Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Artistically Speaking - The Odd Couple

Laughing Like a Jew
By Chris Hanna

Julia Child often laughed about her experience being raised as a child on tuna noodle casserole in Southern California. It wasn’t until she was in her twenties and sat down to her first Parisian meal that she knew in her heart that she was actually French. Myself, I didn’t have to wait that late to discover my hidden identity - and it didn’t arrive with a foreign meal. No, all it took me as a young boy was a television dial and a typical evening in front of the TV with my Irish American family:  Leave it Beaver, Gilligan’s Island, The Beverly Hillbillies.  Everyone around me laughing loud -- and my wondering just what they found so funny.

Then one particular evening the dial got moved to a program we didn’t usually watch, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and came to life right away. The show’s two bickering side characters, Maury Amsterdam and Rosemarie, were my favorites. Their dry banter seemed so much funnier than the over the top guffaws of most sit coms that I thought their dialogue was the funniest set of lines ever written. I asked my parents why more characters didn’t joke like that on the shows we watched and I still remember my mother’s somewhat startled response:
“That’s Jewish humor, sweetheart.”

The rest of the family was soon cackling again to Art Carney’s antics on The Honeymooners, but my mother’s explanation had been an inspiring springboard for me. Home alone on sick days I soon discovered Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Groucho Marx, Jerry Stiller, and my absolute all-time favorite: Burns and Allen. George Burns’ wry comments to the camera, cigar in hand, drove me to convulsing laughter every time.  He was dead serious, pausing only when absolutely necessary for a sly smile suggesting, ‘laugh now if you want,’ like a dentist giving permission for a quick rinse between fillings. Somehow, by not trying to be at all funny, he was hilarious. 

So I had a Jewish sense of humor. Who knew? And because laughs were my passport through the countless discomforts of adolescence, I might as well been Bar Mitvah’d at thirteen along with the rest of my Westchester classmates.

By the time I entered my stage career years later, American theater seemed to have lost its sense of humor; particularly its Jewish humor. Regional theaters, like our wonderful Virginia Stage Company, had risen to prominence and they were focused primarily on producing culturally significant work. Back then comedy wasn’t considered cultural or significant unless written before 1800 (another Lysistrata anyone?) or by British playwrights.  And within that rarified world of theatrical art, everyone agreed on the importance of banishing our public enemy number one: that old time Jewish jokester, Neil Simon.

Neil Simon’s plays had earned big profits for Broadway producers over decades but Artistic Directors at regional theaters considered them pedestrian fluff.  Audiences were allowed rhyming couplets of Twelfth Night and the mindless quips of Private Lives but Neil Simon’s plays were left to community and high school stages.

Styles change everywhere, of course, and the stage is no exception. No change has made me happier within the theater world over the past decade than the reevaluation of Neil Simon’s talent. Although written decades past, his plays have never seemed more contemporary or funny than they do today.  Like any great master of Jewish humor (including Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, who came along after Simon’s heyday)  Simon understood that stories don’t have to be serious or funny. They can be both, and that can happen at the same time.  Simon’s humor comes from the confrontation between human eccentricities and the realities of everyday living. What makes them so unique to us these days is that they manage to stay so warm hearted, even as they x ray the human soul. Witty banter doesn’t take away the tsuris but it sure makes for a lot of fun.

For the characters of The Odd Couple, as for George Burns and Groucho Marx before them, cigars can be a big help too. I hope you can make it down to the Wells for our terrific production.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Whipping Man

A Note from the Artistic Director

Chris Hanna,  Artistic Director
I’m not sure at what point a New Yorker becomes a Virginian. I bought my Norfolk house in 1993 and raised my son there from kindergarten to college. I have buried two dogs in Commonwealth soil and planted dozens of azalea bushes as well. I order hash browns over grits at breakfast however and still wonder how anyone could pass up any opportunity for catsup. So I wonder in my heart, am I still truly a carpetbagger?

Watching the powerfully talented cast of The Whipping Man prepare for Friday night’s opening, I have finally been able to answer that question for myself. Regardless of my upbringing, yes, Virginia is my genuine home. Mathew Lopez’s drama has received successful productions across the country since its New York premiere but I can’t imagine it connecting with any audiences in the way it does for Virginians.  And as it does to me.  It is a well worn cliché that Virginia is obsessed on its own history but Lopez’ play turns that cliché into poetry. The play makes me incredibly proud as a Virginian, not of region’s history, but of its courage to use that history for seeing into the present.  Historical events may change over time but human character never does.  As William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is not dead; it’s not even past.”

