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Pollak Selectors 2010:
- Pam Anderson (Fine Art Honoree, 2009)
- Craig Evans (of The Taters, Ensemble Honoree 2009)
- Robert Griffith, (Film Honoree 2009)
- Brian Korte (Applied Arts Honoree 2009)
- Georgianne Stinnett (Photography Honoree 2007)
- Rob Petres, (Dance Honoree, 2009) Virginia Pye, writer and poet, James River Writers.
Theresa Pollak's (1899-2002) contribution to Richmond's rich art world has become somewhat taken for granted. But it was only through determination and rare vision that she was able to develop the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts and the University of Richmond arts program.
During the Depression-era 1930s, the petite young woman, born and raised in Richmond and educated in New York City, was trying to shape herself into an artist, and, in the process, she saw a glaring need; Richmond offered virtually no opportunities for a formal arts education.
The void had been discussed by the city's cultural leaders. What was different about Pollak is that she began filling it.
She was hired by Henry Hibbs, president of William and Mary's Richmond Professional Institute, who understood the value of adding an arts component. Over the next years, Pollak, with fierce commitment, much dry humor and very little funding, created the programs that would become UR's arts department and VCU's School of the Arts, now widely recognized as among the nation's best art schools. Because of her pioneering efforts, we named these awards after her.
PHOTOGRAPHY » Travis Fullerton
The selectors said: Travis Fullerton weaves space, light and time to evoke a sense of place. He has shared his talent for creating images by teaching at VCU, the Virginia Museum Studio School and for Art 180, which helps at-risk children by drawing them into art projects. Former president (and now member) of the 1708 Gallery, Travis served for years on its board with patience and dedication. He applies his expertise as a photographer for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where he displays its grandeur in images shown around the world.
The cops wanted to know what Travis Fullerton was doing. They were suspicious of his unusual large-format camera, which looks a bit like an accordian on top of a tripod. He had set it up at Gravelly Point Park in Arlington, Va., where the sight of jets descending into Reagan National attracts numerous people with still and video cameras.
"I guess because I had this big clunky camera I somehow looked weirder," he chuckles. He explains that because he waits to get the right images and uses cumbersome equipment, he sticks out. Along with the occasional odd look, he gets queries from camera nerds.
Fullerton says, "Photography happens over time. Experience hap- pens over time. It's perfect for me to explore those two together."
The magic began in a darkroom on a military base at Keflavik, Iceland, where Fullerton lived as a child. There wasn't much for kids to do, and Fullerton, then 12, amused himself by hanging out in a Navy photo lab. Amazed, he watched photographs materialize on white paper.
Much later, at Ohio State University, under the tutelage of Chris Conte, he was introduced to photography as fine art. After he transferred to VCU, professors Georgianne Stinnett, Pam Fox and David Bremer gave him direction.
Fullerton says, "What's always appealed to me are elements that are part creative and part technical, that involve the problem-solving mindset. Photography is a very literal version of that."
Photographer Adam Ewing connected Fullerton with commercial shooter Lee Brauer, which proved to be an education in itself. When Fullerton returned to VCU, he developed his unusual approach; he uses his large-format camera to make multi-panel vistas, some 8 feet long. "It was a means to an end," he shrugs. "I didn't have a panoramic camera."
He builds a narrative and a sense of motion. A single image is represented through different views, and at least one perspective is altered. His use of weather, light, activity and type of film creates pictures that compel double takes, as viewers see multiple facets.
"I kind of have an idea when I set up the camera, about my angles, what I want to capture," he says. "But you can't predict that kind of thing. I'm waiting for something to happen."
DANCE » RVA Dance Collective
The selectors said: The RVA Dance Collective possesses a rare ability to combine high-quality choreography with audience accessibility. As part of its performances, the troupe educates audiences through explanation, humor and insight. The group promotes not only understanding of dance but also the study of it, offering courses for performers in the Richmond community.
The choreography begins when Jess Burgess and Danica Kalemdaroglu sit and talk. Like twins they finish each other's sentences. Kalemdaroglu is outright funny, Burgess sarcastic. The women amuse each other, and they dance together.
They found each other while performing as guest artists in 2007 at Richmond's St. Catherine's School.
