Norfolk State University and the Virginia Stage Company bring inclusive vision to local theater
By Rashod Ollison
June 11, 2017
Both have similar artistic interests and distinguished careers in theater, so the relationship makes sense.
Anthony Stockard had just moved to town three years ago to spearhead the theater department at Norfolk State University when he met Patrick Mullins, the associate producer at the Virginia Stage Company. Both entities needed new directions, fresh ways to not only showcase talent in Hampton Roads but to pull together disparate communities with programming appealing to everyone.
As Stockard and Mullins joined forces, the union has shown promise. Their first official collaboration, a production of “The Wiz” at the Wells Theatre in April, filled the house with a mix of college students, downtown hipsters and longtime patrons of local arts, an audience reflective of an inclusive vision Stockard and Mullins have for future joint and separate productions. According to representatives at VSC, “The Wiz” was its most commercially successful show in about five years.
But before all of that, Stockard and Mullins tested the waters with a production outside the august realm of the Virginia Stage Company. Their artistic bond crystallized last summer when Mullins recruited Stockard to co-produce and co-direct “Choir Boy,” a play centering on a young gay man in a prep school, which Mullins oversaw via the Limbic System, his side production project. The show featuring student actors from NSU’s theater department ran at Zeiders American Dream Theater in Virginia Beach, garnering strong feedback and capacity crowds.
“It gave us a chance to be partners instead of co-workers, and we found that we had a pretty smooth way of passing things back and forth,” Mullins says. “It helped us develop some trust. Somewhere in there I think we became friends maybe. At the heart of it were two artists who found the same goals and objectives working together.”
The rapport between them is as relaxed as they appear on a recent Friday morning inside Mullins’ downtown Norfolk office: Stockard in loose-fitting jeans and a clover-green NSU cap and pullover; Mullins in gray khakis and a black Oakland A’s cap.
“Getting people in an audience in a space that’s shared to witness theater in its literal form is entertainment,” Stockard says. “But having the privilege of having their attention for a while, to engage people when they are at their least defensive, it’s a huge privilege and responsibility. You don’t always get to pick the story, but how you tell it – absolutely. I know that Patrick’s idea of inclusion and breaking down unnecessary restrictions all are things that have helped this particular partnership.”
Stockard and Mullins represent institutions that historically haven’t had much, if any, association with each other. About the time Stockard took the theater director position at NSU, the Virginia Stage Company was in the throes of a reorganization and of a renovation of the Wells. Mullins was brought in as interim artistic director, reinvigorating the company’s rather staid reputation among local theatergoers.
Mullins’ first unofficial collaboration with Stockard at VSC was last season’s production of “A Christmas Carol,” a perennial VSC favorite, which included Stockard in the cast and gospel-suffused arrangements from “Black Nativity,” a standout production at NSU.
Mullins says the show drew the traditional, predominantly white and older crowd along with “faces we hadn’t seen before at the Wells.” Still, Mullins had some trepidation about an official collaboration between the historically black college and the admittedly conservative theater company.
“Institutionally, for what it’s worth, the Stage Company was really excited, but I was apprehensive because nobody in polite society is homophobic or racist,” Mullins says. “And yet we all have these weird little assumptions we make and weird little ways of being exactly those things, and I wondered if I’d hit any hiccups. Our board president, Sally Clarkson, was a great, empowering voice.”
Stockard’s main concern was that his students receive a professional theater experience.
“Being a historically black university and the history of America being what it is, unfortunately, when I got here I saw that many people undervalued the contributions of the university, particularly the theater department,” Stockard says. “A lot of the opinion was that we had no value or nothing to bring to the table. But I was blessed to have full support (from NSU) to at least give me some grounding from day one when I got there. Good experiences in theater create vibrations in the community that negative ideas could never stop. The students’ work speaks for itself and not just in the community.”
Since Stockard’s arrival, NSU’s theater department has garnered national awards, including two top honors – one for best production, another for best actor – in last year’s Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. Such recognition wasn’t lost on Mullins, who sees the inclusion of NSU theater students as a way to vitalize VSC productions and draw new crowds to the Wells.
“With ‘The Wiz’ what was super-exciting was that there were so many people onstage, and the students brought so much raw talent and there was so much energy in the room,” Mullin says. “That also helped fill the house. The lobby was buzzing. I don’t really care what you have onstage. When you got that environment, people go and tell their friends, ‘Hey, there’s this thing that’s happening and you need to go be a part of it.’ It goes back to people in a room having an impact on each other.”
Meredith Johnson, one of Stockard’s theater students who graduated this year, appeared in “The Wiz.” The collaboration between the institutions, she says, gave her invaluable professional experience.
“It provided an opportunity to put my training to use in a professional setting,” says Johnson, who played the role of Addaperle.
Johnson plans to participate in the emerging-artist program with Zeiders American Dream Theater, travel in a few productions and then continue her theater studies in graduate school next year.
While the casting of local talent has charged the productions at VSC with new energy, the collaboration also allowed Stockard to give students an experience a theater professor could never replicate in a classroom.
“The Virginia Stage Company is the top of the totem pole in professional theater in Virginia, and I didn’t want them to have experiences anywhere else,” Stockard says. “Not to say other opportunities don’t hold value, but when you can get them in an environment with professional actors and directors from New York City, that’s something you can’t simulate in a classroom. We’re pushing the students as hard as they can go, creating productions that are rock-solid.”
Next season’s collaborations between the Norfolk State University’s theater department and the Virginia Stage Company will explore tales culled from black history. They include “The Parchman Hour,” a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders, and “Crowns,” a musical whose story uses elaborate Sunday hats worn by church mothers as a metaphor for black oral tradition.
“Theater companies that are built on the model of the Virginia Stage Company have had to be all things to all people,” Mullins says, “which is why we do ‘A Christmas Carol’ every year, which sells tickets so that we can do other things. But the world’s changing. These institutions are slowly becoming organisms. They’re slowly reacting to what’s happening around them. So how do we leverage the big things that are required by our structure to start building those authentic interactions in order to make the organism in the community helpful? It takes years.”
Stockard adjusts his NSU cap and adds, “But it is changing.”