It means even more to me that I’ve become so connected to Virginia heritage through the work of Mathew Lopez, a Hispanic Jew raised in Florida, and the show’s director, Jasson Minandakis, who was raised in Richmond and is now raising his own family in Northern California.  As you will see when watching The Whipping Man, their personal connection to Richmond at the end of the Civil War is surprisingly immediate. It reminds me that Shakespeare didn’t travel to Rome to write Julius Caesar; the human imagination, like the human heart, is capable of stretches far beyond the rules of science and reason.  I have never watched a production claim the Wells stage so authentically and or felt my own  connected to Virginia soil as I do watching this play, even as an adopted son.

I hope you find that the show, and its connection to our rich Commonwealth, means as much for you.


Chris Hanna
Artistic Director

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Frog Kiss - A World Premiere

A Note from the Artistic Director

I vividly remember the first time I read the script for FROG KISS, the exceptional new musical having its world premiere at the Wells. I was enjoying a beer and steamed shrimp over a July 4 weekend at the Coinjock Marina (great seafood an hour south on the road to Nags Head). Broadway producer Tamara Tunie had sent me the play, raving about it herself, but she was a biased producer and the play was a love story about a frog! I opened the binder ready to roll my eyes, wondering whether I’d need a second beer just to make it through to the Second Act. Instead I was enchanted by page three. I listened to the show’s smashing music on the drive back to Norfolk and called Tunie about producing the premiere as soon as I hit town.

 It’s funny to think back now to that August afternoon noon - and recall neatly printed lines filling fresh white pages - as I watch the show it has all become. Of the many productions I’ve watched mounted on the Wells stage, FROG KISS may be the most alive. It’s certainly the biggest. Perhaps it’s also the most pure fun.

What’s surprised me the most is how closely the show on the stage resembles what I’d imagined reading the play on the page. Bringing imagination to life in this art form is tough and risky work. It means countless design concepts and technical drawings, casting calls and agent negotiations, dance rehearsals and costume fittings – the list goes on and on. Sadly, it can go wrong at any point.

But not this time. Suddenly, it’s opening night and there it all is. Exactly as pictured. To my great surprise and joy, FROG KISS has turned into a stage fairytale through a fairy tale creation.

A basket of steamed shrimp and a love story about a frog. We never know where a true fairytale is about to lead.

Chris Hanna
Artistic Director

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Bob Cratchit talks A Christmas Carol Behind the Scenes

Ryan Clemens headshot
VSC's Resident Theatre Arts
& Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol
To create a great holiday production, you need a lot of stuff:  a great story, great designers, great direction, a great stage crew, great actors, but also something just as important if not as tangible... a great, big heart.  And I want to tell you, as both modern actor Ryan Clemens and as Victorian-era family man Bob Cratchit, A Christmas Carol has it.

There’s a feeling of love and acceptance that lives among our company, that has been with us from the beginnings of rehearsal and has grown and developed throughout this play-creation process.  I feel it onstage when I’m carving turkey with my Cratchit family.  I feel it backstage as I’m swapping knock-knock jokes with my buddy Colin, AKA Tiny Tim.  And I feel it out in the lobby as I’m sharing carols with the gleeful patrons, children and families exiting the theatre at show’s end.  It’s that great big heart, and it’s a wonderful thing.

Fostered by Director Patrick Mullins and encouraged through the positivity of every member of the Virginia Stage Company family, that feeling has made trusted friends out of professional colleagues, bolstered team spirits through wearying work schedules, and empowered new ideas and artful discoveries through a working attitude of “Let’s try it and see!”

(LtR) Jack Whitelaw, Casey Croson, Morgan Wilson, Ryan Clemens, Grace Beach, Colin Wilson, Camille Robinson, Ailish Riggs, Gregor Paslawsky
 (LtR) Jack Whitelaw, Casey Croson, Morgan Wilson, Ryan Clemens,
Grace Beach, Colin Wilson, Camille Robinson, Ailish Riggs, Gregor Paslawsky
And, as storytellers on the stage, that feeling is part of the fundamental drive that compels us to perform this oft-told, holiday tale.  For that feeling of love and acceptance is what we also long to inspire among our audience.   And, don’tcha know, we do!

That full-hearted feeling that has me and my fellow actors whistling Christmas tunes as we hurry to the Wells, excited to again put on Dickensian costume and meet one another upon the stage… it transforms into the holiday cheer that has friends and families smiling and hugging and sharing happy stories as they amble out along Tazewell street.

You can ask me is the Christmas Carol set beautiful.  Oh, yeah, absolutely.   Is the story-telling masterful?  You bet.  And are the special effects special?  Baby, they are thrilling and bone-chilling.  But, best of all, this show has something warm and true and wonderful that you don’t find with every show.  I’m very proud of it, very proud to be a part of this cast and this VSC team, and very proud of this “heart” we’ve all put forth to share.

See you at the show!