"Over a couple pitchers of beer, we decided, let's make art," Burgess says.
"Which is exactly what we said sitting there at the bar," Kalemdaroglu adds.
At first they performed solos and duets in New York City, Washington, D.C., and at Virginia's Radford University.
"We only had each other," Burgess says.
"We were starting from nothing," Kalemdaroglu says.
They toured the East Coast, eager to dance almost anywhere. In 2008, they decided to start their own company. Hence, the RVA Dance Collective.
They met with opportunity because of artistic gift.
Burgess, who grew up outside of Danville, began training for ballet at the age of 2. Kalemdaroglu, inspired by The Red Shoes, danced so often at a young age that she damaged the cartilage in her knees. When she auditioned during graduate school at the University of Colorado, Boulder, several companies told her the injury was a liability. Later, Pilates so improved her knees that she became a certified instructor.
Meanwhile, Burgess describes herself as "titanium and steel" from the pelvis up. In a 2004 car accident, her upper body was severely damaged, and she had to relearn how to walk, talk and eat.
"Messed up everything," Kalemdaroglu says, "except for her legs."
A Norfolk native, Kalemdaroglu moved around the country to get an education in dance. In Washington, D.C., she met her husband, who was transferred to Richmond. He brought her to a city that she never expected to call home.
Richmond has "changed so much since I was a little kid," she says. "The arts scene here just exploded."
The RVA Dance Collective is the company of the Chesterfield Dance Center, run by troupe member Carrie Hughes. The troupe includes Burgess, Kalemdaroglu, Ilana Burger, Julius Elegido, Hughes, Danielle Ramon, Jason Sandahl, Ashley Valo and Heather Zimmerman.
FILM » Rita McClenny
The selectors said: Rita McClenny has served as director of the Virginia Film Office for the last 20 years. She's brought major movie and television productions to the state while supporting the independent film community. She understands the complexities of filmmaking, both the business and the creative processes. Our regional film communities continue to grow and create impressive bodies of work, thanks, in great part, to her enthusiastic support and hands-on assistance.
Where Rita McClenny grew up — on a Southampton County farm — the nearest movie theater was half an hour away. The first film that made an enduring impact on her was the Nastassja Kinski shape-shifter melodrama, Cat People.
McClenny, an economics major from Tennessee's Fisk University, could've gone most anywhere, but in 1991, she came to the Virginia Film Office as an assistant director under her mentor Laura Oaksmith. She accompanied Oaksmith to the set of the Bill Murray comedy, What About Bob?
It was Altmanesque, McClenny recalls. "Many people going very fast and talking over each other," she says. "And there's always a story behind the story. Plenty of times, the making of the movie is more interesting than the final film."
The entertainment industry is a minefield of big egos and multimillion-dollar contracts, and Virginia could have no better emissary than McClenny. She slipped into this demi-world with the grace and determination she exhibits as an equestrian and a polo player. Along with steering marquee productions to Virginia, she's supported homegrown film.
Her goal is to encourage entertainment-inclined Virginians to use their state for films, music videos, reality television and commercials. McClenny — along with the many Virginians familiar with film and TV productions she's brought here — has encouraged state government to offer incentives for media endeavors. Current officials seem to get it: They've invigorated the Governor's Motion Picture Opportunity Fund.
McClenny's professional coup was getting Tom Hanks' HBO miniseries John Adams, produced in locations from Richmond to Williamsburg. Of the 13 Emmys John Adams won, four went to Virginians: two for design, one for wardrobe and one for camera work. Hanks is also interested in David McCullough's 1776, while Steven Spielberg's long-anticipated film about Abraham Lincoln's visit to Richmond is a tantalizing possibility.
On a smaller but increasingly important scale, McClenny promotes interactive digital media. "It's game design," she explains. "I'm eager to know what the next frontier is. Hopefully I'll be here to shepherd it."
FINE ARTS » Javier Tapia
The selectors said: We recognize Javier Tapia's longstanding and passionate commitment to both painting and teaching. During the past 20 years at Virginia Commonwealth University, Javier has been known for his fiery, challenging and truth-seeking critiques. His travels with students and colleagues to his country, Peru, are life-altering in their cultural scope, and his contribution to emerging artists is undeniable. A watercolor master, Javier consistently elevates a traditional, often marginalized medium to marvelously conceptual and abstract ends. For fighting the good fight on multiple levels, for believing when it would be more convenient to disbelieve, we honor him.
