If all the world’s a stage, sometimes you must deal with inclement weather. That’s a lesson that the Virginia Theatre Machine experienced firsthand this past Sunday at a performance at the Williamsburg Christmas Market. Though the weather forecast was clear, the outdoor mobile theater was hit by a deluge at 3 o’clock.
“We had everything all set up, so everything was getting drenched,” says Mark J. Lerman, director and proprietor of the Virginia Theatre Machine, a 2,500-pound trailer that serves as a traveling stage. Dealing with the elements is a common quirk of the project: “High wind can be interesting. Sometimes things can go flying off the stage.”
Previously, Lerman ran a theater company in Providence, Rhode Island. The trailer theater came about after Lerman’s wife, director, playwright and sociology professor K. Jenkins, got a job at William and Mary and the couple relocated to Williamsburg.
With limited access to theater spaces in Virginia’s colonial capital, Lerman decided to build his own. He created the trailer theater with the help of a designer back in Providence and began staging shows in 2008. The Virginia Theatre Machine staged shows for 10 years before Lerman decided to take a break. Now, following the pandemic, VTM is ready to hit the road again.
Part of the project’s mission is to bring entertainment to the masses for free, instead of asking them to buy tickets and come inside a theater.
“The goal was to have all the accoutrements, all the production values of a small intimate theater – lights, sound, costumes, scenery, puppets, special effects – but on a small 8-by-8-foot stage that was movable and transportable,” Lerman says. “It’s street theater, but it’s street theater with full production values.”
This weekend, the Virginia Theatre Machine will begin staging a run of Richmond performances of “A Christmas Carol” at various venues.
“I’ve been doing it for years because it’s a great ghost story and it’s about a man and his redemption,” Lerman says of “A Christmas Carol.”
The Charles Dickens adaptation is something of the Virginia Theatre Machine’s calling card. Every year for 10 years, the traveling theater performed “A Christmas Story” with two actors and a variety of puppets.
“I rewrote the side story every year, and we always changed puppets every year to keep it interesting for return audiences,” Lerman says. “We built a big fan base over the 10 years in Williamsburg. We performed in Merchants’ Square in Colonial Williamsburg, and we would perform to 4,000 to 5,000 people every year.”
This weekend, Virginia Theatre Machine will stage two performances at Shockoe Illuminates on Friday and three shows on Saturday at Hardywood Brewery’s West Creek location; additional shows run through Dec. 23.
This year’s production will star longtime VTM associate Ed Whitacre and Richmond-based actress Maggie McGurn. Lerman says acting on such a small stage is a unique experience for any performer.
“It teaches you a lot about acting because you have to be incredibly specific. There’s no room for wandering: You’ll fall off the stage,” Lerman says. “Even though it’s street theater and we do audience participation, and we have a lot of fun, it’s very technical and precise.”
Part of the project’s aim is to provide audiences with entertainment for free; Lerman achieves this by securing sponsors for the performances. Past sponsors have included everything from schools and libraries to breweries and business associations. All Lerman needs, he says, is access to a common 15-amp electrical outlet to plug into that’s 150 feet or less away.
The project also accepts commissions. One of VTM’s more interesting assignments was for an international symposium on the effects of mercury on the environment. Creating a show that had to appeal to young audiences but also entertain scientists and college students, Lerman created a “War of the Worlds”-style radio show, playing off the fact it was written by H.G. Wells and that mercury’s elemental symbol is “Hg.”
Next spring, Virginia Theatre Machine aims to perform a rendition of “Hansel and Gretel.”
“My goal is to eventually have a three-show season. It will primarily be a September through early May kind of season,” he says, stating that both actors and audiences appreciate staying out of the heat. “All the pieces need to be about 30 minutes, because when you’re outside, you’re competing with everything. We had a firetruck, a plane overhead; if you’re in Williamsburg, you may have a horse walk by with a carriage.”
Of “A Christmas Carol,” Lerman says his shows are aimed to appeal to all ages.
“The 30 minutes is packed full of surprises and special effects and puppetry,” Lerman says. “It’s a great half-hour of entertainment for the holiday season.”
Virginia Theatre Machine’s “A Christmas Carol” will perform free shows at various locations from Dec. 2-23 in the Richmond area. Visit virginiatheatremachine.com for more information.