Virginia Arts Festival Executive Director Rob Cross
It was 1997, the first year of the Virginia Arts Festival, and Rob Cross, the executive and artistic director, had booked the avant-garde composer Steve Reich. Cross, also the Virginia Symphony’s principal percussionist, is a fan—a big fan.
Only question: Where was he going to play?
Easy call: The Harrison Opera House, with seating for 1,632.
“I was a lot younger then. Starry-eyed,” Cross recalls, laughing. “‘This is Steve Reich. Of course people are going to come.’ If I had put him in some place like the Roper (Performing Arts Center), it would have looked like a huge success. With 700 people in the Opera House, it was like, ‘Where is everybody?’”
“I’ve been doing this for 19 years, and I feel like I’ve gotten better about right-sizing the space for the artist and creating an atmosphere where the audience is part of the performance,” Cross says. “There’s nothing worse than having a 1,500-seat hall and getting 500 people. I’d much rather have 200 seats and turn 30 away. People walk out feeling like they were in the artist’s living room.”
He didn’t hurt for options when he was laying out this year’s festival.
It will play out at 26 venues of every size, from cozy cafes and stately churches, to traditional spaces, like Norfolk’s Chrysler Hall, that are built for a big show. Attendance for the 74 performances is projected at 110,000 over the seven-week run. The inaugural, 18-day festival, then dubbed the Virginia Waterfront International Arts Festival—the name was streamlined in 2001—drew 30,000 visitors to 43 performances at 18 venues. The budget has kept pace, too: $6.9 million this year, $1.8 million in 1997.
Booking begins two years out, when Cross gets the festival on the busier schedules of the better-known, in-demand artists. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Roseanne Cash were among those lined up in advance, and he already has commitments for next year’s 20th anniversary and a few for 2017. About a year out, “I plug in the little jewels to fill out the festival in the smaller venues.”
One of those “little jewels” is set for what promises to be among this year’s most intriguing performances. The Attacca String Quartet, a rising star in chamber music circles, and VAF’s quartet in residence, plays May 10 at the 90-seat Parlor on Granby, an eclectic cafe that opened last summer in Norfolk’s growing downtown arts district. (Read more about The Parlor here.) One of the festival’s new venues, and one of its most non-traditional, it wasn’t on the radar until Cross was kicking ideas around with a member of his staff.
“She said she knew that if she could get her friends to a chamber music concert, they would love it, but in a less formal setting,” he says. “We went on a search. One of our staff people knew the owner wanted to be part of the festival. It will be almost like a parlor concert.”
The action won’t be confined to the stage. The VAF also is putting on Attucks Community Day, a free, outdoor mini-fest, that afternoon in nearby Church Street Park. It will include music and vendors and, Cross says, is part of a push this year to make the festival more identifiable and accessible to wider audiences.
“Some people are at a point in their lives where they can go to a 45-minute outdoor (presentation) at 6 o’clock, get home, bathe the kids and do homework, but can’t commit to two hours at Chrysler Hall. We want them to participate. We want the cities to feel more festive.”
To that end, this year also will see a week of outdoor performances by the Australian theater-dance-circus troupe Strange Fruit on the festival green space on Norfolk’s Bank Street; “Tangle,” an interactive installation piece for kids put on by Polygot Theatre of Australia prior to “Fantasia” at the Beach’s Sandler Center; and “Tattoo Hullabaloo,” three hours of family-friendly fare at Scope Plaza preceding each performance of the Virginia International Tattoo.