Ryan Clemens,
Resident Theatre Artist
Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Spirit of Giving

Ashley Pirsig
Ashley Pirsig
Assistant Director of Development
In the spring of 1844, The Gentleman's Magazine attributed a sudden burst of charitable giving in Britain to Charles Dickens's novella, A Christmas Carol. In 1867 America, a Mr. Fairbanks attended a reading on Christmas Eve in Boston and was so moved he closed his factory on Christmas Day and sent every employee a turkey.

This weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing my first VSC production of A Christmas Carol with my parents. When we left the theater (admittedly, a little teary-eyed), we collectively decided to forgo gifts to each other this year and focus on serving those less fortunate. On the surface, A Christmas Carol is a simple morality tale, a holiday story with ghosts and goodwill, but it has a powerful way of reminding us what Christmas is all about.

This year, VSC received another powerful reminder about the real meaning of Christmas. A generous donor has agreed to match dollar for dollar every new or increased donation received by December 31st, up to a total of $25,000. We sort of feel like the Charity Man at the end of the show after Scrooge whispers in his ear – excited, humbled and incredibly grateful. We also feel a great deal of responsibility to meet the challenge and, dare I say, exceed it.

In this season of giving, will you help us honor our donor and the inner (reformed) Scrooge in all of us by making a donation to VSC? Your gift be doubled, allowing you to play a vital role in our productions, underwrite the arts education opportunities we provide to over 30,000 Hampton Roads students each year and leave a legacy of great theatrical performances for the entire community.

Thank you for being a part of our theater family and believing in the work that we do. Wishing you a merry and magical holiday season!

Ashley Pirsig
Assistant Director of Development

To make your donation today and DOUBLE YOUR IMPACT, please visit our website or contact me directly at 757-627-6988 x342 or

Friday, December 14, 2012

A Note from the Director

Patrick Mullins, Director, A Christmas Carol
Associate Artistic Director, VSC

“What's Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer;... If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart!” - Ebenezer Scrooge  

 With a “recession” on, student loans to pay back, and a fiscal cliff looming, I think I’m closer than ever to connecting to our old pal Ebenezer.   I mean, I know Amazon Prime does free shipping, but... really? Do I need to spend the next two weeks buying presents for friends who already have everything that modern life could possibly require?  Is that gift of a new iPhone cover/hand-warmer/bottle-opener-that-mounts-to-your-bicycle-handlebars necessary?  Really?

I hope we don’t lose what our friend, Dickens, was trying to say all of those years ago. That the holidays are a “time when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not just meat puppets trudging around getting in your way in the grocery aisle.” Ok, so maybe I paraphrased that a bit, but you get the point.

Every year I find it a bit harder to transition from the commercial-tastic holiday season to directing this show.  But then I crawl up inside of the production and I’m surrounded by a world where Christmas is about giving to others, about smiling at your fellow man, and about the harmonies sung in a world where love is practiced, and then...

Then I know it’s going to be ok.  And you know what?  It is going to be ok.

Maybe you can’t be in the cast of our little production and get to breathe it a little on stage every day like we get to do, but you can do some of the things we do in our cast.  You can recognize the little traditions that you do with others, whether it’s a card or a prayer or a cheers before dinner.

And you could do this mini-meditation for me...   As you walk through the parking lot to the grocery make a little mental Holiday wish for folks.  Even the folks you wouldn’t look at twice normally.  Wish for them some love, or some hope, or some cheer.  Each one of them.  Look at each one specifically (not while they’re looking at you, that might be creepy), and wish that for them.

Couldn’t we all use a little of that?  See if that practice doesn’t bring you more solidly into the world of humanity and more pleasantly dispositioned than the jerk trying to edge ahead of you in the self-checkout line while facebooking on his smartphone.  I promise you’ll be happier for it.

Oh, and join us for Christmas Carol.  See if it doesn’t bring you some cheer, too.  I gave it all the cheer I had.

As Tiny Tim observed - God bless us, every one. Happy New Year, folks.