Around 1992 when Javier Tapia was moving away from oils and into watercolor, he started getting flak from fellow artists, among them Davi Det Hompson. He visited Tapia's studio, examined his new work and then declared, "You're doing everything wrong!"
Now Tapia says, "And I said, ‘Davi, you're absolutely right!' I was connecting with discovery by not knowing what was going to happen next. I was using a system where everything is wrong and using the wrongness of it to make it work."
In Peru, Tapia studied industrial engineering but after three and a half years at the Universidad de Lima he turned to political cartooning. A 1979 show of his and a friend's drawings at the Li-Man Gallery persuaded Tapia that art, not math, was in his blood; his family tree includes muralist and painter José Sabogal, a leader of Peru's indigenous arts movement until he died in 1956.
From the University of Texas, Austin, Tapia came to Richmond to teach at VCU in 1988. Here, he says, he became an artist. He moved from drawings and figuration to India ink washes to abstractions with watercolor.
He describes his exploration of method and materials as similar to deep-sea diving. He tries to explore the artistic impulse within himself and then manifest it in an atypical way.
"Watercolor is a medium that has this terrible connotation of being soft," Tapia says. "What I've tried to do is work against that and create with boldness and defy what most people assume watercolor is supposed to be."
That means, he says, allowing for total mistakes, which are the only way artists make progress. One has to be prepared to erase and start over, he says, because it's part of the deal.
"It's not a matter of fashion," he says. "It's a matter of genes. You need to do it, as opposed to don't bother. It's being unable to [conceive of] any other way of approaching life. This is what I need to do."
VOCALIST » Jeanine Drost Guidry & Offering
The selectors said: Jeanine Drost Guidry built this nonprofit group into an important part of Richmond cultural life. She is the force behind Christmas In July, which benefits the Virginia Food Bank. Her band, Offering, plays for virtually any cause in need of support, whether it's a struggling coffeehouse, a local ministry, or bringing arts and music to migrant workers in Beijing. This is in recognition of her dedication, musicianship and spirit of giving.
Offering's musicians couldn't have imagined that their impromptu band would one day travel to China, make four CDs and sell 10,000 discs. But their leader, Jeanine Drost Guidry, is a rare person, determined, altruistic and driven earlier in life to volunteer in refugee camps and orphanages in Thailand, Cambodia and India.
About Offering, Drost Guidry says now, at first the idea was just to "have fun." In the late 1990s, she and her husband, Chris, and a handful of friends started playing at weddings and churches in Richmond. More sought-after than they anticipated, they added musicians until the group became a formal band.
They named themselves Offering, reflecting their spiritual interests. (Drost Guidry met husband Chris, Offering's sound engineer, while she played in a band associated with the Christian nonprofit organization, Youth With A Mission.)
Describing Offering, Drost Guidry says, "We weren't necessarily a Christian band, though we played in churches. We started, like a lot of bands, in small venues like the Shockoe Espresso coffeeshop."
But Offering also uses music as a form of philanothropy. The band played benefits for the Positive Vibe Café, the Hospital Hospitality House of Richmond and the Virginia Food Bank's Christmas In July.
And band members came up with a mission of their own, Arts in the Alley. The idea is to transform a gritty urban space.
"It's a lot of work, but the concept is simple," Drost Guidry says. "Find an alley that needs some love and care, find volunteers, clean it up, get rid of graffiti and broken glass, and then on Sunday paint murals and have performances."
For Drost Guidry, born in Amsterdam and raised in Maastricht, looking beyond Richmond, even beyond U.S. borders, is natural. The group has taken Arts in the Alley to Bejing as a "cultural arts exchange," she says.
Drost Guidry works as a consultant for the orchestra at Chesterfield County's Thomas Dale High School, and she helms the Rock 4 Life concert that each year benefits a humanitarian effort. The band plays with Susan Greenbaum and The Taters and performs with Richmond's Gospel Music Workshop.
"The rate I'm going," Drost Guidry says, "I'll never be rich, but I get to make music with some of my best friends."
