Setting the Stage

Performing Arts Season Preview 2014-2015

This season, Virginia’s greatest, most historic, most daring and promising performing arts companies will bring their craft to stages from Abingdon to Virginia Beach, where talented dancers, singers, musicians, actors and backstage scene-setters will delight audiences of all ages.

In the following pages, you’ll learn about the forces that help to make Virginia such a creative hotbed. Join us now in extending a deep bow to all of the traditional, diverse, passionate, experimental and visionary performers who keep us entertained and inspired night after night.

American Shakespeare Center


Ralph Alan Cohen, the co-founder of American Shakespeare Center, loves it when out of town visitors arrive in Staunton to see the center’s re-creation of the Bard’s preferred 400-year-old indoor theater, the Blackfriars. “They come to this playhouse in a little town in Virginia, and they expect to see something cute …  a funny attraction you see on the side of the road. Then they come into the building, and their jaws drop.”

Cohen and his creative partner, Jim Warren, founded the American Shakespeare Center (formerly Shenandoah Shakespeare) in 1988. “We started without a building or even the thought of a building,” says Warren, the ASC’s longtime artistic director. “And we were like that for 12 years, simulating Shakespeare’s staging conditions in any hole-in-the-wall that would have us play.” They built the period-enhanced Blackfriars to be like Shakespeare’s space “and it’s become hugely important to what we do … Most modern audiences aren’t used to the lights staying on or the actors talking to them. It’s so much different than watching a movie or watching a play where you are on the outside looking in. Here, you are a part of it.” (In June, Cohen was presented with the U.K.’s prestigious Sam Wanamaker Award for “pioneering work in Shakespearean theater,” a special nod to the work done in Staunton.)

The $3.7 million playhouse, with wood furnishings inside a brick shell, features two levels of gallery space and even allows for seating on the stage, ensuring intimacy and interaction. One night during Hamlet, a young patron was so caught up in the plot that, when actor Ben Curns asked if he should kill Claudius now, the boy piped up: “Yes, he’s got to die.” Cohen recalls: “Hamlet had to share with the kid why he might not want to kill him then and the kid, in this particular production, finally gave his permission to let [Claudius] live for now. It was an amazing moment.”

The founders say it happens all the time. The ASC has two troupes: a resident company that performs 17 plays a year in the Blackfriars, and its touring troupe, which takes three Shakespeare plays on the road across the U.S. each season. The company also offers a Shakespeare summer camp for kids (parents became so jealous that a grown-up camp, called No Kidding Shakespeare, was also started), and sponsors a biannual academic conference. What’s next for the company? “We’re going to build a re-creation of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in Staunton,” Warren reveals. Construction has not yet begun, but, he adds, “It’s going to happen. When we originally built the Blackfriars, we knew that we were going to eventually build the Globe. It was just a matter of time.”

Virginia Arts Festival


“We want to keep bringing people to Hampton Roads,” says Robb Cross, the founding artistic director of the Virginia Arts Festival, which showcases the world’s finest performing artists every March to June in venues around the region,from Williamsburg to Virginia Beach.

The VAF also includes the Virginia Beer Festival;  Virginia International Tattoo, one of the world’s largest military tattoos;  and a host of educational arts initiatives.

Last year, classical violinist Joshua Bell, banjoist Bela Fleck and the world premiere of Stewart Copeland’s revamped score for Ben Hur, backed by the Virginia Symphony, thrilled record crowds.

The festival’s upcoming 18th season, Cross says, teasingly, “will be ambitious.”

Virginia Rep


Richmond’s Virginia Repertory Theatre is really four companies in one: the state’s most popular Children’s Theatre, the long running Barksdale at Hanover Tavern, and its signature company, which, along with the independent Cadence Theatre Company, now have a permanent home in the oldest major theater in the Commonwealth, the renovated Sara and Neil November Theatre on Broad Street.

“We’ve been learning more about the acoustics of the theater and everything else,” artistic director and co-founder Bruce Miller says. “Now the shows look like a million bucks, sound like a million bucks, and it’s truly a Broadway experience.”

