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Virginia Rep Center for Arts and Education

Family Magic at Virginia Rep Center for Arts and Education

Virginia Rep Finds a Forever Home

What’s so special about the new Virginia Rep Center for Arts and Education? It’s 50,000 square feet of awesome with amazing programming for kids and families.

When you ask people what they love about the theatre, their responses are likely to include the word magic. By their very nature – using lighting, costumes and makeup, music, and acting – theatrical performances are designed to transport audience members to new places and times.

With its October 2022 purchase of the former Scottish Rite Temple in the Hermitage Road Historic District, Virginia Repertory Theatre aims to continue its long tradition of providing those transformative experiences for children and families in a location owned by the nonprofit itself.

“We have a chance to sculpt the experiences we want our children and families to have,” says Todd Norris, Virginia Rep’s artistic director of education. “We can craft a space where people feel a sense of belonging and welcoming. We can offer all our education – workshops, camps, and classes – right here, instead of having to ask to borrow or rent space. There’s a large parking lot that’s well-lit and safe. We have a home.”

Virginia Rep Center for Arts and Education

Virginia Rep Center for Arts and Education
Virginia Rep Center’s main performance hall, the Jessica M. Bogese Theatre, seats 650 and has a stage at the front, which means it’s perfect for school groups and larger audiences.

The new Virginia Rep Center for Arts and Education (Virginia Rep Center) offers larger and more varied spaces than were available at the theater in The Shops at Willow Lawn, where shows had been staged for twenty-five years. The Willow Lawn theater had a thrust stage, with seating on three sides, and held fewer than 200 viewers. The main auditorium in the new facility – now named the Jessica M. Bogese Theatre following a memorial gift last fall – seats 650 and has a large stage at the front, perfect for school groups and large audiences. The 50,000-square-foot building has flexibility to meet a variety of needs, including space for smaller theaters, rehearsals, classes, camps, workshops, and offices. 

“One of the strengths of [Willow Lawn] was that it was very intimate,” Norris says, noting that he joined Virginia Rep after the company was presented with a steep rent increase and declined to renew that lease. “Whenever you’re renting a space, you can do great things with it, but it’s always somebody else’s space, and there are limitations.”

Even though the new Virginia Rep Center hosted its first production – ’Twas the Night Before Christmas – last December, just eight weeks following the purchase, the management team is taking its time to determine how to best use the new building.

“We wanted to live in the space a little bit before we make final decisions about how we’re going to use [it],” Norris says, adding that nearby residents have voiced enthusiasm for their new neighbors. “This building is perceived as having great value … of being worthy of preservation and continuing occupancy,” he says. “There is support in using the building in a way that serves so many people.”

Managing Director Phil Whiteway, who in 1975 co-founded Virginia’s first professional theatre company, Theatre IV, says the Virginia Rep board carefully deliberated before making the investment. 

“We’d looked at the [property] a couple of times, when the price was higher,” he says. “In May 2022, the board finally completed the work of due diligence, looking at the structure and usage and all the stuff we needed to do to make an informed decision. It’s definitely our forever home. There’s so much we will think through about how to modify what’s there. The good news is that it’s usable right now.”

To fund the building’s purchase and any needed improvements, Virginia Rep has launched a capital fundraising effort called the Great Stages Campaign. Incorporating theatre terms, the campaign’s Act I has a goal of $5.2 million, which will cover initial purchase costs of $3.9 million plus $1.3 million for immediate needs, such as HVAC. Acts II and III will cover the costs of additional upgrades and amenities.

“Our gut said, ‘This is it.’ Look at this location, look at the parking opportunities, look at the various spaces within it; people will just love this,” Whiteway says. “People are excited [about the campaign] and want to be a part of it. Maybe by late June, we’ll complete Act I.”

Putting the Pieces Together

Phil Whiteway, Desirée Roots, and Todd D. Norris
(left to right) Phil Whiteway, Desirée Roots, and Todd D. Norris

Virginia Rep’s organizational structure with three artistic directors – for community, education, and programming – is atypical for a theatre organization.

