The Virginia Stage Company Builds Community Through Theater
A Talk with Patrick Mullins, Interim Artistic Director of the Virginia Stage Company
Since 1978, Virginia Stage Company has been the premier professional theater company in our region. In anticipation of the fall season, we sat down with interim artistic director Patrick Mullins, who has been with VSC for 10 years, to talk about the company’s evolution, its upcoming shows and the importance of regional theater in general.
To begin with, can you tell me a little bit about your fall season?
We start with I Sing the Rising Sea, which is a new musical by Eric Schorr designed to celebrate the Year of Water. It’s interesting what Eric has done with it. He kind of takes us around the world, but a lot of it is rooted right here in Ocean View, from the early 20th century on. So I’m excited about that piece.
Because the Wells Theater is currently closed for renovations, we’re out of that space for the fall. So that show—which is a co-production with Old Dominion University—will be at the University’s Goode Theater. It’s a smaller space, but I think it gives us a nice intimacy between the audience and the cast.
The second show for the season is my new adaptation of Oliver Twist, which is a co-production with The Governor School for the Arts. I’ve been working on that with composer and Christopher Newport University graduate Jake Hull. He worked on our production of The Tempest in Town Point Park a few years ago, but he also scores for film and all kinds of other projects. He’s very thoughtful, and there’s always a kind of uplifting sense of yearning to his music.
I like Oliver Twist because I generally prefer the bigger, more universal stories. I think realism is awesome, and I love to watch it, but it’s not really my calling to necessarily work on it.
How do you distinguish between ‘realism’ and theater that’s ‘universal’? It seems to me that a play like, say, Death of a Salesman, which would be considered realism, is universal in its themes.
Its themes are universal, but its presentation is white middle class. I like productions that I can approach more as a fairy tale or a myth. I think Oliver Twist is from a distant enough period that it kind of becomes a fairy tale of sorts. So you get to start playing with casting, putting women in men’s roles, for example, and casting multi-culturally. There’s also a lot in that story that deals with current events and the conversation we’re having right now about the gap between rich and poor, the eroding middle class and even [controversies] about the police. Some of that’s right there in the story.
After Oliver Twist we go to A Christmas Carol. It’s essentially the same production we’ve been doing [each December] but it’s always different in some ways, just by nature of how the casting changes. I thought that last year’s production was really strong. We had a lot of local talent involved, and that’s something we’re continuing to try to do, while also involving national talent. There are so many gifted artists here, we should be using them.
I know that in addition to using local actors as much as possible you like to try to involve the community in your productions in other ways. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Well, one example goes back to Romeo & Juliet years ago. We workshopped that in high schools. In fact, we’ve done a few productions like that, where we discuss the text with young people, so you kind of get their viewpoints on it. That then rolled into a school production in a few schools, where we got audience reaction. So it ends up getting built in a more accessible way. I think the more hands that can touch a piece before it goes on stage, the better. It gives more people ownership and a connection to it and makes the creators think of it from all different viewpoints, beyond their own race, gender and other things.
So when you’re having those conversations, does that then shape the final production?
Oh, yeah—quite often. It’s not just an exercise. An artist doesn’t create in a vacuum. You end up responding to the things that surround you. When you put yourself in places where you’re surrounded by people and things that aren’t like you, it opens up your viewpoint and makes you sensitive to new things.
As you’re saying that, it reminds me of all the problems we’re facing in this country, a lot of which have to do with cross-cultural misunderstanding.
Right! We don’t listen to each other very well.
Some of my ideas about theater actually go back to the ancient Greeks, where you would pull into town, and there was the playwright kind of preaching his themes from the street corner. And then you would watch a whole day of plays, and you would hear and see those themes enacted—and then a winner would be declared. But you also have these satyr plays that were dirty and uproariously funny, and made fun of the other plays. Then there were the Dionysian celebrations that came after that. To me, all of those things are what theater is.
In the post-industrial age, we turned theater into a thing that happens in a box, and then you leave. I like theater that runs the gamut—theater that makes me think about things in a different way and maybe pushes me a little out of my comfort zone and gives me something to talk about on the way home.
You also seem to favor a lot of musicals, or plays in which music is a very integral part.
That’s true. I love music. I don’t do a lot of proper musicals. While I love them, a lot of my friends don’t—and I think that as technology has evolved, they’ve kind of created their own little in-between space, which some people love and some people abhor. Even with Hamilton, I have friends who are on both sides of the fence about it. I’m actually a very big fan of it, but in some ways the structure of it is very traditional.
I Sing the Rising Sea is a very traditional musical. It has a contemporary composer and has a kind of pop style to it. Oliver Twist is more of a play with music. Jake will be playing it live every night. He kind of serves as the troubadour that moves the story forward, which also puts him in line with, say, a Greek chorus. Sometimes the music comments on the action, and sometimes it just gives atmosphere to the action. I like to use music to help tell a visual story. I find that this usually accomplishes my goals more than a character bursting into song. That’s something different.