ENSEMBLE » GWAR
The selectors said: Since GWAR emerged in April 1985, the world got weirder and GWAR turned pro. They've formed the underground of Richmond's music culture for a quarter century. They've toured the globe, earning international accolades, and their work has spawned movies, comic books and art exhibits. Yet here, GWAR is used as a standard for acts not allowed on stage. All of the above well qualifies the band for this award.
The thing to remember about GWAR, says Bob Gorman — chief builder in the Slave Pit and a band member for 21 years — is this: "It's an underground art collective that has this band part to it."
Gorman is the GWAR member most often killed on stage — perhaps the most often killed performer, for that matter, in all of show business. He's shorter than other GWAR members, which makes him more convincing in "the decap" — when his costume head is lopped off, resulting in the spurting of gory fluid.
GWAR is an explosion from the most deeply buried elements of pop culture's id. But the group has more in common with Firesign Theatre or Monty Python than latter-day slash-metal groups like Slipknot. "Better to be the Ramones than Green Day," Gorman says.
GWAR's built a reputation based on onstage violence and cataclysmic lyrics that now seem prescient.GWAR founder Dave Brockie says, "When you release an album called Violence Has Arrived, and then a week later 9/11 happens, you'd think so. But I think GWAR is more of a reaction to an insane situation than a prophecy of it. And just as the Dada and Surrealist movements were a reaction to World War I, GWAR is a reflection of our current chaos."
GWAR's complicated history and mythos flourish on the Internet, where fans gather on bohabcentral.com. (A "bohab" is a GWAR nerd in the extreme.)
"We thrive on the underdog status that coming from Richmond gives us," says Brockie, known onstage as Oderus Urungus. "Richmond gets a bad rap from a lot of other cities, and that actually suits us fine." He says they must convince some people that they're from Richmond, not New York City (or Antarctica).
Two GWAR retrospective projects are in the works. Gorman and Don Drakulich (who played GWAR's hapless manager Sleazy P. Martini), are compiling early video and interviews for a documentary on "The Dim Time" — aka GWAR's first two years.
The second project is a coffee table book on GWAR's art and artist-musicians during 25 years. The volume may become available next fall.
Last summer, GWAR toured Europe, and this fall they're touring Australia. Note to Japan: Lock up Sailor Moon. You could be next.
ARTS INNOVATOR » ART 180 & Marlene Paul
The selectors said: For 12 years, ART 180 has been committed to inspiring creativity in Richmond's young people. Through community programs, youths delve into varied disciplines, from music to dance. ART 180 brings art to those who most need its inspiration and solace, enriching children and participating artists.
When Marlene Paul worked in advertising, she traveled the state seeking media coverage for a public service spot created by the Virginia Division of Litter Control and Recycling. The commercial became the Byrd Theatre's litter trailer.
Today, Paul directs the dynamic youth arts organization that sponsored the August Paint Outside The Box Day: 75 kids painted 22-foot murals on dumpsters for recycled material that will be used throughout Virginia.
In October 1997, the concept for ART 180 began with a Legend — of the type served at the Manchester brewpub, that is. Over beer, Paul conferred with Kathleen Lane, a colleague from WORK advertising, about using art to reach at-risk children. "We left that night with all these ideas whirling in our heads," she says.
A dozen years and many projects later, thousands of young Virginians have been introduced to creative expression through ART 180. The program's newest ambition is to have youths, assisted by both interns and mentors, create a gallery and performance space.
Paul, a Richmond native, attended Crestview Elementary, which later became the site of ART 180's "I Am" project. She studied art at James Madison University, because "I was too chicken to apply to VCU and [I] wanted to get out of town for awhile." But after an unexpected semester of C's, she realized she wasn't cut out to be an artist.
She switched to communications, which eventually led her to Cabell Harris' advertising agency, WORK, and to her friendship with Lane.
After brainstorming, Lane, Harris and Paul concurred: What made the most sense was an organization that would serve children and establish liaisons between artists' groups through community efforts.
But what should it be called? Sitting in Mamma ‘Zu on a July day in 1998, Harris, Lane and Paul filled a sketchbook with ideas for names. The notion of using art to turn young people's lives around in a "180" inspired their choice.
