Norfolk's Generic Theater Celebrates 35 Seasons
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.
The Changing Stage
“In the theater, the artistic director is God,” proclaims Montague Gammon III. “Until the play goes up and then the stage manager is God.”
Known today mostly as a writer and theater critic, Gammon became artistic director for the Generic in its third season, helping to make the universe come alive in a noisy Vo-Tech building. “The whole tradition that Ron started of presenting new plays was something that Montague upheld when he came in,” Afer-Anderson says.
Gammon had been working in theater since his days at Norfolk Academy, where he graduated valedictorian. He was a founder of the youth theater program at Theater Center, a progressive stage company that grew out of the Little Theater of Norfolk. He was mentored by TC’s Stan Fedyszyn, who he points to as the original mover for “dangerous theater” in town. “Stan Fedyszyn laid the groundwork for everything that Ron wanted to do with the Generic.” For a time, Theatre Center became “Stage Down Under,” located in the space now occupied by the Generic, and later morphed into the Virginia Stage Company.
Hardin also came aboard full time that third season. “[I] worked on a lot of shows, in different capacities—with a small staff everyone wears a lot of hats,” she says. “We all read plays, a lot of them. We all worked on the sets, the props and stuff. I did a lot of the marketing, and Terrance did too.”
Their new home was on Ghent’s edge, half of a city-owned machine-repair training facility at 921 West 21st St. Boxy, made of concrete, its beige exterior and warehouse-like feel was appropriate enough for low budget theater—a generic space. The capacity was 77, but it frequently fit a hundred or more patrons, Gammon says. “And the stage would never be the same.” That was a holdover from the first two seasons. “People never knew what to expect when they were coming in,” Afer-Anderson says. “You never knew where the stage was going to be; sometimes the stage was on one side, or another, or on the end. Sometimes you’d enter and walk across the stage and not know it.”
Things changed with the city too. “We were not allowed to say the F-word, and we couldn’t have nudity on the stage,” Gammon remembers. His predecessor had no such limits. “Montague and I had different experiences,” Stokes says. “Conditions changed. Maybe [the city] thought that since they were now investing in a space, there needed to be more scrutiny on it.”
Still, there were trails blazed. William Hoffman’s As Is, from 1985, was the first play produced in Hampton Roads about the AIDS crisis. Lauriston Hardin, Frankie’s husband, directed it. “It was an important show,” Gammon says.
In the five years that Gammon was artistic director, the audience grew by more than 400 percent. But after Shurl Montgomery and Suzanne Cooksey—the assistant parks manager who inspired some and angered others—were reassigned in 1988, the staff ran afoul of new city bureaucrats who thought the theater could survive without an artistic director. “We had just won the first PortFolio Weekly award for Best Artistic Director,” Gammon says.
Officials soon realized a theater company needs an AD. But not before Montague Gammon exited stage left.
We Saved the Generic
It was 1993. Frankie Hardin got a phone call. It was the Generic’s then-artistic director, Bob Nelson. He told her that the theater’s funding had been cut from the city budget.
“We went on the warpath,” she says.
Hardin and a group of actors formed a wall outside the Wells Theatre where the budget hearing was held, holding up signs, most wearing white painters' caps with the Generic logo. “All the councilmen looked out from the stage and saw this sea of white caps. Many of us went up and spoke out, arguing for an extension,” she says.
“In the end, the city gave it to us,” Hardin says. “A year with full funding, time to organize and go non-profit. We saved the Generic that night.”
Nelson soon initiated the theater’s New Plays for Dog Days summer festival. “At the time, Generic would pretty much go into hibernation because the 21st Street facility had no air conditioning. Can you imagine?,” Hardin recalls. “The place was an oven. But Bob and Woody [Robinson] managed to [appropriate] some from the rest of the building … Bob wanted to have a New Works fest, something that no one else was doing. I think that was huge.”
"After a few more years, the theater became an all proscenium theater,” Gammon says. “And they stopped doing exclusively area premieres. I think they were not as daring as we were.”
Without the city’s largesse, salaries were cut. The company stayed on 21st Street, paying very nominal rent, until the building was sold to developers (it’s a Fresh Market today). “The city nursed us, but then they kicked us out of our nest,” says Jeannette Rainey, one of the current artistic directors.
Rainey began volunteering in 1997, under artistic director Steve Harders, who may have enjoyed the longest stint as AD. “Back then, having cursing in a show was still controversial,” she recalls. Today’s theater has different challenges. “As the Generic model has become more mainstream, other theaters have become more edgy. It’s a challenge to constantly stay fresh, forward-thinking.”
There are more practical concerns too. “I wish that the folks were still employed by the city,” Afer-Anderson says. “I know that they carry a heavier burden to keep things going, not having salaries.”
The Generic still innovates—it has a team of artistic directors instead of one leader, somewhat unusual, and its hilarious web video promos have set the area standard. “As soon as we starting doing our online season announcements, other theaters started doing the same," Rainey says. "It’s one way we stay different. The spot for Misery went viral and [we] had the good sense to monetize it.” It got hundreds of thousands of hits. “That’s what we do,” she adds. “We try things for the first time.”
Garney Johnson, fellow artistic director, echoes that thought with tongue in cheek: “We try and put together experiences that live up to the Generic brand.”
For the 30th anniversary season in 2010, there was a reunion party. “The original staff came back,” Heninger recalls. “We received cans of peas that were sprayed Gold, like Oscars, with the logo on it,” he says from his home in San Francisco.
Frankie Hardin, now back in Georgia, started the Norfolk-based 40th Street Stage company in 2004. “It was very much inspired by my experiences with the early days of the Generic,” she says. “Maybe I was in fact trying to recreate the kind of work we had done there … Issue driven, intimate, balls to the wall drama.” The company lasted five years and brought 27 world premieres to Norfolk, no small feat. One of its final shows was Terrance Afer-Anderson’s powerful Katrina flood-rewrite of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Afer-Anderson now works for the department of public health, hosting its monthly online “HealthWatch” program and writes theater reviews for Norfolk's New Journal and Guide. He had a homecoming of his own last year when he performed in The Prison Project at the Generic. He’d been away for 15 years. “It was an opportunity to wax nostalgic,” he says. “The venue had changed, of course, but the tenor and the feel of everything was still the same.”
Shurl Montgomery, the man with the rubber stamp, has retired from the city. At the 30th anniversary party, he told the crowd, “We had a dedicated staff under Ron's leadership that brought Generic where it needed to be at that time. And [the theater] is still there today."
Today, Ron Stokes lives in the Big Apple. After Generic, he stayed with Tidewater Dinner Theatre for five years, and then got involved with a Broadway company selling shows overseas. He’s currently executive director of online ad sales at New York Magazine. “Instead of seats to fill, I’ve got ad units on pages to fill,” he jokes.
He hasn’t performed in years, but says he’s talking to the Generic’s current team about a return to the company he founded back in 1981. “I’m thinking about doing something in the spring. A little one-off, maybe.” Ron Stokes pauses. “I’ve still got the theater bug.”
The Generic Theater’s 35th season continues with Five Guys Named Moe, by Clarke Peters with music/lyrics by Louis Jordan, Jan. 8–31, 2016.
Read the full article in the January 2016 issue of Coastal Virginia Magazine.