Patrick Mullins,
Associate Artistic Director
Director of A Christmas Carol

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Design Is A Show's BFF

This past weekend was a very busy weekend for us here at VSC.
  • Friday we opened A Christmas Carol
  • Saturday, December 8 we hosted 150 scouts and parents for crafts and games for Girl Scout Day, plus two performances of A Christmas Carol
  • Sunday, December 9 we hosted 150 more scouts and parents for Girl Scout Day 2, plus our 2 pm  performance of A Christmas Carol.
In addition, we held two actor talk backs for the Girl Scouts.  There were many questions about the cast and characters and yes, onstage the actors are the what the audience sees first. But what about the folks behind the scenes?  Who dreams up and constructs the costumes, the props, the lighting and the sounds?  A Christmas Carol  presents us a great opportunity to meet some of the design and production team on this very intricately designed show. I asked our props master, costume shop manager, sound engineer and master electrician to give us a few thoughts about their jobs and how they have prepared for A Christmas Carol. Meet these hard-working people:
Howdy, all! Sam Flint here, from the Prop Shop at the ol' VSC. A Christmas Carol is once again upon us, and we're busy preparing some changes from last year's show. Amongst the changes are an overhaul for our old friend The Ghost of Christmas Future, as he's worn the same tattered ropes these past, what, four years? Hopefully, he'll be a little more realistic and frightening (well, not TOO frightening). I mean, he is actually quite a jolly chap, given to bouts of silliness and dancing. And when you look into the deep, empty void of his velvety hood, just know that he's probably smiling at you. I hope you enjoy the show!
- Samuel Flint, Props Manager
Gregor Paslawsky plays Ebenezer ScroogeHis tombstone is a prop as is the moving ivy that dresses it.
Gregor Paslawsky plays Ebenezer Scrooge
His tombstone is a prop as is the moving ivy that dresses it.
 There are many other props throughout the show. The table settings and the food at the Cratchits dinner, Scrooge's bed, all the tables, chairs, desks and more. Without these props the reality of the show
_MG_5510 copy
(LtR) Andy Hernandez, Grace Beach, Casey Croson, Camille Robinson, Mary Elizabeth Curnan, Tom Prescott
 The costume designer for our production is Jeni Schaeffer. She's designed costumes for many of our shows as well as for our last play, The Comfort Team. Jeni works directly with Pam Prior, our costume shop manager, in bringing the designs into reality.
A Christmas Carol is a very exciting show for the costume shop… Many new costume pieces have been added this year including beautiful gem-toned skirts for Fred’s party, a new dress for Fan & a delightful male Mrs. Fezziwig costume (played by Ryan Clemens)…. Beautiful wigs by Jim McGough (wig master at the Virginia Opera) for Scrooge, Past, Present & some of the actresses. The new costumes make this show a visual delight from head to toe.  In the costume shop, we have been busy with many fittings, constructing new costumes & altering costumes from years past.  Many of our brave actors play 3 to 5 different characters over the course of the show keeping our wardrobe supervisor, Hannah Goldman, equally as busy with pre-sets and tracking items back stage throughout the production!   Goldman also assists Jacob Marley (Michael Schaeffer) dress in 30 pounds of real chain.  A Christmas Carol will transport audiences members back to the streets of Victorian London when men wore top hats and frock coats and women still donned a petticoat.  Merry Christmas!
- Pam Prior, Costume Shop Manager
Sound plays a huge part in developing the atmosphere of a show. For example, every time the Ghost of Christmas Past moved his hands a loud shudder sounded across the stage. It gave the move impact, a scary effect and meaning. Without that sound, the movement would have just been a gesture. Each of the ghosts have specific sounds that accompany their movements. If you haven't yet seen the show, look for the sound differences within each ghostly visit. The sound designer for our production is Danny Erdberg. He has done a handful of shows for us and they have all been spectacular. He works directly with Ryan Hickey, our sound engineer, to make the sounds fill the theatre.
The best part about A Christmas Carol is the set up. A Christmas Carol is usually our biggest show of the year in terms of outputs and speakers. This year we have 20 different speakers placed throughout the theater and stage. It's great to be able to have sound come from above or below the stage and to be able to pan across the surround speakers.
-Ryan Hickey, Sound Engineer
_MG_5395 copy
Michael Schaeffer as Jacob Marley
If you look at the picture you can see that the fog and the lights give this photo a more sinister look than if they weren't there at all. 
Our lighting designer for this production is Bradley King. He has a history with us as well and we always enjoy watching him work his magic!  Carolyn Thatcher is our master electrician and takes Bradley's designs and turns them into beauty shows of light and color that highlight the sets and the characters.
My job as Master Electrician is to take what the lighting designer plans and make it happen.  The LD will send me a drawing that notates exactly what kind of lighting unit he wants where. The LD also sends paperwork that lays out color, lamp wattage, and information about putting said units into our lighting console. I make sure that the LD has stayed within equipment inventory, under budget, and what they request is physically possible. What makes A Christmas Carol different than other shows is our use of special effects which falls into my department.  Some of the effects include various fog and haze effects. These fall into my dept. because the machines that make the fog and haze ties into our lighting console so that we can have control over amount and timing. With the added effects, I am then in charge of making sure these machines have the fluids and materials they need to operate smoothly.
- Carolyn Thatcher, Master Electrician
We hope that you'll come see the show this year. While the set is has returned from last year with some fine-tuning, the cast is almost entirely new. We have more music, the narration from previous years has returned and the special effects are amazing. This is definitely a beautiful show both in the performance and in the design. This section of our website has the bios for our design team as well as our cast. For tickets, call our Box Office at (757)627-1234 or visit and make sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter for updates and news. Thanks & have a wonderful holiday season! Morgan Vaughan, Marketing Assistant Written with the help of Samuel Flint, Pam Prior, Ryan Hickey and Carolyn Thatcher