Richmond’s premier theatrical organization—which grossed more than $5 million last year—presents 17 different productions per season and just as many touring shows. Its 2014-2015 signature season will include warhorses like South Pacific and Mame along with more daring works such as Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man and Equivocation by Bill Cain, the latter produced with Henley Street Theatre and Richmond Shakespeare.“

You have to find shows that challenge artistically,” Miller says, “but you also have to find those that will bring in the revenue. We try to represent theater in its entirety. We aren’t a niche theater in that we only do American plays or musicals. We try and do it all.”

Live Arts


“Our mission is forging theater and community,” says Live Arts artistic director Julie Hamberg. “It’s not just that we have fabulous theater, we want to make fabulous theater with the community.”

Since 1990, Live Arts has been Charlottesville’s showplace for edgy plays and innovative restagings, all featuring amateur thespians from the surrounding region. (One of the theater’s famous alumni is singer Dave Matthews.)

Live Arts’ 2014-2015 season, which will begin Oct. 31 with The Sugar, will be held at its two Downtown Mall spaces and promises everything from Les Misérables to emerging playwright Katori Hall’s visceral The Mountaintop. 

“Our seasons have a nice mix,” Hamberg says. Performances from more than a dozen companies encompass theater, dance, music, circus, puppetryand improv.

“And we usually have something provocative,” says Hamberg, “shows that start conversations that I think we should be having.”

Richmond Ballet


Malcolm Burn is a little nervous about Richmond Ballet’s much-anticipated trip to China next year.“Beijing is the dance capital of the world, and we’ll be only the second American company to perform in the Egg [the National Centre for the Performing Arts], which is Beijing’s major arts center,” says the ballet master of the four prominent performances that his company will give in the Republic of China next May.

Stoner Winslett, the ballet’s artistic director, who was recently honored by the Library of Virginia as a prominent “Woman of History,” recounts how the invitation came about: “We were invited in June of 2013 to perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. We performed Ershter Vals, which was created for the Richmond Ballet by Chinese American choreographer Ma Cong.” Dignitaries from the Chinese embassy attended and were so impressed, she says, that they immediately invited the dance company—designated in 1990 as the State Ballet of Virginia—to perform at the Chinese capital’s gigantic “Meet in Beijing” festival. 

“They are a very sophisticated audience, the Chinese,” says Burn, a New Zealand native who has been with Richmond Ballet for 28 years, first as a dancer and then as teacher and ballet master. “I think it’s really important that we’re taking ballets that we know, that we took to London and New York, and were received well. They’re interesting and diverse and different from the basic classics that you’re going to see from bigger companies.”

While the roots of Richmond Ballet extend back to 1957, when a group of local dancing students came together to do performances, it got serious in 1975 when the School of the Richmond Ballet was founded—the first not-for-profit professional ballet school in the city. Winslett arrived in 1980 and, four years later, established the now-acclaimed professional company alongside the school. Today, Richmond Ballet offers classes to area youngsters and has a brisk community outreach arm. But the secret to the company’s artistic success may lie in its steadfast commissioning of new ballets, which are key components in RB’s “Studio Series” performances held in its downtown Richmond home. “This organization has commissioned 59 new ballets since its inception, which is unheard of for a small company in a small city,” Burn says. “So creativity is the key. And in those studio series performances, we make sure that we have one newly-created ballet on every program.”

As for the company’s newfound role as international ambassador, it’s only natural that ballet should bring nations together, says Burn. “Using just the body and the dancer, communication can go across all spectrums of society, all nations of society. The ability to communicate through dance is universal.”

Signature Theatre


The 25th anniversary season of Signature Theatre is going to be big. The 2009 Tony Award winner for America’s Best Regional Theatre will have “a lot of premieres and a season of high-profile projects,” says publicist and community relations manager, James Gardiner. But in that way, it will really be no different than any other season for the Arlington-based company.

From its earliest days inside a local library to its stint presenting show tunes in a converted car garage, Signature has defied expectations and presented novelty: new works, new settings, new experiences. At Signature, says Gardiner, audiences know they are going to see fresh stories, adding that the company’s intimate 250-seat theater in Arlington is an “immersive” experience that adds an extra dimension to performances.“It makes you feel part of the show.” He says that this kind of approach has helped build word-of-mouth. “Someone will tweet, ‘I just saw Miss Saigon in a small theater with the full orchestrations and the full cast.’ I mean, a helicopter landing in a 250-seat house isn’t something you can see just anywhere.”