“To our knowledge, we’re the only theatre that has this triumvirate approach,” Norris says.

In fall 2021, Desirée Roots, whose involvement in the local theatre scene began when she was twelve, joined Virginia Rep as artistic director of community. In May 2022, Norris and Rick Hammerly were hired, with Hammerly named artistic director of programming.

So far, the system seems to be working. “Programmatically and artistically, we are joined at the hip,” Norris says. “We have a good understanding of when to reach out and when to let people stay in their own lane. We spend a lot of time bouncing ideas off each other. It’s super-valuable to know that if we’ve got some crazy idea, we’ve got two other people to talk with.”

Roots agrees. “I look at it as we all come to the table with our specialties,” she says. “Rick is amazing at programming, and his ideas have been brilliant. Todd has been the education person [because] he’s been in that role with several jobs prior to this, and he’s amazing at it. With me, this is the community I grew up in.

“Three heads are better than one,” she adds. “I say we are the three-headed dragon, and dragons are magic. We’re trying to create magic.”

One of the ways to create magic, Roots says, is to make sure everyone, and especially children and their families, knows about theatre. 

“I’m the face of Virginia Rep,” she laughs. “I’m in the community talking about programming, connecting with [people] who maybe aren’t even thinking about coming to [a show]. I’m going into schools in Richmond and Chesterfield County to educate kids about theatre and, maybe, let the theatre bug bite somebody.”

In January, Virginia Rep announced it was the first theatre company in Virginia to receive a grant to bring Disney Musicals in Schools to four Chesterfield County elementary schools: Bensley, Crestwood, Harrowgate, and Reams Road. Roots and other Virginia Rep instructors were trained by Disney staff and will have the opportunity to work with students for eighteen weeks. The program will culminate in a group presentation – called Share the Show – at Virginia Rep Center’s Bogese Theatre. Each school will also stage its own production.

“As teaching artists, we’re going to teach them ‘the Disney way,’” Roots says. “We’re also teaching them sustainability, so they can do this again next year and spread [knowledge] to other schools.”

This summer brings a new Virginia Rep offering: TALL, an intensive, six-week program for rising fourth, fifth, and sixth graders at Title I schools. Meeting at Virginia Rep Center, participants will rehearse and perform theatrical productions that are designed specifically to support Virginia state standards of learning in history – the history of theatre. TALL is modeled after Richmond PAL, the summer Police Athletic League.

Roots says TALL grew out of conversations Virginia Rep initiated years ago. “We went to the heads of neighborhood councils and asked what a theatre company could do to help [them],” she says. “The majority [of respondents] said they needed something for their children to do in the summer. Everybody’s not athletic, so why not try to tap into a different part of the brain? We are teaching them, feeding them, taking them around to perform for other kids. Hopefully, we’ll get them excited and involved. We want this program to take off nationally.”

Virginia Rep also reaches out to children through its national touring shows, which this year include Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, Tales as Tall as the Sky, and The Wonderful World of Simple Machines. This spring also marks the fortieth season of Hugs and Kisses, the state’s sexual abuse prevention program, which uses theatre to engage with children about this important topic.

“It’s very age-appropriate and positive,” Norris says. “The show has served tens of thousands of children [over the years]. Like so many issues in the public ether, current political winds blow in certain directions, and that can influence people’s willingness to recognize programs like these. This program has been evaluated annually for decades. There’s data to show it’s effective and works.”

Norris notes that when Theatre IV began, Whiteway and co-founder Bruce Miller adopted four tenets: theatre, education, children’s health, and community involvement. Those tenets continue to guide Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre programming.

“Virginia Rep’s children’s seasons, educational programs, and touring programs are part of a fuller [theatre] program,” Norris says, adding that the combination is attractive for families. “We do offer children’s shows, and we also offer two other seasons” at the November Theatre in downtown Richmond and at Hanover Tavern in Ashland. “We do have a lot of variety. You can see a lot of different kinds of shows,” he adds. “We’re not trying to do every show exactly the same.”

