Curtain Call

Under new leadership, Richmond’s Virginia Repertory Theatre enters a new era. 

Nathaniel Shaw 

Photo by Aaron Sutten

Broad Street may be a long way from Broadway, but Nathaniel Shaw, the artistic director of Virginia Repertory Theatre, is convinced that new musicals headed for New York’s biggest stages should first make a stop in Richmond. 

Shaw is only two years into his tenure running the Commonwealth’s largest theater south of Washington, but he’s already increased the Rep’s visibility as a national incubator for new musicals. He’s also leveraged his New York connections to get early rights for recent Broadway shows and renewed the theater’s commitment to staging brand-new plays. “Virginia Rep is a unique and dynamic institution,” Shaw says. “The theater is deeply connected to the community, and yet working hard to connect Richmond to the national theater scene.” 

Examples of every way he’s strengthening those connections will be onstage during the first half of this year. In February, Shaw directs one of the first regional productions of Once, the Tony-winning adaption of the 2007 film about an Irish singer-songwriter who forges a musical bond with an Eastern European immigrant pianist. In March, he’ll turn a viral TEDx Talk into the world premiere of In My Chair, a co-production with Cadence Theatre. And then in April, the risky big splash: the family-friendly Atlantis, a new original musical about a mysterious island that’s already backed by producers hoping it will land on Broadway or the West End. That may sound like a fantasy. Shaw says it’s a realistic plan. “An important part of me getting this job was that I had significant experience in new play development, so that work that’s developed here can have a bright life beyond Richmond,” he says.

Shaw, 39, moved to Richmond with his wife, Lisa, and two sons in 2016. At Virginia Rep, he took over the reins from Bruce Miller, who has held theater leadership positions in Richmond since 1975. Back then, the Virginia Rep was known as the Barksdale Theatre. The troupe was founded as Central Virginia’s first professional theater in 1953, when a group of New York transplants began staging dinner theater at Hanover Tavern. In 2012, Barksdale merged with Theatre IV, Richmond’s youth theater troupe. 

The Virginia Rep still puts on productions in Hanover, although it stopped managing day-to-day tavern operations long ago. Spring offerings there include Broadway Bound by the celebrated American playwright Neil Simon. Virginia Rep’s 21st-century programming also includes children’s shows at a shopping center in Willow Lawn and a co-produced season with Cadence Theatre at the Theatre Gym downtown. 

That’s where audiences can check out In My Chair, Eva DeVirgilis’s TED Talk-turned-play about what happened when she moved from New York to Richmond and began working as a makeup artist. Although the new musicals may be higher-profile works, Shaw sees In My Chair as a show in the pipeline to bigger stages. “We are that rare city that can, with our local talent, contribute to the pre-New York trajectory,” he says.

When the Richmond run of Once ends on March 3, the cast, crew, and sets move north to the Fulton Theater in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The co-production—another venture Shaw has pioneered—will save both theaters money while also earning extra cash for the performers. 

Meanwhile, back in Richmond, Atlantis will load into the historic November Theatre for an April 12 opening. The new musical builds on last year’s world premiere of River Ditty and the workshop of Lempicka in 2017. All three developmental shows are original stories, and that’s significant given that Broadway is dominated by poorly reviewed film adaptions like Pretty Woman and a slew of jukebox revues. 

Shaw is hoping that audiences embrace the new show, just as theatermakers now spot the advantages of developing new work here rather than a pricey New York studio. “What artists in the theater need most is time and space,” says composer Matt Gould, who wrote Lempicka, a musical about the Polish refugee painter Tamara Lempicka. “Virginia Rep actually gives us what we need to deepen our craft and strengthen our storytelling, and is taking the brave step of actually giving artists the time and space that we need to create the next generation of American musical storytelling.” Lempicka officially premiered last summer, and Tony-nominated director Rachel Chavkin lead a New York “lab” production in November, a sign the show has a future.

So what’s in it for Richmond, should any of these musicals make it big? Money, for starters, because Shaw negotiates royalty deals for the developmental stagings. Although the actors won’t earn royalties, they may get a chance to reprise their roles. And then there is the growing prestige factor for Virginia Rep. “There is an eagerness, an enthusiasm, and an adventurous spirit in our board and amongst our patrons to support new work,” Shaw says.

Shaw’s goal was to run his own regional theater by age 50. He’s 10 years ahead of schedule and thrilled to have a job that allows him to focus on developing new work. “I think it’s off to fantastic start,” he says.

This article originally appeared in our February 2019 issue.

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