Under the direction of co-founder and artistic director Eric D. Schaeffer, Signature has also become known as the place to see musicals, including the future Broadway show Ace, last year’s world premiere of Beaches and this season’s anticipated productions of Cabaret and Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. “Eric has always had one of these ‘Mickey and Judy are putting on a show’ attitudes,” Gardiner says.

The likes of composer Sondheim, a longtime collaborator of the company (there is a special revue tribute, Simply Sondheim, on tap for April 2015), producer Cameron MacKenzie, playwright Terrence McNally, and songwriting legends John Kander and Fred Ebb have adopted the space as their theater of choice. “These are some of the biggest giants in the American musical,” Gardiner says. “Those relationships were cultivated back in the ’90s when we were still in that garage.”

Signature does plays too, and isn’t afraid of pushing the boundaries of convention. “Our patrons are constantly surprising us. We programmed the show Really Really two seasons ago, and it was loosely based on the Duke Lacrosse rape scandal, a pretty edgy piece. Eric loved the play. We didn’t know how it would be received in a season that also included Hairspray, and it was one of the biggest successes on our smaller stage.”

Along with a new musical from John Kander, Kid Victory, this season’s anniversary highlights include the world premiere of a musical version of the film Diner, with songs written by Sheryl Crow and the text penned by the original director of the movie, Barry Levinson. Not to be outdone, there will be the first-ever staging of Soon, a Nick Blaemire musical about nothing less than the end of the world.

Here, the atypical is typical. “Taking risks is what makes us unique,” says Gardiner.

Synetic Theater


“You’ll notice that my plays are not traditional productions,” says former filmmaker Paata Tsikurishvili, the artistic director and co-founder of Synetic Theater. “The pacing, sound design, the dynamics of physical storytelling are very much cinematic.”

Tsikurishvili’s brand of filmic theater has delighted audiences since he and his actress wife, Irina, who fled the Republic of Georgia in the early 1990s, introduced their distinctive styles to America. Their most celebrated productions have been “wordless” adaptations of Shakespeare: the first was Hamlet, the most celebrated was King Lear, but both were communicated solely through movement and gesture.

Synetic once staged shows in D.C.’s Kennedy Center but found its own space in Crystal City in 2010. “In the beginning, the audience kind of lost us,” Tsikurishvili recalls. “But they followed us. Now our audience numbers grow every year.” So do the accolades, including nearly 100 Helen Hayes Award nominations (and 24 wins). Paata says that his wife is central to the success. “I build everything around Irina. Her artistic range is unbelievable, and I’m not just saying that because she’s my wife. Look at all of the awards and nominations and acclaim she’s had.”

As an actor, Paata has been absent from the stage the last few years. For Synetic’s 2014-2015 season, though, he will be featured twice: as the mad scientist in The Island of Dr. Moreau and acting with his wife in Janus Glowecki’s Hunting Cockroaches.“

We met as teenagers,” he remembers, “and we promised each other that, one day, we would live in America and have our own theater company. So it’s part of the dream we are living.”

Fifth Wall


When one of Richmond’s most celebrated directors, Carol Piersol, was unceremoniously released by the board of the Firehouse Theater, the trailblazing company she co-founded 20 years ago, it caused a seismic divide in the local theater community.

Piersol herself barely blinked. Partnering with other companies, she had a new production, Breast in Show, on the stage within months (followed by Gidion’s Knot, Patti Issues and Race). Clearly, you can take the lady out of the theater, but not vice versa.

Her new 5th Wall Theater Company opens with much anticipation. Its first show, H20, by Jane Martin, arrives in September at Virginia Rep’s intimate Theatre Gym. “We’re calling it theater without boundaries,” Piersol says. “We’re working on finding plays that make people say, ‘Oh, I haven’t thought of that.’”

Virginia Symphony

Hampton Roads

Across Hampton Roads, regional cooperation has become the big idea, but the Virginia Symphony was first. “We were one of the first truly regional organizations, serving all of these communities,” says lead conductor and music director JoAnn Falletta. “That makes us unique.”

