Backstage, Onstage | Theater | Style Weekly

When it comes to theater, it’s easiest to focus on what ends up on stage. But what’s going on backstage and behind-the-scenes has a profound impact on what an audience eventually sees, or even if a production happens at all.

For this year’s fall theater preview, our critics expand their usual discussion of the shows they’re looking forward to for the upcoming season. In their inimitable, alliterative fashion, they add insight into the structural changes and stage stars that are making an impact.


When it comes to structural changes, you can’t top the Firehouse Theatre. With Joel Bassin’s retirement, Nathaniel Shaw is stepping into his shoes as producing artistic director. Bassin leaves a legacy of steadying the ship after the Firehouse’s noisy ouster of founder Carol Piersol in 2012; Piersol died in May, two years after being diagnosed with brain cancer.

Shaw, the executive director of the New Theatre and former artistic director of Virginia Rep, has taken the reins at the Firehouse under the transitional name the New Theatre at Firehouse, until a permanent name is settled on. He’s already building out his staff, hiring Virginia Rep Arts in Education manager, Amber Martinez, as his director of communications.

As the Firehouse begins its 30th season, plans are underway to name the theater’s stage after Piersol and upgrade sound, lighting and projection equipment. Shaw says this new endeavor aims to better reach underserved communities with its theater and will continue its work to develop new plays.

Under Bassin, the Firehouse hosted other performing arts groups in residency; this season, those efforts will be expanded to include the duties of building and painting sets, supervising wardrobe, marketing support, ticketing support and front of house personnel. The following groups will be in residency: 5th Wall Theatre; Yes, And! Theatrical Co.; K Dance; and Starr Foster Dance.

There continues to be a whole lot of shaking going on at Virginia Rep in the wake of the company’s purchase of the Scottish Rite Temple in Northside last year. In addition to the recent ouster of managing director Phil Whiteway, the company saw four veteran staffers retire in the past year. It’ll be interesting to see if new management brings new direction to this local arts leader.

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  • Scott Elmquist
  • Desirée Dabney, a Style Weekly Top 40 under 40 winner, is the new head of musical theatre at VCU and an assistant professor.

As the Richmond theater world fully emerged from the pandemic this past season, a bumper crop of new performers emerged into the limelight. Actors never seen before on local stages suddenly seemed to be in every show.

Most prominent among these was dashing young VCU student Lukas D’Errico who made his local debut in the much-heralded, two-part drama “The Inheritance” at Richmond Triangle Players last fall. Playing two main characters, D’Errico had to capture innocence, street smarts and pathos in a bravura performance.

He has been on stage almost constantly since, with appearances in Virginia Rep’s “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” “Rent” at VCU, and “Head Over Heels,” again at Triangle Players. Odds are he’ll be gracing more stages before graduating next spring.

Two other actors also seemed to be everywhere this past year.
Several local directors found recent Richmond transplant Lindsey Zelli perfect for period pieces. She showed impressive range with starring roles in the 1880s thriller “Gaslight” at Swift Creek Mill Theatre and two Richmond Shakespeare productions, 19th century existential drama “Uncle Vanya,” and 17th century comedy, “School of Lies.” Here’s hoping having a baby on the way doesn’t keep her off stage for long.

Dorothy “Dee D” Miller followed up her moving turn in last season’s slavery drama, “Sugar in Our Wounds” at Triangle Players, with a pair of more contemporary roles. She played a frustrated wife in “Cross Stitch Bandits” at Cadence and then stole the show as tough-loving Jamaican immigrant momma in “How Black Mothers Say I Love You,” also at Triangle.

It’s also worth mentioning that recent Top 40 Under 40 honoree Desirée Dabney directed Miller in “Black Mothers,” one of four productions she helmed in the 2022-23 season. Look for more from this directing dynamo as she settles into her role running VCU’s musical theater department.

The lineup of productions scheduled for fall of 2023 may be one of the most eclectic in recent memory, making for exciting times for local theater-goers.

Virginia Rep just kicked off the season with a welcome foray into female power politics with “POTUS: Or, Behind Every Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive,” running through September.
Swift Creek Mill stretches beyond its golden oldie sweet spot by offering “tick, tick…BOOM!” (Sept. 9 – 30). The musical tells the story of Jonathan Larson before he created “Rent,” going into crisis mode at the prospect of turning 30. Director Jan Powell, known mostly for her skill at adapting Shakespeare, steps in for customary Mill chief, Tom Width.

The playwright behind “Sugar in Our Wounds,” which won Best Play from the Richmond Theatre Community Circle last year, returns to Triangle Players with his latest, “one in two” (Sept. 20 — Oct. 14). Donja R. Love has crafted an experimental story about HIV that TimeOut New York called a “raw, intense and surreal exploration of what it’s like to be a queer African-American man.”

On Sept. 23, Canada’s Volcano Theatre brings “The Book of Life” to the University of Richmond. In the show, Rwandan writer and activist Odile Gakire “Kiki” Katese ruminates on the Rwandan genocide, alongside Ingoma Nshya, the Women Drummers of Rwanda. The show is touted as “a deeply moving perspective on life, loss and recovery, in a performance filled with music and hope.”

The Firehouse will ring in its new season with “Berta, Berta,” (Sept. 27 – Oct.15) a play inspired by August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” that tells the fictional origin story of a chain gang song of the same name. “Berta, Berta” was the first staged reading that the New Theatre held during its inaugural season. Directed by Tawnya “Dr. T” Pettiford-Wates and starring Katrinah Carol Lewis and Jerold E. Solomon, it has the potential to be a potent theatrical event.

“Martha Mitchell Calling” (Sept. 29 – Oct. 29) humorously examines the role that Martha Mitchell, wife of Watergate co-conspirator Attorney General John Mitchell, played in the fracas. Staged at Virginia Rep’s Hanover Tavern, this production will feature real life couple Debra Wagoner as Martha and Joe Pabst as John.

At VCU, October will see a stage adaptation of the Swedish novel and award-winning film “Let the Right One In.” The show centers on a 12-year-old boy and a centuries-old vampire girl. It looks like an appropriately spooky show for the lead up to Halloween.

A late entry into the fall slate is Cadence Theatre’s “The Thanksgiving Play” (Nov. 10-19), a biting satire about a troupe of “woke” teaching artists putting on a fall pageant. This one should have tongues wagging on both sides of the political aisle.

And for those looking to get a dose of Broadway without leaving the River City, the Broadway touring productions of “Frozen” (Oct. 11-22), “Six” (Nov. 7-12), and “Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical” (Dec. 12-17) are coming to the Altria.

Whatever your theatrical tastes, this fall’s lineup surely has something for you. See you in the theater!

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