In partnership with Richmond Sports Backers, ART 180 launched its first project — the creation of a mural in the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club in Church Hill. Since then, ART 180 has worked with multiple partners and qualified for numerous grants.
In June, ART 180 led a multiethnic group of youngsters in painting an 1,800-square-foot "Tree of Life" mural at the intersection of Hull and Cowardin.
Says Paul, the transformation and cultural exchange for the artists was "indescribable."
LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT » Robert Watkins and deVeaux Riddick
The selectors said: Together they've demonstrated a half-century of devotion to high artistic standards and professionalism through their work in diverse disciplines, including production (the Bal du Bois), dance (Concert Ballet of Virginia) and stage (Theatre at Bolling-Haxall House). Robert Watkins and deVeaux Riddick have made extraordinary contributions to the Richmond arts community through their leadership and support.
In February 1946, the ship bearing Robert Watkins and his comrades from uneventful wartime duty in Alaska ran aground a day outside port. He jumped overboard with a life jacket, intending to land in a raft. "But I had to be fished out," he recalls.
He was stuck for five days on a rescue vessel, while his Richmond family and friends wondered whether he'd lived to tell the tale. He was a long way from Hanover Avenue, where he grew up in the 1930s.
After World War II, Watkins attended the Richmond Professional Institute's theater school, whose 12 students included Charleston, S.C., native deVeaux Riddick.
In Richmond, "Theresa Pollak administered my entrance interview," Riddick says. "She was pleasant, and accepted my credentials, such as they were."
Her approval proved prescient. Riddick and Watkins commenced to build one of the city's longest-running theater partnerships.
"We had to do something," Watkins says of their foray into Richmond theatre. Back then, the city's theatrical scene was limited largely to amateur groups such as the Living Room Players and shows performed at schools and churches.
Riddick says, "We took the opportunities presented to us and made the most of them."
One was the 1950 opening of their interior décor firm, Design, across from the Woman's Club of Richmond, located in the Bolling-Haxall House. Thirty-five years later, they created a theater there that specialized in drawing-room comedies. In the mid-1960s, they produced shows such as Showboat, an ambitious production at the long-gone Broadway-style Lyric Theatre, at Broad and Ninth streets.
Riddick remembers that the sets were so heavy they bent the pipes holding them up into "W" shapes. "We were very fond of the place," he says.
They launched Lyric productions knowing the series would be short-lived; the Life Insurance Company of Virginia planned to tear down their building. The curtain finally fell on Kismet, the last of the Lyric shows.
At the Barksdale Theatre, the partners persuaded management to build multi-level sets and knock out a wall for additional dressing rooms. Musing on their careers, Riddick says, "A negative approach can serve as inspiration. Being told you can't do something encourages you to do it."
WORDS » Irene Ziegler
The selectors said: Irene Ziegler is a central figure in Richmond's theater and literary communities. She's a familiar face on the stage and successful in film and television as well. She conceptualized Virginia Arts and Letters Live, an annual evening of literature and music, and she produces it with James River Writers and the Barksdale Theatre. This year, she published her 2010 mystery-thriller, Ashes to Water, and her play, Full Plate Collection, a comedy with music that pays homage to female cultural icons, enjoyed success at TheatreIV. Her work enriches us all.
Ziegler's life has been shaped by her own metamorphosis. Originally from DeLand, Fla., she's evolved from playing Emily in a 10th-grade production of Our Town to studying dramatic arts at Eastern Michigan University to accepting roles and awards on stages in Richmond and elsewhere in the state.
Post-graduate writing courses at the University of Virginia led her into the literary world. She transformed her 1996 performance of Rules of the Lake monologues into a collection of short stories set in Florida and then into this year's novel, Ashes To Water.
Her fiction arises from her youth in pre-Disney, pre-strip mall Florida. Although by the 1981 period captured in Ashes, she says, "the tentacles [of sprawl] are sprouting."
Her memories of childhood "are the deep end of the pond where you dredge up what becomes the basis for the story," she says. But, she adds, you must "always [be] careful to elevate memory with language and structure — to make it art as opposed to me just slitting myself open to bleed all over people."
