Thursday, July 18, 2013

By The Wayside

My affection toward Wayside Theatre caused my family to surprise me one Christmas, with the gift of a personalized brick, which currently resides on the wall next to the door of the theatre's bar (natch).  Every non-profit theatre out there is always fundraising, it's why they're called NON-PROFIT;  Wayside had a hard time convincing donors that a sustained level of charitable giving was necessary to keep presenting quality work.
In the pages of this blog, I have frequently offered entries on my own birthday, and even more often, have presented tributes to (or occasionally, diatribes about) celebrities on their birthdays.  Today's entry is a special one, in that it commemorates the birthday of a friend, colleague, and all-around admirable fellow.
Happy Birthday, Warner Crocker! This shot was snapped at the Opening Night Reception for Man of La Mancha, and illustrates one of the lovely traditions Warner created at Wayside Theatre.  After each Opening Night, he took the time to toast each and every person involved with the current production.
Warner isn't dead.  Today is his 57th birthday, and it must be a strange and bittersweet one for him. 
Warner Crocker, Birthday Boy

Only a few weeks ago, he announced his resignation from his position as Artistic Director of Wayside Theatre in Middletown, VA.  He ran the theatre for about 15 years, which, I'm told, is about twice as long as the average artistic director runs the average regional theatre.  But neither Warner nor Wayside are average.

Warner had a strong tradition of hiring DC-area actors;  both Tom Simpson and myself were imported for Man of La Mancha.  Out of town talent became more and more problematic for the theatre as funding dried up, and housing became an issue.

I am not, I assure you, privy to the inner workings of a regional theatre, but I've been around long enough to see that Wayside Theatre had a lot of challenges to its existence. 
I first learned of Wayside when I was appearing
in Big River at the neighboring
Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre. During a day off,
I drove up the road and dropped off my headshot.
The artistic director at the time (who preceded Warner)
ignored it.  But I'm not bitter.

Its location, about 90 or so miles from Washington, DC, may lead one to assume it's a bedroom (ie: commuter) community, and indeed, there are some residents in the area who are crazy enough to make the long drive to and from DC every day.  But mostly, the residents who are lucky enough to have Wayside in their midst would be considered rural.  Though Wayside Theatre is over 50 years old, it sits in a community for whom theatre-going is not a routine part of life. 
If you didn't know Wayside was there, you might miss it.  Located on Main Street of tiny Middletown, VA, right next to the fire station, it was a central gathering place which should have been given greater respect from its community than it received.  Warner struggled to teach his patrons that there was a big difference between community theatre and professional.  I still don't think they get it.
I know Warner and his staff struggled mightily throughout the years to instill a sense of regional pride in their theatre, as well as a recognition that Wayside was an important asset to the community which needed to be encouraged, financially as well as creatively.  This was an uphill battle.

My first appearance at Wayside Theatre was in Agatha Christie's Black Coffee, a whodunit which is known primarily as the first onstage appearance of her famous Dutch detective, Hercule Poirot.
One of Warner's most important Wayside legacies must be his internship program, which gave countless theatre professionals their launching pad.  His former interns are now working all over the country (indeed, all over the world!).  Above are four such success stories, surrounding Larry Dalke, one of Warner's favorite actors.
I was a last-minute replacement in Black Coffee, which I mention only to justify the fact that my performance was not one of my best. 
Warner's trust and respect toward actors was
always evident. He chose to work repeatedly
with actors of talent who also had spirits of
generosity, kindness, and fun. Jim Fleming
was one of Warner's regulars.

There wasn't anything substantially wrong with it, I just never connected with the character.  I came away from the show with many, many great personal memories of the experience, but with the sour taste which comes from an unsatisfactory performance.
My debut at Wayside Theatre was in Black Coffee, a thriller in which I played a clueless, dullard husband.  I was a last minute replacement in the role, and was not cast into my strengths.  Wayside's leading actress, Thomasin Savaiano, played my wife, and wiped the stage with me.  I was sure I would never be invited back to Wayside again.
It was many years before I returned to Wayside. 
Sound designer Steve was instrumental (pun alert!)
in creating the niche into which most Wayside
musicals fell, where actors played the music.

My next role, Sancho Panza in the classic musical Man of La Mancha, was more successful.  Though once again cast against type, I had lots of help from director Warner and musical guru Steve Przybylski(I wrote about this experience in several entries at the time, including this tribute to Steve and the entire cast).
During Man of La Mancha, I stayed in this charming guest house.  In earlier days, Wayside had access to a building which housed out-of-town actors, but I guess that was deemed a wasted expense.  In recent years, out-of-towners were usually housed with Wayside constituents who wished to help out the theatre.
Only a few years went by before I was asked back to Wayside, to play a role for which I was perfectly suited.  The Nerd was the kind of comedy very accessible to a wide range of audiences, and I had a ball with the play and the role. 
As the sardonic neighbor with an agenda, The Nerd provided
me with a great role. It was to be Wayside's final production
as an Equity house to date.

It was during this period, though, that I began to realize the huge financial challenges which Warner faced every day of his career at Wayside Theatre.  His board of directors seemed split over how to help the theatre continue to survive and grow. 

Warner and his staff did all they could to keep the theatre in business. During renovations, they moved their season to
another location, actually creating a lovely little theater space out of a warehouse. Forever Plaid and other shows continued the Wayside tradition of quality;  it would have been the perfect "second space" for the theatre, but the Board saw no need.
A capital campaign to expand the theatre's space only got far enough to pay for some essential upgrades to the existing theatre (during my first show there, it was necessary to actually go outside the building to cross from backstage right to left).  Wayside's property includes an empty lot behind the theatre which Warner hoped to build on, to add rehearsal/shop/office space and perhaps a black box to house their thriving education wing.  No such luck.
It might be said that some board members were pretty blind to the realities of keeping a theatre alive.
The summer I appeared in The Nerd, we were in the midst of the economic downturn, so charitable giving bottomed out, and the theatre ran into trouble with Actors Equity.  The Nerd, in fact, was to be the theatre's final show produced under the union's Small Professional Theatre contract;  Wayside became, in a professional sense, a non-union house. 
Chairs with booties.  The perfect example, in microcosm, of some of the challenges Warner faced in creating theatre. Rehearsal space was always an issue; for The Nerd, we worked on the upper floor of a grand old house in Winchester, VA.  It was originally a ballroom, and its hard wood floors had to be protected, hence the booties on the chairs.  We added and removed them every single rehearsal.  I always sensed that Warner would like to spend all his time with actors, creating theatre.  Don't get me wrong, he never brought the outside problems of Wayside into the rehearsal room.  Instead, he seemed to relax and become his best self there.
Warner, to his credit, has always been a big supporter of the actors union, and continued to employ AEA members when he could, using the Guest Artist contract, but he was forced to severely downsize his staff, which was already skeletal to my eyes. 

My birthday buddy Malia was Wayside's Production Stage Manager for many years. Once the theatre went non-Equity, she had to move on. Like so many other Wayside folks, she landed on her feet and now works in the mid-West.
Two major fundraising campaigns seemed to prove that, when push came to shove, the community did care that Wayside was around, and recently, they seemed ready to enter a new chapter.
I guess that chapter will be without the theatre's major engine.  I have no inside info on why Warner tendered his resignation earlier this month. 
Thomasin Savaiano: Wayside's leading teacher,
actress, cheerleader, bottle washer, and

According to the local papers, the board intends to continue with the season which Warner selected, hiring independent directors for each show, but refraining from hiring a new artistic director, at least for now.  How the hell that's going to work is beyond my comprehension, as I've been in that tiny second floor loft where Wayside Theatre's administrative offices are cramped. Warner and Thomasin, with the help of one or two others, ran all the administrative aspects of the theatre.  Without them, I wonder how the day-to-day operations will continue.

To my knowledge, Warner was never granted the title
"Producing Artistic Director," but that's what he was.  He
was also the Managing Director, but again, without the
While at Wayside, Warner made many financial sacrifices, all to keep the "little theatre with the big heart" producing quality, professional shows.   I have not heard what Warner's next career step will be, but wherever he lands, he's likely to take that same determination and enthusiasm for creating theatre.  And wherever he goes, I hope he takes my headshot with him!
Warner and Thomasin hosted their final Opening Night reception last week.  I was devastated that I could not attend, but I was trapped in Riverside Park in NYC, having my eyes gouged out in King Lear.  I hated to miss this important sendoff for the Crocker/Savaiano team, but I know they understand.
Happy Birthday, Warner.
Addendum: on 8/8/13, a few weeks after I wrote the above entry, the Board of Directors of Wayside Theatre announced its immediate closing.  Its 52 year history is now that: history.