Formed from three different area orchestras in 1979, including the long-running Norfolk Symphony, the VSO is always on the move, from Norfolk’s Chrysler Hall to Virginia Beach’s Sandler Center to the Ferguson Center for the Arts in Newport News. “Every night for us is opening night,” she says. “I don’t think there’s another orchestra in the country in that situation.”

The Virginia Symphony was among the first to hire a female music director, Faletta, who will celebrate her 25th anniversary next year.

She and resident conductor Benjamin Rous aren’t getting out the party hats just yet. The imminent 2014-2015 schedule includes a branching out of the VSO’s Pops series and a special Halloween concert (“I’m particularly excited about that one,” says Rous, an admitted fright fan), among other crowd pleasers. There will also be performances with superstar pianist Emanuel Ax, Virginia Opera collaborations and a special regional premiere at the Virginia Arts Festival of the multi-media show “Bluebeard’s Castle,” utilizing the glowing glass art of Dale Chihuly, “because of the Chrysler Museum’s world-famous glass collection,” Faletta says, thinking regionally once again.

Generic Theater


The cutting-edge Generic Theater, housed “down under” in the bottom level of Norfolk’s Chrysler Hall, has been keeping Tidewater audiences off-balance for 34 years. That’s hard to do. “Generic owes its longevity to doing new work, regional premieres, plays that aren’t seen around Hampton Roads,” says Garney Johnson, one of four artistic directors. Its new season (previewed in a hilarious video on the troupe’s website) will include collaborations with rising local companies like Double Dog. Generic also helps to present the annual Norfolk Comedy Festival in July and hosts a popular theater camp for kids. “Being small and flexible helps us administratively as well as on the stage,” says general producer and assistant director Jeannette Rainey. “When the British defeated the Spanish Armada, it was the little ships that won the battle.”

Richmond Triangle Players


It speaks volumes that Richmond Triangle Players is no longer identified just as a “gay” theater. Today, it is frequently cited as one of the theater-rich city’s best companies, period.

RTP, once housed in a nightclub, now presents works—like last season’s acclaimed version of Cabaret—in a renovated radiator shop, and has found a loyal clientele that one could hardly call niche. “Back when we were founded 20 years ago,” managing director Philip Crosby says, “it was more about telling stories for our own because no one was doing that. Now it’s all about celebrating the diversity of the community.”

It’s also the busiest stage in town, offering a home to outside theater troupes, and staging cabarets, one-act plays and readings on a regular, sometimes nightly, basis.

Virginia Opera

Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Richmond and Fairfax

Adam Turner, the 31-year-old principal conductor for Virginia Opera who takes the helm this season, is about to find out how to follow a legend. “He’s irreplaceable,” says Turner of the flamboyant Peter Mark, newly appointed emeritus artistic director of Virginia’s official opera company, who served as its founding artistic director for 35 years and shaped Virginia Opera into a world-class company. (Though he was famously dismissed in 2010, Mark is now honored by VO and, hints Turner, may return to conduct a production someday.) “I have enormous shoes to fill.”

No newcomer, he has been resident conductor under Robin Thompson, Mark’s replacement, since 2012. Turner has a vision for the company’s milestone year, which will see performances in four different cities, starting in Norfolk in September with a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Tony-winning Sweeney Todd. “I think our 40th anniversary season is really a testament to American opera companies. It’s great theater, powered by the human voice without amplification.” Opera purists will be equally delighted and scandalized, he says. There is Verdi’s classic La Traviata (“a throwback to our first season in 1975”), and also Richard Strauss’ Salome, which was “scandalous at the turn of the century and continues to be to this day.”

Virginia Opera is a busy company; in addition to this season’s four productions, it offers many community programs. Operation Opera introduces newcomers to the world of opera (headed by the beloved Glenn Winters—aka Dr. Opera), student nights and school tours serve young fans, and the company even puts on free outdoor performances in Richmond’s Dogwood Dell Amphitheatre and Norfolk’s Town Point Park.

Turner is excited about the season opener. “Many people consider it [Sweeney Todd] a musical but I would strongly oppose that,” he says. “It truly is an opera, a very dark piece with comedic elements. It’s supposed to be this nice piece of fluff, but as we will show you, it’s nothing of the sort.”

