Sometimes mergers are like matches made in heaven. It seems that way with Richmond Shakespeare and Henley Street Theatre, which are in the process of joining their singularly significant theatrical companies at the hip. As of July 1, the two local theatre companies became a joint entity, though the actual merger may be some time off. But they seem to be enjoying the betrothal.
“It’s kind of like we’re engaged to be married,” says Jacquie O’Connor, who describes herself as the managing director of Henley Street Theatre and Richmond Shakespeare. “The merger takes a couple of years. It took Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV about ten years to merge. We hope that it won’t take us that long.
Jan Powell, who identifies herself as the artistic director of Richmond Shakespeare and Henley Street Theatre, nods in agreement, but is quick to point out that the pair of theatre companies hasn’t even decided on their wed-locked name yet. “There are several names out there we’re told being bandied about,” says Jan. One of them is HenShakes. “We’re an all women driven company at this point,” Jan says. But I can’t help thinking of cackling guinea hens, pejorative at best, and when I mention this, they both smile. “Maybe not that one,” Jacquie says.
“There are other names,” says Jan. “HSTRS. Which doesn’t say much. (Acronyms rarely do.) Or Shakespeare on Henley Street.” This last name elicits a round of approval from everyone present.
“We’re hoping that some lovely marketing agency will take us on as a challenge and come up with a whole new name, logo and motto,” Jacquie says.
Uniting two of Richmond’s premiere professional theatre companies seemed like a natural even before Jan and Jacquie first started talking about it. Jan Powell had just come to Richmond and eventually took over as Richmond Shakespeare’s artistic director. “I was relatively new to Richmond and I would meet lots of people and inevitably somewhere in our initial meeting they would say, ‘You know I really think Richmond Shakespeare should merge with Henley Street because your missions are so similar and you’re both inspired by Shakespeare and you both like to do language based theatre,’” Jan remembers. “This was something that seemed to be kind of in the atmosphere. And at the time I thought it was not a very likely possibility.”
But then something happened. James Ricks, Henley Street’s impeccable artistic director, decided to move on and there was suddenly a vacancy. “That was at the end of last year,” says Jan. “And that was the moment that seemed like the perfect chance to combine forces because we had an artistic director at Richmond Shakespeare and a managing director at Henley and we knew that we were each going to be needing those positions and it seemed like a really excellent partnership.”
Jacquie sees this partnership as a means of consolidating two separate companies that have a history of common commitment. “As a combined entity we become hopefully the cornerstone of classic theatre and contemporary language based theatre in Richmond so when you come to a Henley Street Richmond Shakespeare production, no matter what it is, you’re going to walk out wanting to talk about it,” she says. “It’s not going to be something that necessarily you’ll see at the other theatre companies. And I think that’s important. That each theatre company brings to the table something unique so that the community gets a variety of opportunities and diverse productions.”
The first production Jan did for Richmond Shakespeare was MacBeth at Center Stage. “I fell in love with the town and with the people,” she says. “Then the founding artistic director Grant Mudge left and the board president asked if I’d be interested in staying on as interim artistic director. And finally I was the permanent artistic director.”
Jacquie had seen that production of MacBeth and was blown away by it. “When the lights came up I sat there for a little while just kind of was green with envy because I was so moved by what I had seen,” she says. “And it wasn’t just that the actors were good or the set was good or the costumes were good, it was that everything seemed to coordinate. A all the ‘I’s’ seemed to be dotted and the ‘T’s’ seemed to be crossed and I could tell that this was collaborative adventure. I wish I had been an actor in that show or had some hand in it because it was joyful all the way around and it worked.”
Jacquie finally cornered Jan at a party and the pair talked for half an hour. That’s when they started laying the groundwork for the merger.
“The youth and the energy and the edge that Henley Street has is just kind of imagining heaven,” says Jan. “The opportunity to take on this combination of classical and contemporary theatre is just thrilling to me.”
Their first season together is already mapped. They’ll kick off the season with The Importance of Being Earnest at Richmond Triangle Players. They’ll do Bootleg Shakespeare—this year’s choice is Pericles—at Willow Lawn. And then they’ll produce Death and the Maiden at Center Stage, along with Taming of the Shrew at the Steward School. And then, of course, in the dog days of summer, the troupe will take to Agecroft Hall for Shakespeare under the stars, an incredible experience played out in the shadows of an English tudor manor house in Windsor Farms. The company will perform Richard III and then their finale—perfectly suited for the venue—A Midsummer’s Night Dream.
As you can see, this company will not be performing in one space—they will float, as Henley Street always had, from one playhouse to another. But that might soon change.
“We need a home,” says Jacquie. “As much as we love Richmond Triangle Players and Center Stage and all the places we perform, a new home is our next goal. We absolutely need an angel to come forward and donate a small building. A theater that would seat 250 or so people, have some offices, storage and rehearsal space.”
“A permanent home would be very nice,” Jan says. “Our own space.”