Norfolk's Generic Theater Celebrates 35 Seasons
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These days, the most challenging thing about Norfolk’s Generic Theater is finding the place.
To get to the long-running playhouse, one has to go underground—literally—by entering the Norfolk Scope parking deck downtown, staying to the right following signs to the lower level, traveling down a long ramp, hanging a left at the wall and driving to the very back corner.
It reminds Garney Johnson, one of the Generic’s current artistic directors, of a forbidden club. “People should knock on the door and give a password,” he laughs. “No matter how many signs we put up, or how we advertise on our website, people still have trouble. So what we do is, still, pretty much word of mouth.”
In the non-profit's current 35th season, word has been good for their second play, The (former) Prostitute’s Potluck Supper. The three-hour, two-act comedy, a world premiere, enjoys overflow crowds its opening weekend and near-full attendance throughout its run. Frankie Little Hardin, the playwright, says the experience has been “a homecoming.”
Hardin was one of the team responsible for growing the Generic in its earliest days; as well as acting, directing and running the box office, she started a children’s theater project, ChildsPlay, and honed her chops as a playwright here. “I was reading a lot of works for young audiences and thought a lot of it was dreck. ‘I can write better than this.’ Of course as soon as you have that thought, you have to back it up.”
She wrote 20 juvenile plays before attempting an adult one. As staged at the Generic by director Philip Odango, The (former) Prostitute’s Pot Luck Supper is definitely not children’s theater. It’s a serio-comedy that includes trans-gender sexuality, child abuse and the jolly use of sex toys among its plot points, the kind of out-there play that few other area theater companies would touch—an echo back to the company’s original purpose.
“In the beginning, we had a very specific mission,” Hardin says, “Generic would only do shows that had never been produced in Hampton Roads. So, no classics, no Shakespeare, usually a lot of off-Broadway stuff. I think our audiences get credit because they knew and loved that about the place.”
The Virginian Pilot announced on Oct. 25, 1981 that Norfolk’s parks and recreation department was starting up a new “Studio Theater” project. “The theater, which needs actors, directors and technicians, will present five contemporary dramas.”
The man responsible for convincing the city of Norfolk to fund experimental theater for grownups, Ron Stokes calls himself “the product of a whole different era in terms of money that cities had to support the arts.”
Stokes wanted to start an adult theater series, even if he didn’t have a performance space. Although there were brief flirtations like The Little Theater of Norfolk’s “Green Room,” there was a void in doing more adventuresome theater in town, he says. The playhouse that he and his paid theater arts staff (Pam Riley, Jill Stevenson, Russell Barnes and Terrance Afer-Anderson) settled on was a senior citizen’s lounge within the Norfolk Arena building. It accommodated 50 patrons and offered sofas for seating (the décor was described as “early Goodwill”). During performances, one could hear the arena’s basketball games, or a waft of Puccini from Center Theater. “The noise was part of it too,” Steve Heninger, a volunteer in the box office, says. “It wasn’t perfect theater; it was memorable theater.”
“There was no marketing money,” Stokes recalls. “I told my staff, ‘All we have is a plain wrapper here.’ The sets have to be suggestive, the lighting is minimal, all we have is the actors, this is really generic.’ I threw the name out as a joke but then I thought—I bet we can get some PR out of this.”
“I developed a logo that they used—a barcode,” Heninger says. “I took it from a can of sweet peas I got at Safeway.” In 2008, when the Generic moved down under, Heninger was the box office manager for the Scope and Chrysler Hall and helped the company make its transition. “I noticed that they were still using my logo,” he laughs.
In the beginning, there were few citizen objections to the city running a theater company. “Its funny,” Frankie Hardin says. “We always expected to have some blowback, but it never really came. I think Ron gets a lot of credit here for he was very clear about creating a theater that would do the kinds of shows that no one else was doing at the time.”
“We were teeny-tiny money,” Stokes explains. “The budget allowed for $300 a production … we sold out our season before it even started and we were basically funded by the ticket sales.” Admission was $3; a season pass $7.50. “The price was in the neighborhood of a movie ticket at that time,” he says.
The director of parks and rec, Shurl Montgomery, was the official within the city administration backing this. “He was the big supporter,” Heninger says. “He was the one who was into theater, so it was easy to deal with him.” Stokes concurs. “Shurl was the big guy rubber stamping everything.”
Generic’s first production was a lightweight play called Patio/Porch, written by Jack Heifner. Stokes explains, “It was a sense of ‘OK, we’ve opened our doors. Who is our audience? Let’s find out.' And we did do some more serious things—Harold Pinter’s Old Times was in the first season. And we did an evening of four one acts by Barbara Hite, a local playwright.”
It wasn’t always the plays but how they were staged. Pam Riley, a longtime collaborator of Stokes, directed Fifth of July by Lanford Wilson, and told Ron she couldn’t decide which roles that he and fellow actor Cliff Hoffman should play. “So we alternated,” he remembers. “It was terrifying. Thursday I’d be one character and Friday I would be the other. That’s the kind of thing Generic would do.”
Terrance Afer-Anderson, a product of Norfolk’s St. Joseph’s Catholic School as well as the prestigious D.C. Black Repertory Theater, brought a much-needed perspective to the burgeoning Generic. “We did an African-American (themed) show every season, and I directed all of those shows the first five seasons,” he recalls. “It wasn’t so much to placate people; we wanted to tell the whole story that is America. We wanted to make sure we were touching upon all segments of society.”
The reaction to the new company was overwhelmingly positive. “There was real enthusiasm,” Heninger says. “I think that the community, the patrons, knew that something special was going on,” Afer-Anderson offers, “because it was something different.”
But this early period only lasted two years. “Ron was always full of energy and was always excited about theater and the possibilities at the Generic,” Heninger says. “But he didn’t do very well on the government side. That part of it didn’t appeal to him.”
With the demand for more seats, the city started looking for a new venue. But it couldn’t happen fast enough for Stokes. He accepted an offer to be artistic director of the Tidewater Dinner Theatre. “They were upset when I left,” he recalls. “They were close to getting me a space. But when this woman said, Come run my theater,' I took it. For one thing, it allowed me to focus on directing and producing.”
And, with that, Ron Stokes, Generic Theater’s founder, gave two weeks' notice.