The Wells Theatre finds its unicorn
By Tom Robinson
Dec 10, 2018
Tom Quaintance walked a visitor around the renovated Wells Theatre in downtown Norfolk with the pride of ownership. The Virginia Stage Company, which he leads as producing artistic director, actually rents the ornate show-place, a national historic landmark, for $1 a year from the city. But really, the Wells is the Virginia Stage Company and the Virginia Stage Company is the Wells. That connection was clear to Quaintance when he arrived from North Carolina in December 2016 to take over the nonprofit, which had a history of strong performances and lean bottom lines.
He walked into a $350,000 debt predicted to nearly double within a year. But six months of aggressive drumbeating, fundraising and performance scheduling by Quaintance and his staff turned the debt into a $400,000 surplus.
“The tendency in that situation is to look at what we can shrink,” says Quaintance, 52. “But I thought, look, the Wells is our biggest asset. So how can we do more here?”
As a theater/economics double major at Wesleyan University, he was especially equipped to trim fat from a theater company, but he also lengthened the calendar and added shows to give patrons, particularly the first-time theater-goers he targeted, more chances to visit the Wells.
The plan worked. Attendance and energy are up, and sustainability no longer appears a pipe dream, says John Rhamstine, who oversees the Wells as Norfolk’s director of cultural facilities, arts and entertainment.
“All the arts organizations, not just the stage company, have gone through ups and downs financially, but yeah, there were times I thought they might have to close their doors,” he says. “Tom’s certainly turned that possibility around.”
It helped that the Wells, what the company calls “a well-preserved example of Beaux-Arts neoclassicism,” was already $3 million into a two-part renovation — due to be completed by 2020 — before Quaintance arrived. Now all he needed to do was invite people in, give them a good time and get them to come back.
Quaintance last year added a popular “mature audiences” run of David Sedaris’ The SantaLand Diaries during Christmas season. The musical Crowns that ran through May, a gamble in that it extended the company’s typical September-April schedule, became an all-time top-10 draw. And a reprise of the most successful show in the stage company’s history, Always ... Patsy Cline, launched this current 40th anniversary season.
“I’m not afraid of something being popular,” Quaintance says, laughing.
The son of a former Alabama civil-rights lawyer, Quaintance long thought he was bound for a legal career. His goals changed in college when he tried acting. What started as a way to have fun and meet girls got real in his junior year when he filled in as director of a student production of Israel Horovitz’s The Indian Wants the Bronx.
He found it intoxicating. When he stayed an extra semester at Wesleyan to direct a version of Cyrano de Bergerac that drew standing ovations, he was sucked in for good.
“I had two simultaneous thoughts,” he says. “I’ve got to do this for a living, and shit, I've got to do this for a living."
He knew it would mean personal and professional financial challenges. Nonetheless, he went to grad school in San Diego, directed plays in Southern California and even started a Shakespeare company in Venice Beach. That led to a nomadic few years as a freelance director for regional theaters. That career came to a halt after the death of his older sister, Mary, from suicide.
Her death pushed Quaintance, at 30, to re-evaluate his path and purpose. He decided he was making no lasting impact, as he says, “chasing art for art’s sake” around the country by simply dropping in and out of places to direct plays.
He changed gears, laid roots as a high school theater teacher in Los Angeles and spent 13 years directing student productions. During that time he reconnected with an old friend from Minnesota, the actor/ director Joseph Haj, who ran PlayMakers Repertory Company at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Haj invited Quaintance in to direct for him. His work there earned him the attention of the Cape Fear Regional Theatre in Fayetteville. When that company needed an artistic director in 2011, Haj leaned hard on Quaintance to get back in the professional game.
“He’s a great instructor and teacher, but I think his great calling is the theater itself,” says Haj, now artistic director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. "When it comes to the ability to deliver a story, a narrative on stage, there’s just nobody better than that guy.”
Quaintance will direct twice this season: December’s The SantaLand Diaries and Matilda The Musical, the last show, which runs from late May to early June.
“This is a complex job, but it’s also simple,” he says. “You’ll be successful if you make work that people want to see, that they have a good experience seeing, and that matters to a broad section of the community.”
In Fayetteville, for instance, an Army town deeply burdened by two decades of ground wars, Quaintance worked hard to engage the community in a painful, locally commissioned military drama called Downrange: Voices from the Homefront. After it ran, he received a plaque of appreciation from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, telling him the production had resonated.
“Theater,” he says, “is a contact sport and audience members are participants, not spectators.”
More than 70,000 people a year see Virginia Stage productions and take part in educational workshops at the Wells or in the community. Meanwhile, a lengthy list of individual and corporate donors accounts for roughly half of the company’s $3 million operating budget, with the city of Norfolk pitching in nearly $300,000.
According to former board of trustees president Sally Clarkson, whose tenure included Quaintance’s hiring, the stage company bought the Wells Theatre in 2012. It paid $100,000 from the Patricia and Douglas Perry Foundation to a North Carolina family who owned the Wells. Soon the company gave the Wells to the city for $1 and became its partner in upkeep and renovation.
With that process taken care of, the stage company pondered how to proceed through its latest financial straits. Like many regional theater companies, it operated with separate theatrical and business managers, although those lines began to blur dramatically after the economic crisis of 2008.
More companies have moved to a one-leader administration in order to streamline accountability. That’s not the easiest thing to take into the donor community, Quaintance says, given “the perception that artist-types are irresponsible with money.”
But Clarkson says, “As a board we were committed to a change. We were looking for a unicorn, someone who had theatrical chops as well as financial acumen. And we found our unicorn in Tom.”
Quaintance, who lives with his actress-wife, Wallis, and their two young daughters in West Ghent, says there’s nothing mystical about the stage company’s change of fortune. “There’s so much about this turnaround that I walked into,” he says. “A lot of things were aimed in the right direction. We were just able to raise a lot of money and sell a lot of tickets.”
But, as he says, he’s not selling widgets. His quest for relevance and artistic resonance within the spotlights is constant, even when the stage is dark.
“There’s so much about the world right now that’s dividing us, but people want to come together,” Quaintance says. “They want to find community and to connect. The theater is one of the few places left where people can do that.”