On the Road Again

For more than three decades, Theatre IV has put energetic actors in vans and sent them across the state, and across America, to wow schoolchildren with familiar tales, historical narratives and holiday specials.

When Bruce Miller and Phil Whiteway founded Theatre IV in Richmond in 1975, its home was a secondhand van. Friends who had met on the stage as students at the University of Richmond, Whiteway and Miller pooled their modest resources to launch an ambitious dream—a professional theater program devoted to young audiences and that could travel to schools and regions with no local theater of their own. “We could come up with a few thousand dollars for a beat-up van, and our theater company could live out of that van,” says Miller, recalling Theatre IV’s original plan.

In a “how-it-all-began” story straight out of a Rooney-Garland musical—“Say, gang, wouldn’t it be swell to start a theater company!?”—Theatre IV was born on the road with a production of Br’er Rabbit. It premiered in the Halifax High School gymnasium. “We had six people in that cast, jammed in that little van,” says Whiteway. The school paid about $150 for the show.

As it turned out, a production company that fit in a van was a good model for schools. Here was a small troupe that could arrive on time, perform and depart in under two hours, and stage itself in just about any kind of venue—the gym, the cafeteria—and still bring live professional theater to the students. “We said, ‘Give us a place, give us some electricity, and we can bring this program into your school,’” says Whiteway. “And the schools, once they had us, they wanted us to keep coming back.”

Nearly 35 years later, with Miller and Whiteway still serving, respectively, as artistic and managing directors, Theatre IV is an acclaimed Richmond cultural institution—winner of multiple accolades and awards—and housed in the historic and beautifully restored Empire Theatre on Broad Street, where it has helped to turn a blighted area into an arts destination. From its minimalist origins, the operation has grown into a polished professional theater company, enjoying annual revenues of more than $3 million for the past decade, employing hundreds of actors—recruited by national casting calls—and staging lavish productions at the Empire of family favorites such as The Wizard of Oz, Annie, Beauty and the Beast and The Sound of Music. Over the years, Theatre IV has performed at the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian and the Pentagon, and it holds an annual residency in New York. Miller and Whiteway attribute such a long record of growth and success to careful governorship by the nonprofit’s board and to a mission that focuses not only on the arts but equally as well on education, children’s health and community leadership. “We wanted to be the theater the community needed us to be,” says Miller.

For all Theatre IV’s growth, the show-in-a-van has remained the backbone of the company, embodying that mission. These days, multiple touring casts bring live theater not only to schools in Virginia but to students throughout the country. During this school year, Theatre IV will put on more than 1,000 performances in 34 states and the District of Columbia. All original productions, Theatre IV’s traveling repertoire includes familiar tales like Lyle, Lyle Crocodile and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, historical and literary narratives such as Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad and Home Sweet Homer: Legends of Ancient Greece, and several holiday-season specials. These days the shows are carefully scripted to support Standards of Learning (SOL) objectives, and a staff of seven is needed just to manage, schedule and coordinate the tours.

As always, the travel companies are adaptable. They need nothing more than a bit of space, some electricity and an audience in order to put on a professional show that neatly fits within a typical class period. “For many of our audiences, it is their first time seeing live theater,” says Jon Perez, who toured nationally in the fall with The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, entertaining schoolchildren from Massachusetts to Wisconsin in just over six weeks. “The kids are always enthusiastic.”

Perez is typical of most of the tour actors, “young people usually right out of college who are looking for a paying acting job,” according to Whiteway. With Theatre IV, they get a salary and a contract for each show and often rotate through several different productions during the school year. Many of the actors return from year to year as well; Perez, who is in his third season with Theatre IV, has appeared in the casts of Jack and the Beanstalk, The Ugly Duckling, Rumpelstiltskin, The Boy Who Cried Wolf and A Christmas Carol.