Some of her recollections darken an otherwise sunny childhood. At the age of 9, she was molested by a man who lived along a lake that she recreates in her stories.
"I'm fine," she says now, affirming a sense of survival.
Navigating difficult experiences gave her the emotional depth reflected in characters she's played and imagined. In the film The Contender, she portrayed the long-suffering wife of an arch-conservative Congressman, played by Gary Oldman. She gives away a terrible secret to his political opponents, and thus the plot develops.
In Ashes, she dwells not only on secrets but also on lies, betrayals and deaths. "I had to cut back on them because my editor said the bodies were piling up like [in] Hamlet," she laughs.
She's working to put Full Plate Collection into production, perhaps by a regional theater outside of Richmond.
In the meantime, she says, with a wry smile, "I consider any and every offer."
This fall, her brainchild, Virginia Arts and Letters Live, is to be hosted on Oct. 15 by veteran Pat Carroll at the Cultural Arts Center in Glen Allen.
APPLIED ARTS » Coloratura – Catherine Roseberry and Rob Womack
The selectors said: Rob Womack and Catherine Roseberry have used furniture as a canvas for their ideas for more than 25 years. The husband-and-wife team has established a national reputation from a local address. They're consummate artists who honor the origins of their pieces. They've received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and their work is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Like their art, they are a rarity.
One of Coloratura's few publicly displayed works is 1995's The Conjuror Revealed at the Landmark Theater. A five-paneled painting with grillwork adapted from an Egyptian mosque, it features strange figures, among them a levitating opera singer and a Turkish acrobat. Light is painted to look like actual illumination, so shadows beneath the grillwork seem real. Inspired by a vision of the Landmark Theater floating in a crystal ball, Womack created a painting as peculiar and vivid as a dream.
His work reflects early 20th-century deco-fantasia —astonishing New York-style skylines and hushed Edward Hopper streetscapes. Roseberry's work is earthier, sensual and mythic. "We both do our own paintings," she says. "That's how we've stayed married since 1983."
Roseberry grew up on a farm in Manassas, and she drew constantly. Womack, during high school in Virginia Beach, worked for an antique dealer who encouraged his interest in period styles. So Coloratura usually works with antique objects that have irreversible surface damage. "We're very careful about the found objects we choose to work on," Womack says.
Both were encouraged by teachers to explore their talents. Both went to Virginia Commonwealth University in the mid-1970s, where their providential meeting occurred at a sculpture department bash.
Womack started out by altering his and Roseberry's Stuart Avenue apartment. He painted wavy red stripes on the white utility cabinets and knobs of the stove. Friend Joe Shifflett remarked, "You should do this for a living."
So Womack put a crazy quilt pattern on a handmade table and chair that had been discarded in a junk shop. He sold the repurposed set to Virginia's First Lady Lynda Robb. Ultimately, Womack and Roseberry sold almost all of the work they displayed at the Hand Workshop's Crafts Show at the Richmond Arena.
At the 1989 New York Contemporary Furniture Fair, work by Womack and Roseberry was placed next to pieces by leading designers, and the couple caught the eye of international publications. "Nobody knew it was just the two of us schlepping this stuff from a second-floor apartment in Richmond," Roseberry says.
The New York Times called them, "modest and unassuming." The Washington Post wrote that they were "disarming."
"Because we were polite," Roseberry says.
Look for their work at a new restaurant, run by Ed Vasaio and his partners, in the former home of the 821 Bakery Café.
THEATER » Derome Scott Smith & the African-American Repertory Theatre
The selectors said: Under the leadership of founding artistic director Derome Scott Smith, the African-American Repertory Theatre of Richmond fills a unique place in the tapestry of the city's theatre community. AART features quality productions reflecting African-American history, culture and art. Much of the company's work includes original, locally written productions. And AART involves Richmond's youth in productions and workshops. Derome works tirelessly to promote his dream for the company.
In the fall of 2008, Derome Smith, living off coffee and staying up late, was directing actors from the African-American Repertory Theatre. He weighed 350 pounds, and he was on medication for a recent heart attack. Then one night he couldn't speak. He sat down, confused and exhausted. His wife, Rhonda, rushed him to the hospital.