A lot of how I direct is influenced by music and videos and TV. I mean, I’m from the MTV generation. I didn’t grow up watching it as much as many other people did, but I’m definitely saturated in it.
You’ve been here 10 years or so. How do you think the Virginia Stage Company has evolved in the last decade?
I think Chris (Hanna, former artistic director), and Keith (Stava, former managing director) did a great job cultivating audiences. Beyond that I think it’s evolved much in the way that regional theater in general has evolved. We are in a shift right now, with shifting funding mechanisms and shifting audience habits. So now it’s not just about putting on the perfect production; I think there has to be more focus on the community, with things like workshops, casting local talent and expanding a sense of ownership. When companies bring all their actors and most of their designers from out of town, the audience experience isn’t much different from seeing a touring company.
Zelda Fichandler, who founded Arena Stage Company, died recently. People like that were pioneers. They had this vision that was kind of anti-commercial and anti-Broadway. Well, not anti-Broadway, exactly, but based on the notion that art should be owned by the country and not confined to this one place. But it’s very expensive. A lot of those companies in that era were funded by the Ford Foundation. There was a sense of rebuilding America, post World War II. Well, the next generation didn’t fund the same things. It wasn’t that they didn’t believe in art; it’s just that they funded different things. Of course you can’t house all these actors in Hampton Roads, so we ended up bringing in a lot of actors from New York. I think that now we’re seeing a lot of arts institutions tying their work back into the community—and not just with theater. We’re seeing it, for instance, with the Chrysler Museum’s glass-art school. I think that’s hugely important.
Given the challenges of getting funding, how do you balance what you would like to do for purely artistic reasons against what you feel will have box-office appeal? Is that a conflict for you?
Sure. It is for any artist. But I think that 20 or 30 years ago, we saw artistic directors and people like that as curators who told you what you needed to see. We trusted them implicitly for that. I think we’re now seeing the artistic director as a person who’s listening to the community. It’s becoming much more of a two-way street. I think that comes not just from listening to audiences on their way out the doors of the theater but more and more of our staff being immersed in the community, whether through the schools or community centers or what have you. That all trickles back to us and influences what we make and how we make it.
Rising Sea is a good example of it, with part of it being set in Ocean View. I think I’m doing something similar with Oliver Twist because, while it’s a kind of fairytale set nowhere and everywhere, we’re developing it with local Governor’s School students.
It didn’t occur to me ’til now, but the title “Rising Sea”—does that have to do with global warming?
There’s a little bit of that. You can’t talk about our relationship with the water without that being part of it. That’s part of why we got an NEA grant, because of the scientific component to it. We’re not selling it as a sea-level-rise play because nobody would come! (Laughs.) It’s actually this beautiful love story and a lot of other things. But there is some great information in there about that.
It seems that with both Rising Sea and Oliver Twist there are a lot of contemporary sociopolitical implications in that both deal with some of the issues we’re now confronting as a society.
I think that’s what theater does well and has always done well. You find a lot of that on TV, too. In fact, I think we’re going through a second golden age of television. But there’s something different about sitting in a space where you’re living and breathing with a group of people. In this digital age that opportunity to be together is all the more important.
We’ve talked a lot about how the Stage Company, and theater in general, has changed over the years. Where do you see it going in, say, the next 10 years?
I think audience buying habits are changing. So, for example, the notion of a season subscription isn’t dead, but I think it’s going to continue to evolve. And again, national trends are showing that we are getting more community connected.
Will part of that involve performing, or staging productions, in more non-traditional venues, like parks and such?
I think the Stage Company is still in the process of deciding what the focus will be. But yes, in my time here we’ve done plays on the Battleship Wisconsin and in the park and at the Hermitage Museum. It does give people a different perspective on theater.
So this is an interesting irony, but could the fact that the Wells Theatre is now under renovation be a blessing in disguise, in that it is forcing you into other venues for the time being?
I look at it that way. I also think it’s a chance for us to be able to partner with other organizations like ODU and take our production into the Goode, which is a beautiful theater, and get people onto the campus. That’s good for ODU, and it’s good for us. That’s where you start to build those deep and meaningful relationships.
In your position it seems to me you must have a good sense of the theater community beyond your immediate realm. What else in our regional theater scene do you think is noteworthy right now?
I think things are booming in many ways. We’re partnering, for example, with Norfolk State University in the spring on The Wiz. Anthony Stockard [the artistic director] has done amazing things with that program. I think they’re going to really take off. I’m excited about their fall lineup.
Push Comedy Theater does something very different from what we do, but I love how they’re expanding. I also love what’s going on at the Venue on 35th (in Norfolk’s Park Place neighborhood) on all levels from play writing to development of spoken-word. Core Theater Ensemble is also noteworthy as they’re becoming more and more prolific. And then, Regent University. I don’t think people realize how big their MFA program is and how much influence that has on this area.
So, I guess to sum up—Why should people come to your fall productions?I think with all of our shows, people are going to see something that is enjoyable and good entertainment—I think they’ll leave humming a little tune—but will take away something that also makes them think a little, and hopefully whet their appetite to learn more