Richmond theatre was on fine display last night, and it was good to see so many familiar faces – I suppose I am finally starting to become a part of the local scene now.
It marked my first time at an awards gala. The tux was brought out of the closet – a set I bought at a going-out-of-business formalwear place for about $25 some 15 years ago, and the shirt studs from high school choir tuxedos, none of which have seen much use since. Granted, I’ve gotten much more used to dressing nicer thanks to my work as a professor, and this seemed like a good excuse to teach myself to tie a bow tie.
A majority of shows nominated I could claim at least some second-degree association with, either from having worked with VCU students who were in them, being cast in a show with the same director, been videographer in one case, being an actor in another (Lord of the Flies), and of course Richmond Shakespeare’s Macbeth was up for five other awards besides the special recognition of the fights. Theatre VCU was very well represented as well, in terms of graduates and current students, despite the scope of the RTCC recognition not applying to academic theatre productions. A full list of the awards can be found here.
The timing of the event meshes well in my mind with a recent discussion on the Richmond Area Theatre facebook group about what makes a theatre, or a production, or a theatre community professional. Strongly-held opinions ran the gamut from quality, to any monetary compensation, to Equity or LORT recognition, to behavior. From some of the very strong performances last night I’d say Richmond at least possesses the requisite talent to be recognized as a professional theatre scene by that criterion. Unfortunately that’s not a criterion that travels well – saying ‘I thought they were great’ doesn’t carry much weight if you send your resume elsewhere. It’s a small enough scene here that everyone knows everyone else, and while many people seem to work almost exclusively with the same theatre over and over again, it’s still a bit of a closed system.
Likely connected to that is the fact that you almost never see anything negative in any reviews here. Maybe that’s a Southern thing, as my wife suggested, but I admit it’s harder to take seriously as professional a theatre scene that won’t call anything bad. It’s like that friend who may be incredibly talented and is also incredibly nice, but you won’t trust his opinion on people because he’s just too nice to see or repeat anyone’s mistakes or shortcomings. That can be deadly for art – I think we need people to tell us when we’re off course sometimes. We may or may not agree, but that questioning has value. Monetary value, even, as someone who just forked over two years of out-of-state tuition plus moving and living expenses so he could go back to school and be told (amongst other things) when he’s being an idiot. I will always trust David Leong and Dr. Aaron Anderson to do that, when needed. Not to say that being negative is all you need, just a call for balance.
My award was for fight choreography, although I believe the program listed me as fight director. It’s a distinction that I don’t think many people really understand, so let me soapbox a bit about that here, even if that’s largely preaching to the choir:
A stage fight is a physical dialogue. While a fight choreographer may get to write those lines and give them to the cast, perhaps coaching a bit in diction or projection, a fight director gets to go so much deeper; not just the lines, but the subtext, the relationships. It’s the difference between helping someone run lines and directing a show, even though we act on behalf of and in conjunction with an existing director. We can help make sure the fight itself is justified by what came before, sets up what comes after, and shows us something about the characters that we would not have known had the violence happened offstage, or in a blackout. It doesn’t have to be just spectacle – it can be character and plot and music and idea and all Aristotle’s poetics bound up in a glorious third or fifth act.
And all too often, it gets skipped.
I can understand why. It takes precious rehearsal time. It takes precious money to hire someone who has made this a focus of theirs, beyond the requisite technique and safety to include everything from combat psychology to physiology to hoplology. It takes motivation – you have to care enough about the fight scenes that you aren’t satisfied by “we’ll just fake it”, or “my buddy took a class once”.
I’m excited to see this area being recognized by the RTCC. I’m excited that thanks to Virginia Rep being willing to work with me on this, Richmond area actors will have a chance to take stage combat classes and test for certification with the Society of American Fight Directors starting next month. I’m excited that people like Jan Powell were willing to make the effort to work with a fight director. I’m excited to know that I’m not the only one in town fighting for this, or qualified to take it on.
Yet I still get hired more by grade schools, out of concern for legal liability and safety, than I do by professional theatres (self-identified) out of aesthetic drive or professional artistic standards, and this saddens me. I have friends who are also fully qualified to do this work, and have been unable to find work in town.
So I guess my challenge to the Richmond theatre community is to strive for professionalism in at least this one area: treat fight scenes with the respect they deserve, treat your actors in fight scenes with the support that would be mandated if they were unionized, and treat your audiences to something more. Make my job, and the jobs of my peers, harder, but holding us to a higher standard and by knowing the difference.
…and lest I seem like I’m here returning the favor of an award with criticism or complaining – I’m thankful. Very. And heartfelt congratulations to all those who won- and those who didn’t. But I want things like this little glass hockey-puck of glory to mean as much as they can, and that means not just being happy with the status quo when I know we can do better!