40 Years of Exciting Theatre at the Wells

40 Years of Exciting Theatre at the Wells
(Virginia Stage Company’s Producing Artistic Director Tom Quaintance)

By Montague Gammon III

Tom Quaintance, Virginia Stage Company’s Producing Artistic Director, is excited about VSC’s 2018-2019 Season 40.

Most broadly, he’s excited about a “collective mix of work that reaches all different parts of our diverse community.”

Additionally, most of the people who came to VSC productions last season had never been there before, according to Director of Marketing Brad Tuggle. The percentage of people from Chesapeake and Portsmouth and single ticket sales are up, while stalwart supporters remain loyal. 

Season 40’s opening show, Always Patsy Cline. has direct links to Hampton Roads; Patsy cline’s father worked in a Norfolk shipyard during World War 2, so “Ginnie” Hensley, as she was named, was an elementary school student here. (She was also a distant relative of Charlie Hensley, VSC’s Artistic Director another production was part of Season 18.)

Quaintance says he’s “excited” about the design for the following show, Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer winning Our Town, in which “groundbreaking ways” of treating the performance space will make this play set in early 20th Century small town New England “about the folks who are in this room.”

VSC’s annual Holiday production, Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, was “brand new” last year, so using “the bones of that…we are excited…[to] make it bigger and better,” adding, for example, video to “help the magic of the show.”

The adults only Santaland Diaries, adapted from satirist David Sedaris’ account of his mishaps and misadventures as a Christmas elf in Macy’s department store will be “A fantastic Holiday treat.”  (VEER Magazine is the show’s sponsor.)

Fun Home, the Tony winning musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel format memoir, puts a lesbian protagonist on the Wells stage for the first time, Quaintance notes, adding that it’s “a story about family. Anybody who has experienced any family drama at all will find something in this play…it’s our responsibility to tackle issues that divide us and bring us together.”

The Bluest Eye takes on the issue of “colorism,” a term that Quaintance says was new to him. That’s the prejudice which some light skinned African-Americans feel toward darker people of their own ethnic group. Adapted from Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye will be produced in collaboration with Norfolk State University Theatre Company.

The website DC Theatre Scene called Karen Zacarías’ Native Gardens a “laugh-a-minute comedy” that is “biting, perceptive, and ultimately hopeful.” Quaintance describes this story about friendly neighbors who end up feuding as being “about borders, and you can’t get more timely than that.”

VSC’s main stage season closes with the multi-Tony winning Matilda the Musical, adapted from Roald Dahl’s Matilda and done in collaboration with The Governor’s School for the Arts. “It’s sharp, it’s moving, it’s real kids grappling with difficult issues… [it’s] really spectacular.” 

A one night reading of Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy Relatively Speaking, the fast paced farce of mistaken identities and romantic misadventures which opened VSC’s Season 1, is on the calendar. Steve Rankin, who played a young man in that first staging, returns in an older role.

Though the VSC opened on that light hearted note, that production that same season of Athol Fugard’s apartheid themed play Sizwe Banzi is Dead announced that important issues were on the docket.

Over the intervening 38 seasons, challenging plays by the likes of Tom Stoppard, Sam Shepard and David Mamet, classics by Shakespeare and Moliere, popular comedies and issue oriented pieces about race, religion and the military blended together.

That tradition of substantive shows and of community and scholastic involvement on both sides of the figurative curtain line harkened back to VSC’s ancestral Norfolk Theatre Center.

Split off in the Spring of 1968 from the Norfolk Little Theater, as that community group was then called, NTC opened under the direction of Stan Fedyszyn October 18, 1968 with Samuel Beckett’s seminal Waiting for Godot. The company’s home was the long vacant Norfolk Public Library building, converted into a theatre in the space of a few months, largely with volunteer labor. (This writer was a member of NTC’s volunteer company and later paid staff from the Summer of ‘68 onward.)

The World of Carl Sandburg followed Godot, and was the first of several shows such as Glass Menagerie and Thurber Carnival that NTC toured to local schools. A youth theatre company, drawn from local high school and college students and young adults, performed on weekend mornings; one of its first shows (by this writer) took on racism in the guise of conventional animals’ prejudice against a young green dragon.

Early shows included Slow Dance on the Killing Ground (racism and anti-Semitism), The Killing of Sister George (two lesbian protagonists), modern dramas and festivals of experimental theatre. Over 8 seasons at its Freemason St. home, NTC variously rotated repertory of modern shows, light comedies, one Christie mystery, and Hamlet and Macbeth, closing with the great American drama, Long Day’s Journey into Night. Many of those were especially performed for high school student audiences.

The building was sold, and NTC became Stage DownUnder for a couple of years in the space beneath Chrysler Hall, where audiences encountered plays like Life Class (female nudity), The Man in the Glass Booth (Holocaust themed) and Jean Genet’s The Blacks.

Meanwhile, the once proud Wells Theater, built in 1912 as the flagship of a network of playhouses surpassed only by the Shubert Organization, lurked downtown as a porno house that shared space with its owner’s apartment and a topless bar.

NTC Board President Bob Brown lead the NTC/Stage DownUnder company on a transition from ambitious volunteer group to fully professional company that took over the Wells, renovating it and culminating in that Ayckbourn production.

Cultural, educational and community trajectories have thus merged in a barely middle aged (at 40) and exciting anchor of Downtown Norfolk’s overlapping commercial and artistic districts.

Virginia Stage Company 2018-19 Season

Always Patsy Cline

By Ted Swindley

Sept. 12-30

Relatively Speaking

By Alan Ayckbourn

(dramatic reading)

Oct. 6, 7:30 p.m.

Our Town

By Thornton Wilder

Oct. 17-Nov. 4

A Christmas Carol 2018

From Charles Dickens, adapted by Patrick Mullins

Nov. 30-Dec. 23

The Santaland Diaries

By David Sedaris, adapted by Joe Mantello

Dec. 6-16

Fun Home

By Alison Bechdel, Jeanine Tesori, and Lisa Kron

Jan. 23-Feb. 10

The Bluest Eye

By Toni Morrison, adapted by Lydia R. Diamond

March 6-24

Native Gardens

By Karen Zacarías’ 

April 10-28

Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical

Book by Dennis Kelly, Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin

May 22-June 2

Virginia Stage Company

Wells Theatre

108 E. Tazewell St., Norfolk

www.vastage.org

757-627-1234