A little more than five years ago, the CenterStage Foundation told the public that the renovation of the Carpenter Center was necessary in part to lure bigger, modern touring Broadway acts to Richmond. Somewhere along the way, that emphasis shifted.
When CenterStage (formerly known as Virginia Performing Arts Foundation) took over the venue in 2004, its push was "building a stage house big enough to accommodate Broadway shows," according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch and other reports from the time. The Carpenter was supposed to be closed for two years during renovations — it ended up closing for about five years.
Feature: The Invisible Man
Now, CenterStage's executive director, J. Robert Mooney, and organizers say that the rechristened Carpenter Theatre was never intended for Broadway shows; that's the function of the Landmark Theater, which the foundation also oversees.
"First and foremost," Mooney says, "the community gave money to CenterStage and this venue [the Carpenter Theatre] not so that we could attract Broadway shows so much as that we'd have a wonderful place for the symphony, opera and the ballet and a lot of the smaller organizations," such as Richmond Shakespeare and the African-American Repertory Theatre.
Some smaller Broadway productions, like Avenue Q , have come to the Carpenter in recent months, but most of the spectacular touring shows, like Wicked , will be seen only at the Landmark.
Until its closing in 2004, the Carpenter Center aggressively pursued a challenging slate of touring national artists and shows. For example, in 1988, composer Philip Glass performed his alien-abduction opera 1,000 Airplanes on the Roof there as part of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' avant-garde Fast Forward series. In the Carpenter Center's final years, Margot Kidder strode its boards in The Vagina Monologues , and Eric Idle performed classic Monty Python skits there. Comedy Central superstars Dave Chappelle and Lewis Black unloaded their seriously off-color jokes at the Carpenter. Other performers included John Prine, Bruce Hornsby, Lyle Lovett, B.B. King, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Stomp and Ani DiFranco. And, of course, parents of Richmond preschoolers made the annual pilgrimage to Sesame Street Live at the Carpenter.
But around 2002, it started to become apparent that the Carpenter could no longer host increasingly complex touring Broadway shows in the way they were meant to be seen. The touring musical South Pacific , for example, had to be stripped down because large set pieces wouldn't fit inside the theater's stage house, prompting theater director Joel Katz to publicly gripe that the theater needed a major, multimillion-dollar renovation, one that it couldn't quite afford.
Enter the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation, led by Jim Ukrop, former executive director Brad Armstrong, Mooney and a board of Richmond's moneyed and powerful. At the time, they pitched to the public a multifaceted performing-arts complex that included a renovated, 2,000-seat Carpenter Center able to accommodate those big Broadway shows, along with an adjoining 800- to 1,000-seat music hall where the local symphony, opera and ballet would perform.
Critics worried that, because CenterStage was led by Richmond's rich and powerful, it would be too elitist and would stop bringing in engaging, avant-garde acts.
Then the project's budget swelled while repeatedly missing fundraising deadlines. Given that about half the project was being funded by tax dollars, the media started asking questions. In December 2005, Armstrong stepped down as the nonprofit's paid executive director, and Mooney was brought in as his volunteer, unpaid replacement. Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder joined the fray and demanded that plans for the music hall be abandoned and that the CenterStage planners focus on getting the Carpenter Center back open.
The Times-Dispatch's classical music reviewer, Clarke Bustard, always a booster of the Richmond Symphony, prophesied at the time that "if opponents of the arts center get their way, and the development is limited to a renovation of the Carpenter Center, the result will be exactly what they've been claiming the larger complex would be: an old-folks' home of entertainment, with a schedule dominated by symphony, opera, ballet and Broadway shows."
Today, Mooney and CenterStage are focused on how to attract more Richmonders to see the symphony, opera and ballet. However, despite their artistic value, these art forms might not be what the majority of Richmonders are clamoring for, no matter how it's repackaged.
As an example of how they're trying to build new audiences, Mooney brings up CenterStage's September 2009 grand opening, where attendees were treated to a sampler of productions by local performing-arts companies. Fans of the Virginia Opera may have come for the excerpt from La Bohème , he says, but they were also exposed to performances by the African-American Repertory Theater and Richmond Shakespeare.
