Monday, March 4, 2013

Mill Mountain Theatre to the Rescue (Of Playwright's Lab)

Todd Ristau of the Playwright's Lab at Hollins University has made quite an impact on theater in this region during the past few years with both the lab and No Shame Theater, which he created in Iowa and brought here. He has developed a number of writers whose plays are being produced across the country and has helped--along with Ernie Zulia of Hollins--make Roanoke a name that is recognized across the country as a center for theater.

In the past few years, Todd's Lab and University Guest Series have been playing at the Taubman Museum in Roanoke, but that appears to be at an end now and that's a shame. I think we all understand the need for the Taubman to make money, but it is sad it must take the step outlined here. Here's a note Todd sent me today:

We all knew that David Mickenberg's resignation would bring big changes at the Taubman, but I was very surprised that, after three years of hosting the Playwright's Lab at Hollins University's Guest Speaker Series, telling us that they could no longer do so without charging rent was one of them.

The way the collaboration worked had always been that the Taubman graciously provided their theatre space on Monday nights and we provided five guest speakers of international prominence, all absolutely free to the general public.   We saw this in-kind contribution by the Taubman as a strong gesture of support and believed it was very much to our mutual benefit.  At each event we enthusiastically thanked the Taubman for being our sponsor and told appreciative audiences of students and townspeople that the best way to thank the Taubman was to get a membership.  Many of our students, most of whom don't even live in Roanoke, did just that. 

Since construction of the new museum began I've been a vocal defender of the Taubman, a member of the museum, provided free advertising for the museum at our events and made sure that the Taubman was one of the first attractions in our community I pointed out to our students, faculty and guest artists--who come from all over the world. 

After last week's notification that our partnership had become essentially a renter's agreement, I'm going to find that a little more difficult.

For the popular series, the Playwright's Lab provided all the funding to bring five top-tier guest artists each summer to give free public talks on their lives in the arts--not just for our students, but for the general public.  Our cost per speaker ranges from $2,000 to $5,000 including honorarium, travel and accommodations.  Important guest speakers we've brought to downtown through this series include Todd London, Mac Wellman, and Naomi Wallace.

The Taubman told us that due to budgetary constraints, their new policy is to charge rent for all use of their facilities by outside organizations but they would continue hosting us if we paid $300 per night to cover security, wear and tear on the facility and janitorial support.

The Playwright's Lab, just like the Taubman, has an obligation to be good stewards of our budget, and adding an additional $1500 to the more than $17,000 we already spend on the Guest Speaker Series is more than we can afford.  It saddens us to learn that the Taubman feels that their in-kind contribution to this partnership is now more than they can afford.

Obviously, the Playwright's Lab could easily have the guest speaker series on campus, but the whole point of this relationship was to partner with downtown arts organizations to help make downtown an important arts destination. 

Fortunately, as soon as they heard about this turn of events, Mill Mountain Theatre immediately stepped in to offer the Waldron Stage as the permanent new home for the Monday Night Guest Speaker Series, which begins on June 24th with Mark Bly--Chair of the Playwriting Program at the Yale School of Drama from 1992-2004 while being the Associate Artistic Director at the Yale Rep.

In addition to the Guest Speaker Series, MMT and the Playwright's Lab have already been working together to produce the CenterPieces Reading Series once a month, No Shame every Friday Night, a new play fully produced each February, Overnight Sensations, and our annual Festival of Student Readings.  We couldn't be happier about our exciting relationship with Mill Mountain Theatre or prouder of the part we're playing in bringing them back to the center of our cultural life in Roanoke.

Todd Ristau


  1. Glad to see that Mill Mt. stepped forward! Sorry about the Taubman's inability to GET IT!!!! Culture, folks. CULTURE.

  2. Glad to see that Mill Mt. stepped forward! Sorry about the Taubman's inability to GET IT!!!! Culture, folks. CULTURE.

  3. Thanks, Dan--if people are interested in finding out the full range of events we're sponsoring in Roanoke or around the country, the best place to keep track of what we're doing and what our playwrights are accomplishing is our facebook page: