My Love Affair with Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

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By Bruce Miller
Artistic Director

Bruce’s Notebook

One of the things I enjoy most about my job is picking the season.  It’s not a solo endeavor; it’s a team sport.  The opinions of those who have to build the sets and cast the actors and balance the budget and sell the tickets all matter.  But ultimately the responsibility is mine.

One of the shows I picked for this season is Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the brilliant and hilarious new comedy by Christopher Durang that opens in our November Theatre on April 24.  Eighteen months ago, it was probably the first show to be nailed down on our season.

The title first entered my consciousness when my buddies Tom and Carlene Bass called me in a joyful frenzy a couple years ago to say, “We just saw this show and you’ve got to do it in Richmond.”  A month or so later my wife and I ventured to NYC to check it out.  Immediately it won our hearts.  And then it won the Tony.

I’m far from the only artistic director to have rushed to apply for the rights.  I haven’t checked the statistics, but it would not surprise me to learn that Vanya et al is the most popular title gracing the stages of America’s regional theatres this season.

The cast of Virginia Rep's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Liz Earnest as Nina, Joe Pabst as Vanya, Ciara McMillian as Cassandra, Susan Sanford as Masha, David Pope as Spike, Debra Wagoner as Sonia. Photo by Jay Paul.
The cast of Virginia Rep’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Liz Earnest as Nina, Joe Pabst as Vanya, Ciara McMillian as Cassandra, Susan Sanford as Masha, David Pope as Spike, Debra Wagoner as Sonia. Photo by Jay Paul.

At our weekly marketing meeting, the question is invariably asked.  “Why did you pick this one?”  The corollary question being, “How do we sell this title that no one’s ever heard of to a Richmond audience that is likely to read it and have zero clue why they should care?”

That’s always a hard question to answer.  “Because I thought it was really, really funny” doesn’t cut it.  Simple answers like that only prompt additional questions from enquiring coworkers who want to know.  “What was funny about it?”  “Why is it relevant?”  “How is it different and unique?”  “Where’s the hook for our audience?”  and… and… and…

Driving to a meeting at Willow Lawn yesterday I was listening to Fresh Air on NPR.  The show was just wrapping up, and David Bianculli was finishing his rave review of the new season of Louis starring Louis C.K.

Suddenly his review gave me a new perspective on the answer I want to give to the questions about why I’ve fallen so in love with Vanya and his cohort.

Here’s part of the transcript of yesterday’s broadcast, beginning with Bianculli’s narrative.

“BIANCULLI:  Louis C.K., like Jack Benny and Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, can make a simple trip to the store a very memorable experience.  Here’s Louie venting his displeasure to a young salesclerk who didn’t want to bother unlocking a display of expensive cookware for him because the shop was about the close.  Clara Wong plays the clerk, and I love this scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, LOUIE)

LOUIS C.K.:  (As Louie)  So you just don’t care about your customers.

CLARA WONG:  (As salesclerk)  That whole customer’s always right approach is kind of old school.

C.K.:  (As Louie)  Oh, is it?  Oh, OK then – then – then noted.  Thank you very much.  In the future, I will take my business elsewhere.

WONG:  (As salesclerk)  Please do.  Please go to Williams-Sonoma.  They’ll be very indulgent.

C.K.:  (As Louie)  Wow.  Wow, that’s a new approach.  So you have nothing to learn from thousands of years of human commerce, just nothing.  I really hope that works out for you.

WONG:  (As salesclerk)  Well, I’m 24, and I own my own store in Manhattan.

C.K.:  (As Louie)  All right then.  All right.  I will alert my entire generation that your generation needs nothing from us.  We will just be on our way.

WONG:  (As salesclerk)  Well, if you could help clean up the environment you ruined on your way out…

C.K.:  (As Louie)  Oh, is there anything else we can get for you, your majesties?

WONG:  (As salesclerk)  Do you always get uncomfortable around younger people?

C.K.:  (As Louie)  (pause)  Yeah.  I don’t know – I don’t know why.

WONG:  (As salesclerk)  I think I maybe know why.

C.K.:  (As Louie)  OK.

WONG:  (As salesclerk)  Because we’re the future and you don’t belong in it because we’re beyond you.  And, naturally, that makes you feel kind of bad.  You have this deep down feeling that you don’t matter anymore.

C.K.:  (As Louie)  Yeah, that’s – that’s – that’s pretty true, yeah.

BIANCULLI:  In that scene, Louie is deliberately addressing the new generation gap.  Louie nails it perfectly in a few short minutes.”

Wow, I thought after hearing that clip.  Wow.  (Sounding like Louis C.K. himself.)  That clip may nail the way I feel every now and then when encountering “the new generation gap.”  But it doesn’t “nail” the response.  My buddy Vanya nails the response.

You see, the wonderful, hip, funny Louis C.K. is 47 years old, and apparently this is the way he (and David Bianculli?) feel when encountering the jeunes gens toujours modernes who are now emerging in positions of authority.  Perhaps, being only 47, he feels inclined to accept passively and go all introspective when encountering the “indignities” superimposed by these upstarts on their aging comrades.

Not so Christopher Durang, the author of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.  Durang is 67 years old.  He passed beyond “passive” and “introspective” years ago.  When the eponymous Spike begins to twitter and text and gyrate and generally cast disrespect on the “old school” life that Vanya embodies, Durang eventually goes nuclear.  He writes for Vanya one of those speeches that so many of us wish we could have given—an Act II tirade that hilariously demands respect and honor for every cultural icon that those of us with sufficient gray on our heads hold dear.

I, for one, can’t help loving a play that values the future, present and past equally.  A play that rejects the notions of “old school” and “new school” and insists that life is simply a school, neither old nor new, into which all of us matriculate at birth, from which none of us will graduate until death, and in which all of us must continue to learn.  A play that embraces the joy of the journey and does so with wit and wisdom.  A play that, in the words of The New York Times, fills the theatre with “booming gusts of laughter that practically shake the seats.”  A play where the deus in the ex machina in none other than Dame Maggie Smith.

Lest all of this, or the Chekhovian monikers listed in the title, make the play sound too serious in its intent or pious in its delivery, be assured that Durang’s writing style has far less to do with wisdom that wackiness.  Just as he has for the entirety of his distinguished career as a playwright, Durang finds his ultimate joy in making us laugh.  If we pick up a few pointers along the way, let’s just count those as a bonus.

Walking the Walk

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By Bruce Miller
Artistic Director

Bruce’s Notebook

I walked the 10 K this year for the first time.  For many of you, that may not seem like much of an achievement.  For me, it felt incredible

Bruce Miller

The only previous athletic successes (success being a relative term) that I’ve ever achieved in my entire life were on the long distance track team in tenth grade (I successfully completed events without passing out), the diving team in eighth grade summer camp (I scored moderately well with my back flip), and, when I was about seven, I think I came in third in breast stroke in some sort of regional swim meet.

Otherwise, despite desperately wanting to be so good at sports that schoolmates would nickname me Flash (no, wait, that’s a line I stole from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown), I sucked at sports.  Playing baseball in Hi-Y, I was so bad at throwing that my buddies made me be catcher and demanded that I roll the ball to the pitcher who would then throw it to whichever base the runner was approaching.  It was humiliating, to say the least.

So on the day of the 10 K, I was committed to put all that behind me.  To be honest, when I woke up that morning, I wasn’t sure I’d even start, much less finish in 1 hour 37 minutes (after deducting 4 minutes for one bathroom break).  Nonetheless, despite the cold … and needing to get up early … and having to walk from the office to Harrison and Broad because there was nowhere any closer to park, I somehow willed myself to the starting line and then, with a shout from the announcer who was pepping us all up, the race was on.

My reasons for finally walking the 10 K were simple.

  1. If I’m ever going to begin to exercise, it better be now.  I’ve been walking, I confess, in private … sometimes even six miles in one spurt … but it’s always a solo activity I perform in sweaty anonymity on my home streets.  Joining in this highly public demonstration of physical prowess seemed like the next step that needed to be taken.
  2. Don Garber is President of the Board of Sports Backers, and former President of the Board of Virginia Rep.  The Monument Avenue 10 K is a major fundraiser for Sports Backers.  I wanted to show support for Don Garber, and this felt like one small way to do so.
  3. Here’s the clincher.  Virginia Rep will soon be embarking with Sports Backers and Fit4Kids on a childhood obesity prevention program … something along the lines of Hugs and Kisses except centered on positive messages regarding physical exercise and nutrition for students K – 5.  I’m going to begin researching the project this summer.  When I met with my peers at Sports Backers and Fit4Kids to sell them on the idea, Jon Lugbill, Executive Director of Sports Backers looked me right in the eye and showed me the respect of being honest.  “If you want to gain the support of those who are expert in this field,” he said (forgive my paraphrasing, Jon), “you have to get in better shape.  They won’t really believe in you if you talk the talk but can’t, or won’t, walk the walk.”

There it was.  You gotta love a guy who gives it to you straight.  And Jon’s not just any guy.  Only 11 years my junior, Jon appears to be about 30 years younger.  He’s in great shape.  He’s widely considered to be the greatest whitewater canoe slalom racer ever.  He earned his own Wheaties box, and that’s not a metaphor or exaggeration.  His picture was actually on the box.  He won five individual and seven team gold medals in the World Championships.  In 1992, when whitewater canoeing was returned to the Olympics after a 20 year absence, Jon came in fourth, despite being in the final years of his career.

So, if I care about this childhood obesity prevention project, and I do, I have to put my sports inferiority complex behind me and begin to walk the walk.  My goal is to work my way down to my “ideal weight” of 185 lbs. over the next several months.  I’m now 34 lbs. north of that goal.  But Jon’s right.  How can I honestly help to create a play teaching kids what to do to improve their health if I’m not willing and/or able to do it myself?

The proof of my commitment, as they say, will be in the pudding.  Pudding which I henceforward will consume only in moderation.

I have now walked the walk once.  Hopefully, this will be just a beginning.  If you see me in a few months and I’ve begun to look a little healthier, please let me know.  I’ll need the encouragement.

The Joys of Teaching Drama

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By Jason Sandahl
Education Associate

One of the biggest joys of working with children is that moment when they fully grasp a concept you are trying to teach them.  On the flip side, one of the struggles is when they are having difficulty grasping a concept. This year Virginia Rep’s Education Department was thrilled to be asked to do an after-school program at Springfield Park Elementary. This past session we began working on a short skit based on Treasure Island. After playing various improv games, the students were still having a hard time grasping the concept of saying what comes to their mind rather than being given a line.

edu_treasure_blog

On the fourth week of our program (we met once a week), we were going over our skit when one of the boys in the class looked at me and said, “You mean I can say whatever I want?!?!” It suddenly clicked! My co-teacher and I explained that yes you can say whatever you want as long as it makes sense in the scene and carries the plot forward. The boy’s response, “Well yeah, we’re on a pirate ship, I’m not going to say ‘Hey, who wants to go get Chick-Fil-A!’.”

This revelation clicked not only for him but for all of the other students as well.  Soon our skit transformed and the students were playing off each other left and right. All it took was a tiny little spark.

Goodbye to David and Aly

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By Bruce Miller
Artistic Director

Bruce’s Notebook
Monday, March 30, 2015

Actors come and go in Richmond.  Stick around long enough and you may begin to agree with me that this is a good thing.

Many if not most of the best actors who leave our fair city have been known to return, either permanently or for a few weeks for the right role.  And when they return, we discover that most of them have benefitted greatly from the opportunity to work in or experience theatre in a different environment during their time away.

So why do I feel so sad to be saying goodbye to David Janeski and Aly Wepplo as they move permanently to their already established “second home” in Hailey, Idaho, homebase of Company of Fools?  David has accepted a job in data management with the Sun Valley Center for the Arts, and both he and Aly will, I’m sure, continue their work as resident actors with John Glenn, Denise Simone and the other Virginia Rep expats who now consider Hailey home.  This is a good opportunity for David and Aly, and I’m happy for them.  But I’m sad for me.

Certainly one of the reasons I’ve become unusually blue in response to this departure is that two of my favorite actors are leaving town and not just one.  But the bigger and truer reason I suspect is because David and Aly’s connections to our company are so personal and so sentimental that it almost feels like losing family and not just friends.

David and Aly
The cast of ‘Smoke on the Mountain’.

David and Aly met, I think, in our Willow Lawn production of Mame in 2004.  They fell in love playing brother and sister in our Hanover Tavern production of Smoke on the Mountain in 2006, and I watched it happen.  Smoke was the first of the “Sanders Family” trilogy, and David and Aly repeated their roles in all three productions.

One night, immediately after curtain call following a performance of A Sanders Family Christmas, David asked the audience to hang in there for one minute more.  Then, with everyone in the cast and crew knowing what was about to happen except for Aly, he delivered the happiest, and teary-eyed, and most moving proposal I ever expect to see.  In front of a crying and cheering full house, Aly said yes.

Several months later, their wedding took place, of course, on stage at Hanover Tavern.

Both David and Aly came to us right out of college—he’s from Longwood; she’s from my alma mater, U of R.  They’ve both been with us ever since.  They’ve performed leading roles and supporting roles, masterfully, in show after show.  Right now, they’re appearing opposite each other as Charlie Brown and Lucy in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown at Hanover Tavern through April 17.  I guess it’s as fitting a “farewell performance” as any.

All of us at Virginia Rep, and I’m sure everyone at all the other theatres in town, wish David and Aly well as they transition to the next stage of their lives together.  Parting, as they say, is such sweet sorrow.  It is my fervent hope that both of them will return to perform in future shows at Virginia Rep, and that they’ll continue to think of Richmond as a home.

I know we will always think of both of them as family.

David and Aly
David and Aly in ‘You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown’.