Onstage Now and Coming Soon

The cast of She Persisted, The Musical
The cast of “She Persisted, The Musical,” directed by Desirée Dabney / Photo: Jay Paul

The Children’s Theatre current production of She Persisted, The Musical opened in February and is onstage through mid-March. Adapted from the book by Chelsea Clinton, the musical is a time-traveling adventure that showcases the lives of historical women pioneers. Director Desirée Dabney, head of musical theatre at VCU Arts, performed in the Virginia Rep production of Pinkalicious in spring 2018 at the Children’s Theatre of Virginia at Willow Lawn.

“Willow Lawn was a great space, but here, we have a big playing field,” Dabney says. “There’s more room to go to town with some things and try out different technical elements.”

Before she joined VCU’s faculty, Dabney was a middle school teacher and participated in writing Virginia’s theatre curriculum. She says She Persisted is important not only because it shows the younger versions of famous women – including Ruby Bridges, Sonia Sotomayor, and Dr. Virginia Apgar – but because it can fill an educational gap.

“With theatre, we can present history in different ways,” she says. “This is an amazing show not only for young minds to come see, but also for families to come see. It might have information that people don’t know. A lot of these pioneers started young.”

While the cast of She Persisted is composed of adults, Dabney’s career has been devoted to connecting children to theatre. During the pandemic, she was teaching at Thomas C. Boushall Middle School in Richmond and says the students in her classes didn’t miss a beat.

“The great thing about theatre is you can do theatre anywhere: the kitchen, the bathroom, the living room,” she says, adding that she and her students worked on improvisation online and used filters to create different expressions. “We weren’t together in person, but we were together in spirit,” she says.

After She Persisted wraps, the next show is Elephant and Piggie’s “We Are in a Play,” inspired by the Mo Willems books, and then GOLD: The Midas Musical. Norris says the lineup at Virginia Rep Center is designed to reach a range of ages and interests.

“We’re not content to do the same fairy tale show after show,” he says. “We are showing different stories and also different varieties of stagecraft and theatre craft. Audiences don’t want to see the same single show every time. There are new approaches to theatre and telling stories. We could do a show with puppetry that could spark interest and take a kid in a whole new direction.”

Roots agrees that theatre creates possibilities. “We don’t have to stay inside the lines; we can color outside the lines,” she says. “Children come [to performances] with an innocent heart and open mind. It’s become a safe place where you can be whoever you want to be because of that innocence.”

Because of a cast member’s illness, Roots filled in during a performance of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas and recalls how she could hear “oohs and aahs” from the audience when snow began to fall onstage and the gasp when Santa went up – not down – the chimney. “That makes everything literally worthwhile.”

Managing director Whiteway remembers how he felt as a child in southern New Jersey, when he saw puppet shows in a theater. “What I learned sitting in the audience was transformational to me as a young child,” he says, adding that he saw the same awe in the face of his grandson as he watched a production at Willow Lawn when he was eight years old. Helping children discover the magic of theatre is essential, he says.

Whiteway says the acquisition of Virginia Rep Center and the commitment to children’s programming can be an important part of pandemic recovery for families. 

“Theatre is transformative – it’s teaching our young audiences that there’s so much more that they’re going to learn about,” he says. “We are having to rebuild that audience that was there before the pandemic when everything shut down. Theatre is a unique experience. It brings families together, gets them away from their televisions. My hope [for the new facility] is that it will be teeming with activity from month to month and represent all quadrants of our communities.” 

theater workshop Addams Family
The 50,000-square-foot building has flexibility to meet a variety of needs, including space for camps, rehearsals, workshops, and more. / Photo: Parker Michels-Boyce
Paula Peters Chambers has been writing professionally since college, when she joined a student newspaper’s staff in her first semester. A resident of Richmond for eleven years, she still likes to explore and learn with her three children, even though they are now old enough to offer their opinions on what to do.
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