Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Plan for the Region's Theater

Musicals have been the enemy of MMT's creativity^

There's a good bit going on in the realm of theater in the Roanoke Valley these days and that is encouraging when you consider that the region's only professional theater plans to close for at least a year.

Mill Mountain Theatre has announced that it will not only close its main stage, but also its alternate, small theater which frequently housed its most interesting offerings. You didn't get the big musicals on the tiny Waldron Stage (Theater B to most of us), but you got Sam Shepard's work, the Norfolk Southern Festival of New Works, Ibsen, Elvis impersonators, David Sadaris (well, his play, anyway) and No Shame Theatre, among many, many more entertaining and thought-provoking entries. MMT plans to rent Theatre B as office space, which is actually a pretty good idea.

It becomes a good idea because Kenley Smith's new Studio Roanoke should be open soon and will present the same kind of fare: exciting, adult, edgy, new. While No Shame Theater creator Todd Ristau has announced he's taking his show to the Hollins stage temporarily, it's a good bet that it will land at Studio Roanoke as soon as that venue is open. Todd is the creative director there (and he teaches theater at Hollins, where some of the best work around has been of late).

I have been asked to take part in discussions about the future of Mill Mountain Theatre and my wife, Christina Koomen, and I have talked about this challenge a good bit in the past few months. She came up with a good list of suggestions that includes the following:
  • A shorter core season.
  • Reduced ticket prices ($75 for two tickets in a city where the median household income is $37,000 makes theater elitist).
  • Improve show selection (if you see a musical kill it, to steal a line from Mark Twain).
  • Do more No Shame Theater presentations at 8 p.m., rather than the normal 11 p.m. if, indeed, NST returns to MMT at all.
  • Re-commit to the festival of new works.
  • Charge a minimal admission fee for Centerpieces, the lunch-time free play that has occasionally been popular in the past (depending on whether people knew about it or not).
  • Supplement crew with unpaid college interns. I think some of the actors could come from the colleges, as well, and we have quite a few good local amateur actors in these parts.
  • Use the space for more than theater (I've suggested weekly movies when plays are not being presented, but Christina talks about "programmable space" for lectures and other crowd-gathering possibilities).
I like the idea of allowing groups other than MMT use the theater, as well. Hollins' "Doubt" and "Caroline or Change" would have been marvelous on the main stage and MMT could have asked for the bulk of admission. My guess is that both would have sold out in a heartbeat. The students and the Hollins University would have simply loved the exposure. It would be good to allow Showtimers, Star City Playhouse and any of the other small, local groups to premier their plays on the big stage and split the house with MMT. That exposes theater to a wider group, gives the big house a great reputation for community involvement and serves us all well.

Something is going to have to be done to make children's theater part of the mix, as well. When Pat Wilhelms was impetuously and unadvisedly fired a while back, she took her successful children's theater program across the street to the new art museum and her very first production made money. There's a lessor or two or three in that.

Building alliances is a necessary part of the reconstruction of the 40-year-old MMT if it is to rise from the ashes. Business people love alliances and so does state government. If you have a group organizing the arts--or even a part of the entire arts community--and being genuinely thoughtful and progressive in the effort, the public perception will be much better than that old cliche of the spoiled brat artists with their hands out. It could be a new day.

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