"We have a whole task force that's focused on what I'd call community outreach: How do we engage the next generation to come hear a symphony?" Mooney says. "If all you're doing is having a great place for the same crowd to see the same thing, you really haven't done much, have you? … We need to figure out … how do we do a better job of marketing to people so that we have more people from Carver and Newtowne coming to hear the symphony and not just an urban show. We also want to get some of the people who traditionally see the symphony to also see an urban show."
As for the question of Broadway shows coming to the Carpenter Theatre, the majority will be scheduled for the Landmark, Mooney says, and that's based on economics: The Landmark has 3,700 seats, and the Carpenter has 1,800 seats. He cites the recent touring production of Wicked at the Landmark as an example. The expanded Carpenter, he says, is better-suited to serving local productions like the Richmond Ballet's beloved annual Nutcracker .
The CenterStage leadership will listen to pitches from touring companies and other groups that want to use the Landmark and Carpenter, but they're not interested in aggressively pursuing a slate of national performers in the way that the former Carpenter Center's leadership did, Mooney says. "I will tell you, right now our mission is not to go out and take economic risks," he says of that approach.
Nevertheless, he says, CenterStage does undertake some "entrepreneurial" activities, such as a $100,000 investment in Elephant Eye Productions, which is producing the musical The Addams Family opening this month on Broadway with Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth. As a return on its investment, CenterStage will have exclusive rights to bring the musical to Virginia when (and if) it tours years from now and it will not have to pay as much as other cities to host the musical.
He sees some national productions and investments as, more or less, necessary in order to keep CenterStage's facility-usage fees low for local nonprofit groups like the symphony, opera, ballet and Richmond Shakespeare. Moreover, he questions why people are really going to see the touring versions of Broadway shows, unless it's to take friends to see it or to go see something again that you already saw on Broadway.
Mooney is also sensitive to the worries that some Richmonders harbor about Jim Ukrop being in charge of the city's leading performing-arts venues. The grocery and banking magnate is chairman of CenterStage Foundation, one of CenterStage's two governing bodies. Because Ukrop was instrumental in sparking an advertiser boycott that removed Howard Stern from local commercial radio airwaves in the 1990s, some Richmonders worry about the selection of performances.
"Let me give you some comfort there: Neither Jim Ukrop nor Bob Mooney have a say in whether or not something shows here or not," Mooney says.
As a defense of CenterStage's commitment to not being censors and not being frightened of "edgy" fare, he brings up the fact that the Carpenter did recently host the traveling Broadway musical Avenue Q , a hilarious Sesame Street spoof that features hot puppet-on-puppet action and has songs like "The Internet Is For Porn" and "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist."
What Mooney doesn't bring up is that during the Carpenter's long closure, the owners of The NorVa theater in Norfolk purchased The National theater on Broad Street and they're now bringing in national performers such as Willie Nelson or Elvis Costello who once might have played the Carpenter or Landmark, just like Virginia Commonwealth University's Siegel Center took over the hosting of traveling children's shows featuring TV characters such as Dora the Explorer.
Mooney says that programming decisions are made by the Richmond Performing Arts Center, or RPAC, which is the CenterStage Foundation's sister organization, on which Ukrop also serves. Mooney says RPAC delegates most of its programming decisions to SMG, the Philadelphia-based company that manages the Landmark and Carpenter theaters as well as the Richmond Coliseum (which is not controlled by CenterStage).
CenterStage's recent "get" of R&B star John Legend to headline the facility's "Sit In/Stand Out" celebration of the 50th anniversary of the civil rights lunch-counter sit-ins wasn't arranged through CenterStage. That was the doing of BET co-founder Sheila Johnson. CenterStage board members asked her if she could get Legend to perform as part of her extensive involvement with "Sit In/Stand Out" and she was able to make it happen.
RPAC is mostly concerned with the management of the bricks and mortar of CenterStage, Mooney says, and CenterStage Foundation is more concerned with fund-raising and supporting Richmond's performing and visual arts, as well as building community collaborations and offering educational opportunities.
"We've never had the notion of ‘build it and they will come.' We built it and made sure that the quality is good so that people want to come back," Mooney says. He adds, "Those organizations that just push stuff at people just don't survive and neither would we."