Given the packed schedule of the traveling shows, youthful energy certainly would be an asset if not a requirement for cast members. Before they hit the road, they have 12 days not only to learn all their lines, all the blocking, all the songs and choreography for the musicals, all the costume changes and prop placement, but also to master the art of rapidly assembling and breaking down the sets and sound equipment and packing everything into the van. As they tour, the actors—as few as three and as many as six on a show—will collectively serve as cast, crew, business manager, driver, navigator, prop and wardrobe coordinator, sound tech and whatever else might be required for twice-daily, five-day-a-week stagings in venues that can range from a grade school cafeteria to a fully equipped commercial theater. “In a given day, we could perform for 200 children or 2,000,” says Ellie Atwood, who was also with the Sleepy Hollow cast in the fall.

If it sounds exhausting, for the actors it’s exhilarating and an enviable career step when many a recently graduated theater major is stuck serving up lattés between rounds of auditions. “It’s the joy of being a professional working actor and being able to recreate [the show] every day, and the challenge of keeping it fresh when some shows we might do 120 times,” says Perez.

His colleagues agree. “Children won’t tell you they like something just to make you feel better,” says actor Rob Jenkins, who toured in the fall for a second season with Theatre IV’s Hugs & Kisses. “So to truly be able to entertain kids and at the same time teach them lessons, to make a child laugh and to give them joy, is one of the most amazing things you can do.”

Back in September, on a small stage inside Theatre IV’s downtown Richmond home, Jenkins and the other four young cast members of Hugs & Kisses were rehearsing a scene. No brooding piece of contemporary angst, this was classic musical theater—singing, dancing, big gestures, bigger expressions, so buoyant with pep and animation it nearly fizzed. So it might seem surprising that the show, one of Theatre IV’s signature, award-winning original productions, was created to protect children against sexual abuse. With its upbeat tone, however, Hugs & Kisses focuses on a positive message, celebrating all the good, healthy ways people share affection—a hug from a parent, a kiss from a sweetheart—while helping children understand that they never have to let themselves be the victims of abuse. Co-produced with Theatre IV by Prevent Child Abuse Virginia and the Virginia Department of Social Services, Hugs & Kisses has been seen by more than 1.3 million Virginia schoolchildren since 1983 and has helped thousands of them come forward to seek help.

Today the cast was rehearsing the opening scene. The set was simple—a few stage flats hinged together—yet cleverly designed so that a flip of one and a flop of another changed the backdrop. Four doors were built into the flats, and the actors ran through them and around the ends of the flats in a complicated, rapid-fire choreography of entries and exits, spoken lines, comic bits and character changes; with only a prop, a gesture or a shift in tone of voice, the actors somehow morphed from smitten teenagers to parents with their children to an elderly aunty come bearing sloppy kisses.

Because the scene begins and ends with the show’s theme song, everything had to be precisely synchronized with the pre-recorded music so that the actors hit their marks just in time for the final reprise of the chorus. Over and over they started, only to falter on a line, miss a dance step, come up short on a cue. They would break, gulp from bottles of water, restart the scene from the beginning. Then the director, Ford Flanagan, would stop them to make a slight change in staging. They’d start again. Another stop, another start. Soon they were breathing hard, fanning themselves with their scripts during the breaks.

Flanagan has directed this show twice every year for nearly 15 years, but he betrayed no impatience as they paced through the scene over and over. He focused intently on the stage. He asked the actors to rework a few steps of choreography, change the inflection of a line, turn a foot outward. Even with 15 years’ worth of notes, he says, he still reshapes the show every time with each new cast.

Taking up perhaps five minutes of the actual show, the opening scene consumed most of the morning’s rehearsal. By the time Flanagan called the lunch break, the actors flopped gratefully, wearily, onto any handy surface—the floor, a wooden box, the edge of the stage. After lunch, the afternoon would call for more singing, more dancing, more stops and starts, because everything had to be nailed down, buttoned up and polished smooth before they launched the tour the following week.

A month later, however, the scene went off without a hitch on the cramped stage of an age-worn urban elementary school. By now the cast had set up, performed and dismantled dozens of times. They’d traveled from hectic Fairfax to faraway Highland County. They’d performed on gym floors and on school stages, coped with lousy lighting and worse acoustics. They’d consumed a lot of coffee. “When I sleep, I really sleep now,” said actor Brittney Slater, who also admitted that even in her offstage hours she found herself responding to other people’s comments with the big, peppy “Yeah!” of her onstage self.

If they were tired though, if their voices were strained or they’d grown weary of loading and unloading and assembling and disassembling the set day after day, it didn’t show. They captured their audience with the opening number, and the kids ate it up, laughing at the funny bits, oohing and aahing when the set was magically transformed with a few flips of the flats, staying focused through the more serious moments, and, after the final applause and the question-and-answer session, crowding eagerly around the actors full of questions and curiosity.

If you wanted even more compelling proof of the power of live performance, however, you would have found it a few weeks later, at a different elementary school. The cast of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was gamely performing on a stage in a cavernous, acoustically deadening cinderblock-walled “gymnatorium” against a chaotic backdrop of noise and movement. If the performance was supposed to have been a special occasion for the students, that wasn’t obvious from the official reception it received. School pictures were being shot at the opposite end of the room, and the process continued uninterrupted throughout the performance, as though the show had been scheduled merely to keep the kids occupied while they waited for their turns in front of the camera. Whole classes were rousted one by one from their seats on the floor to line up for pictures. At the back of the room, the photographer could be heard directing his assistant and the students with spoken commands. His background screen was regularly snapped up and down like a roll-up window blind. All the while, a number of adults—teachers or administrators—came and went, carrying on discussions with each other at barely muted conversational volume. The school intercom went off with a piercing electronic whoop, followed by an unintelligible announcement. Someone let one of the heavy steel fire doors opening to the outside slam shut.

Flanagan, the director, says that actors regularly have to contend with all sorts of unexpected distractions and interruptions, including “business as usual” occurrences like fire drills and intercom announcements, and once a principal suddenly insisted mid-performance that the show end in ten minutes, “or we’re leaving.”

But in the gymnatorium, the actors never missed a beat. If anything, they seemed to respond by making make every gesture just that little bit more broad, every line a little brighter, to hold their audience. And the students remained rapt. The only wiggling broke out when another character sang that he could pat his head and rub his belly at once, and a flurry of head-patting and belly-rubbing swept briefly through the audience. The kids stayed focused on the stage even as they were being dragged off for their pictures, and after the actors had taken their final bows, hands shot in the air for questions.

Backstage a few minutes later, the actors didn’t seem preoccupied with the show they’d just finished. They already were busy with their post-production routine—shedding costumes, talking logistics, striking the set and preparing to move on. In a few hours or another day they’d be back in costume again, singing the same songs in some other poorly lit gym or cramped multi-purpose space or maybe a real theater where their voices would carry beautifully to the very last row.

As for Theatre IV itself, after more than three decades and countless performances since Br’er Rabbit first took the stage in the Halifax High School gymnasium, there’s no sign the company is settling into comfortable, sedentary middle age. Bruce Miller and Phil Whiteway are no longer fresh-out-of college enthusiasts in a second-hand van—they have offices and families and a multi-million-dollar budget to oversee—but they seem still as passionate for their work as any one of their young actors, always looking forward to the next idea, the next innovative way to broaden Theatre IV’s reach in keeping with its fourfold mission.

In 2001, Theatre IV stepped in to save Richmond’s venerable Barksdale Theatre company from dissolution, and since then the two companies have shared a collaborative relationship and administrative and artistic staff. “Now we are exploring ways to make the existing collaboration permanent,” says Whiteway. Theatre IV has launched new community outreach efforts such as its “Curtains Up/Lights Out” overnight camp at the Empire for youth groups and the recent children’s auditions for an upcoming production The Sound of Music that drew a crowd of aspiring young actors to a Richmond-area shopping mall.

Yet even as the casting, the rehearsing, the set-building and costuming, the performing and scheduling and traveling carry on, new ideas are incubating. “I’ve become convinced the arts can play a major role going into at-risk communities and helping early childhood students be ready for reading instruction,” says Bruce Miller. “One of my pet projects now is to find ways that children’s theater can work with Head Start and other programs like that to get less advantaged children ready to begin to learn to read.”

Sooner or later, the curtain will rise on this idea brought to life. The music will start, a group of actors will take the stage, and a crowd of children will lean forward, wide-eyed with anticipation, ready to be carried away.

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