He'd had a stroke that paralyzed his left side. Smith relearned how to write and speak, and he overcame his paralysis. But for that season, at least, the show did not go on.
Smith grew up in a family of four in a Jersey City home with a backyard view of the New York City skyline. He was entranced by the stage after seeing Jack and the Beanstalk played by both actors and life-sized puppets. His mother, Anne, participated in local community plays.
In 1979, Smith's father's job with Philip Morris brought them to the Richmond region, where Smith went to Midlothian High School.
Though he was only a supernumerary in a production of Cyrano de Bergerac, a fight coordinator taught him to fence. "I was smitten after that," he smiles. "Long story short, my teacher, Catherine Barger, encouraged me. By the end of my senior year I was president of the drama club."
Thus followed a series of theater-related connections and occurrences, including being mentored by choreographer Harry A. Bryce and playing the lead in Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, during the American College Theater Festival at the Kennedy Center.
After that, Smith says, he was ready for New York. "I'm a spiritual person. I prayed. I said, ‘Lord, if this is the direction you want me to go, let me know.' "
Then the phone rang.
It was his friend Marcus Jones, who was working with teenagers in Caroline County. Jones asked Smith to assist in a summer program in the county. Afterward, Smith returned to Richmond and for three years studied intensively with New York City theater veteran Ernie McClintock. And Smith met his wife.
In subsequent years, Smith revived the theater department at George Wythe High School. He took on City Hall — in person and flanked by students and their parents — to demand funds for a bus to a theater competition. Still, Smith left the public-school system believing he could accomplish more outside of it. In 2002, he formed the Living Word Theater, which would become AART.
This fall, AART's first performance of the season is Samm-Art Williams' November Home at Richmond CenterStage, Nov. 10-21.
The show is going on.
EMERGING ARTIST » Michele Young-Stone
The selectors said: Struck by lightning in her Chester driveway, Michele Young-Stone not only survived. She also grew up to write a charming, smart debut novel, The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors. The principal characters in Young-Stone's novel have been called "enduring losers" and "damaged people." Yet readers love them and her for pursuing her dream. She's under contract to write a second novel, even while working on a third. She's on a roll and bringing Richmond along with her.
After a long silence, Michele Young-Stone's mother said, "You were struck by lightning." She'd seen it happen about half an hour earlier, when Michele, then 11, was standing in their driveway. Now mother and daughter sat in the family car at Chesterfield's Cloverleaf Mall, and Michele was still incredulous.
"I was struck by lightning," she repeated.
She experienced few unpleasant after-effects, though for a long time any wristwatch that she wore mysteriously stopped working. She accumulated a drawer full of dead watches.
That was at least 20 years ago, but even then Young-Stone was already writing.
"My dad had an old wooden desk that smelled like pipe tobacco, but he didn't smoke," Young-Stone says now. "I'd sit there and write for hours and hours. I knew I wanted to be a published writer. It was always my dream."
She would read her stories to her parents, who, she later found out, thought she was copying them from books. "They thought I was delusional," Young-Stone laughs.
During her studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, Young-Stone lived in Oregon Hill and the Fan. She worked at the Grace Street Rite-Aide and the Sunny Day clothing store. She frequented the Village Café, and she wrote.
She had been teaching at Wilder Middle School before she quit to enroll in VCU's writing program. She took a class with writer and poet William Tester, who bolstered her confidence, while novelist Tom DeHaven became her mentor.
Now, her professed "glass half full" approach is not mere treacle. She's tenacious and willing, when asked, to add or cut 100 pages or rewrite dozens of times. She's persevered, despite many rejections. One by one and alphabetically, she worked her way through New York literary agencies until she found Michelle Brower, of Wendy Sherman Associates, who eventually led her to Random House editor Sarah Knight.
The Handbook sold to Random House on Nov. 14, 2009. The next afternoon, Young-Stone was on a Cape Hatteras beach with her husband and son when portentous black clouds gathered over the ocean. "I felt electricity on my arms," she recalls.
Soon, lightning sheared the sky and struck the water. Her son in tow, Young-Stone dove underneath a beach house while her husband ran for the car. When Young-Stone told the story to Knight, the editor quipped, "Good thing you didn't get struck. Random House doesn't publish debut novels posthumously."