Fairfax Symphony


“The Fairfax Symphony Orchestra plays at an extremely high level of professionalism and makes music with a wonderful combination of both technical excellence and passion and commitment,” Henry Fogel, the former president of the American Symphony Orchestra League, said recently. High praise indeed, and we can largely thank the influential William Hudson, who set a high baton when he conducted and nurtured the FSO from 1971-2009.

Under current music director Chris Zimmerman, the orchestra’s presence as a community resource has only grown. More than 30 performances per year are given free in county parks, and FSO musicians are so engrained in local education initiatives that oboes are almost as popular as iPods in Fairfax schools.

Richmond Symphony


If there are common themes found in the forthcoming 58th season of the Richmond Symphony, they are collaboration and variety.“

We don’t think of ourselves as purely a classical music provider,” says David Fisk, the symphony’s executive director (and sometime pianist). “That’s at the heart of what we do, but we are all about playing orchestral music and that enables us to have such a broad range of programming.”

Nothing will highlight this more than the final two concerts in May of 2015 at the symphony’s regular home, Richmond CenterStage: a tribute to the music of Bugs Bunny and Loony Tunes cartoons, and “The Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission: Finale Concert,” a free concert performed with the sponsorship of the Virginia General Assembly. “There you have it, side by side, just a week apart, two very different ways in which music can inspire and unite communities,” says Fisk.  

The Symphony is preparing a program of music by the noted jazz composer Duke Ellington that will include the contributions of the One Voice Chorus, and will also be presented in a special performance at St. Paul’s Church.

There are also changes. Japanese conductor Keitaro Harada was recently brought in as associate conductor, while Stephen Smith remains lead conductor and longtime baton-waver Erin Freeman becomes the conductor of the chorus. Freeman will also oversee the choral activities at Virginia Commonwealth University—another collaboration.

“We’re doing a summer series with VCU and the University of Richmond, and adjunct faculty members are performing. We commissioned a piece from a composer based at the University of Richmond, Fred Cohen, which will be featured in April as part of the Masterworks series. And at VCU, we have collaborations going in many different departments, not just music but dance, drama and even with the business school,” explains Freeman.

Attracting younger audiences remains a major goal. “We’re starting a new subscription service called Soundwaves,” says Scott Dodson, the symphony’s director of advancement and patron communications. “We’re working with the universities to offer a $25 price for three of our concerts throughout the year. We want people to participate at all ages and all levels.”

Even the programming reflects a generational change. “We’re bringing in the local group No BS! Brass Band in January,” executive director Fisk says. “No BS! has been getting some national attention and we’re working with them on playing with the symphony. It’s a strong connection to where we are in the Richmond community.”

The schedule is still in the planning stages for the symphony’s big 60th anniversary celebration in 2017, but Fisk says it will be bold. “We might commission new work, either a straightforward piece or a form of multi-media. It would be nice if it resonated with the city so perhaps there would be a theme associated with the James River or another part of Richmond life.”

Dogtown Dance Theatre


This renovated high school gymnasium in Richmond’s Manchester district is a co-op learning space that showcases the best of the city’s modern dance scene through performances and specialized dance instruction.

Here, you’ll find regular recitals from resident company Ground Zero Dance, RVA Dance Collective, RADAR and the Virginia Repertory Dance Company, as well as regular classes in African roots, belly dance, aerial and hoop dance styles and even burlesque. It runs a special Young Dancer’s Workshop, and their Dogwood Dance Youth Ensemble performs at regional festivals and events like First Fridays. Richmond has always been a place for dance—you can thank Virginia Commonwealth University’s dance department for that—but it now has a hip and homey space to step up and out.

Barter Theatre


Abingdon’s historic Barter Theatre shows up, as artistic director Richard Rose notes, in “the weirdest places:” in Hillary Clinton’s first book, in economic reports of successful non-profits and in lists of theater milestones. One of the nation’s longest-playing professional playhouses, the Barter was also the first, in 1946, to be honored officially with State Theater status.

