Virginia Stage Company pushes the envelope of regional theater
by Joan Tupponce
December 5, 2017, 8:30 AM
At Virginia Stage Company it’s not just about producing plays. It’s about creating a theater experience that everyone can enjoy. “The work we have done in terms of accessibility is important work,” says the Norfolk theater company’s associate producer Patrick Mullins.
The company has established a number of programs geared toward school children as well as people with disabilities, autism or behavioral issues that are designed to educate and spark interest in theater. Among them are Black Light Puppet Theatre, a partnership with Norfolk-based Eggleston, a non-profit organization that provides education, training and employment for persons with disabilities. Virginia Stage Company’s resident theater artists teach Eggleston’s clients about puppetry, storytelling and performance techniques, and include them in a Black Light Puppet Theatre production at the end of a six-week program.
Theater for Everyone is an initiative Virginia Stage started five years ago during its annual production of A Christmas Carol that gives people on the autism spectrum the opportunity to view a less stimulating production of the holiday favorite. “We let them see the actors, props and costumes before the show, so they won’t be surprised,” says Mullins. “We don’t take down the lights as low and the sound effects are not as loud.”
Two years ago, the company started the Urban Theatre Project in partnership with the Virginia Beach Juvenile Court System and the Alternative School. The program works with court-involved teens ages 14 and older who participate in theater games and activities that culminate in a performance. “We use the power of the theater to help them see their value and contribution,” explains Mullins.
The company’s children’s touring productions are a favorite in the Hampton Roads area. “We’ve been doing touring shows for the past 20 years. We don’t charge for our tours, and that makes us unique,” says Mullins, noting the free performances help schools that don’t often have budgets for touring productions.
Originally founded by community members in 1968 as the Norfolk Theatre Center and renamed Virginia Stage Company in 1979, Virginia Stage also collaborates with Old Dominion and Norfolk State universities. Last year it co-produced a world premiere musical with ODU about sea level rise as part of Virginia Stage’s main season.
More than 50 students from Norfolk State have participated in Virginia Stage’s productions, working in a variety of capacities, from actors and choreographers to stage managers and music directors. Last year’s production of The Wiz was the “pinnacle, a full co-production,” says Anthony Stockard, producing artistic director of NSU Theatre Co. “This year we are continuing that partnership with Parchman Hour: Songs and Stories of the ’61 Freedom Riders,” performing through mid-November. “It’s like a laboratory” for students, says Stockard of the chance to work with theater professionals. “You can’t manufacture that. It’s a huge opportunity, and that’s invaluable.”
Housing this incubator of creativity is the historic Wells Theatre. A classic example of Beaux Arts theater architecture, the Wells was built by Jake and Otto Wells in 1912 as the crown jewel in the chain of vaudeville theaters they owned up and down the East Coast. After opening in 1913, it hosted a touring production of Ben Hur that featured a cast of 100 and horses running at a full gallop on treadmills.
In its prime, the theater attracted notable performers including John Philip Sousa, Fred and Adele Astaire and Will Rogers. It started showing movies in 1916 in addition to its theatrical productions, and burlesque was added to the slate of performances at the beginning of World War II. By the 1960s, though, the theater had declined and been converted to an X-rated movie house, with a speakeasy called the Jamaica Room on the main stage behind the movie screen.
Virginia Stage took over the theater in 1979, eventually buying it and donating it to the City of Norfolk. The theater company has just completed the first of two phases of renovation on the Wells, which focused on public areas. Lobby spaces were fully renovated along with the addition of new restrooms, new lighting, a new marquee and an expansion of the lounge with a new bar. The next phase will bring the outdated fly loft—the space that houses the rigging system of lines and pulleys—“into this century,” says Brad Tuggle, the company’s director of marketing. It will also upgrade technical elements like lighting and sound. The entire renovation should cost around $4 million.
At the moment, Virginia Stage is gearing up for its always-popular holiday production of A Christmas Carol.
“We will have new music, new set and some new surprises,” says producing artistic director Tom Quaintance, who learned just how much people love this annual Christmas tradition when the theater once considered doing another show instead. “I can’t tell you the number of people that say it’s the thing they look forward to every year. There’s something about the message of A Christmas Carol that has magic.”