement was contagious, and his delivery — complete with dramatic pauses — had everyone hanging on his every word and laughing at all the right cues.

"Theater is my vehicle to raise human conscience," he said. "That has been my life and I come to Richmond to do that here, with your help. …

"Anything human is not foreign to us. We as Americans are the same and different at the same time. ... Those flavors I want to have on our stage, behind our stage and in our audience."

During one of these question-and-answer sessions, a white woman expressed concern about his ideas saying, "[Whites] are afraid that they won't be welcome anymore."

A few weeks later, as Ambush recalls this comment, his eyes stretch wide. He pauses and almost looks as though he's about to cry. "She was worried that somehow an African-American leader of this theater would make decisions that would slam the door on [whites]," he says. "Nothing could be further from the truth. I'm asking everybody to make room for each other at the table."

Ambush's written introduction in the Playbill for "Bubbling Brown Sugar" says it all:

"We have the opportunity and mandate to reinvent TheatreVirginia," it reads. "While change can be unsettling and confusing to some, it is both necessary and essential if this theater is to grow to the size and stature required for it to become a leading player in its new home in the downtown Virginia Performing Arts Center. ... Please stay with us; you are needed."


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