Housed in an opulent 1831 building, the company’s colorful history dates back to the Depression, when founder Robert Porterfield would “barter” produce and other goods in lieu of ticket money. Over the years, the repertory company has given many actors—including Kevin Spacey, Gregory Peck, even Jim “Ernest” Varney—their first stage experiences. One famous alum, the late Patricia Neal, helped to found a Barter acting scholarship.

While it produces high-quality favorites like the forthcoming My Fair Lady, Barter also presents original work like Wash, Rinse, Spin, Dry, developed at its annual Appalachian Play Festival.

Though theater artistic directors keep their jobs an average of seven years, Rose is entering his 25th. So what’s the secret to his, and Barter’s, success? “I have a terrible memory,” he laughs, “so I can’t help but look forward.”

Roanoke Symphony


Under the 18-year tenure of music director and conductor David Stewart Wiley, Roanoke Symphony, Virginia’s oldest professional orchestra, has greatly enhanced its standing in the New River Valley. The proof rings louder than a kettle drum—increased ticket sales, a partnership with WVTF public radio and new programs like “RSO Rocks” created to galvanize new audiences. Wiley also oversees the annual Blue Ridge Music Festival, and initiated RSO’s new “Conducting Change” event, which helps area business leaders to think creatively through music.

Virginia Stage Company


It’s 98 degrees in Norfolk, and Chris Hanna, the artistic director of Hampton Roads’ most venerable theater organization, Virginia Stage Company, is busy building a mountain.  

Literally. Preparing for the play K2, VSC’s 2014-2015 season opener Sept. 23, Hanna and his technicians are constructing the white peaks of Pakistan on the stage of the historic Wells Theatre. “The actors have to rappel, climb off of it, and there’s even a blizzard that comes through during the play,” says Hanna, somewhat warily. That isn’t the only challenge in mounting this play, written by Patrick Meyers (and made into a 1991 film). The next hurdle will be to cast actors that can climb a mountain. “I’ve never prepared an audition for climbing before,” Hanna says. “Usually, it’s tap dancing or singing or doing a monologue from Shakespeare.”

There’s an expectation among local theatergoers that Virginia Stage Company, which began as the Norfolk Theatre Center in 1968, will open its season in a big and splashy way. K2 is a trademark attention grabber, a work rarely performed because most companies (and theaters) just can’t handle the spectacle. But Hanna loves to take on these kinds of shows: “The great comedian Elaine May once said, ‘The only safe thing is to take a chance.’”

To balance things out, Book Club, VSC’s next play, is pure comedy. “I like to go back and forth with the audience. I’ve got two high suspense shows this season, too … edge of your seat kind of stuff. I want to make you laugh, make you cry and make you scared.” For more than 45 years, Virginia Stage Company has put on plays that people in Hampton Roads want to see, all performed in the beautifully-renovated 1913 Beaux Arts venue, the Wells, where legends Lillian Gish, Will Rogers and John Philip Sousa have graced the stage.

This season hasn’t even begun, but Hanna is already fretting over the 2015-2016 season, which will feature new plays that have been commissioned by the company. “Sometimes new work takes two or three years to develop,” he says. “It looks like we’ve got a crop coming in the following year, and I may be doing some harvesting.”

After the Curtain Goes Down



Piano Bar at The Georges Hotel

11 North Main St.


The Tavern

222 E. Main St.


Samuel Beckett’s

2800 South Randolph St., Suite 110

Our Tips for Late-Night Bites



320 E. Grace St.

Capital Ale House

623 E. Main St.


Bodega on Granby

442 Granby St.

Performer Favorites for After the Show



4000 Cambell Ave.



115 E. Beverly St.

Byers Street Bistro

18 Byers St.

More Shows Not To Miss!

Rockbridge Ballet


Peter Pan & Where the Page Meets the Stage

Heritage Theatre Festival


Manassas Ballet Theatre


The Nutcracker, Giselle

The Little Theatre of Norfolk


Company, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

The Little Theatre of Virginia Beach


The Light in the Piazza, The Rainmaker

TheatreWorks Community Players, Martinsville


An Evening of Carol Burnett, A Raisin in the Sun

Better Said Than Done, Fairfax

Reading, Writing and Art, Nature Calls:Stories About Things You Can’t Ignore

Latin Ballet, Richmond


Sol & Luna, The Legend of the Poinsettia

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Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum