HST/RS Merger

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Two of Richmond’s top theatre companies are joining forces.


On March 19, Henley Street Theatre (HST) and Richmond Shakespeare (RS) executed a Memorandum of Understanding, which outlines a plan to merge the operating management of the two companies effective in the next fiscal year. With unanimous approval from both boards, the move creates a long-term collaborative partnership, intended to result in an organizational merger within two years. Under the agreement, the companies will retain their current boards of directors, share an artistic director and a managing director, and co-produce a joint season under their existing namesThe combined company will feature greater efficiency in operations and lower overhead expenses.  It will leverage the strengths of both organizations in order to realize a shared vision of artistic excellence.

A strategic partnership between the two companies is not a new idea. “The pieces have long been a good fit,” observes RS Board President Brendan Williamson. “Richmond Shakespeare has a wonderful Summer Festival in partnership with Agecroft Hall and strong education programs. Henley Street has a proud history of producing thought-provoking classic and contemporary plays and education programs geared towards backstage student internships.” Patrons and donors had also suggested the possibility of a partnership in recent years, and the companies’ co-production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale in 2010-11 was an artistic and box office success.


As Williamson notes, “The timing wasn’t quite right the first time around, but all that changed late in 2012.” At that time, HST’s Artistic Director James Ricks had announced to the board his intention to leave the company to pursue out-of-town career opportunities, and RS found itself in need of additional management expertise. The two companies promptly resumed their dialogue. “This time,” says Williamson, “I was very optimistic that we were positioned to pursue a lasting partnership. Our missions were already in sync, and now our needs were too. [HST Managing Director] Jacquie O’Connor’s management acumen and [RS Artistic Director] Jan Powell’s artistic leadership are complementary.”

“It just made sense to revisit the idea,” said HST Board President Raphael Seligmann. “James Ricks has done tremendous things for Henley Street and the larger Richmond arts community. He’ll never be replaced. But I also knew that in Jan Powell Richmond Shakespeare already had an artistic leader with the appropriate reverence for language and spirit of adventure that we prize in our company. I had heard that Richmond Shakespeare was seeking a managing director, so I thought we each had a lot to offer the other-and, ultimately, Richmond.”


Leaders in the Richmond arts community are excited by the potential of the joint organization and have expressed their support. “This is a merger that theatre patrons will celebrate and applaud,” said John Bryan, president of CultureWorks. “Donors’ investments will go even further in enabling these two wonderful organizations to enrich our community.” Foster Billingsley, Executive Director of the Virginia Commission for the Arts, also applauds the merger, “These two organizations have been an asset to the Richmond arts community for many years. This merger will not only strengthen both companies but it will allow them to do greater things as a combined organization. We wish them the best of luck as they move forward as one theatre company.”


Honoring Two Extraordinary Leaders


Since 2009, James Ricks has provided visionary artistic oversight to HST, directing highly-acclaimed productions, including Waiting for Godot, A Servant of Two Masters, The Liar and the company’s current production of Julius CaesarHis Bootleg Shakespeareseries, which began in 2009, has gained cult following. I‘m so proud of what we have accomplished at Henley,Ricks saysThrough the efforts of many wonderfully creative theatre artists, we have delivered productions that were artistically exciting and enjoyed by thousands of theatre patrons. Although I will be pursuing the next stage of my own creative development in another city, I will always cherish the time spent working with Richmonds dynamic and inspiring theatre community.” Ricks is also confident that he is passing this legacy of strong work into good hands: “Jan’s vision and wealth of experience will help take both companies to the next level.” Ricks has announced his interest in participating in future productions of both companies. “The prospect of two incredible professionals–James and Jan–joining forces promises theatre-goers a rare treat in future seasons,” says Seligmann.

As the theatre community celebrates James’ exceptional work with HST, RS will honor the achievements of its co-founder and Education Director, Cynde Liffick, who recently announced her decision to pursue other opportunities here in Richmond. Liffick engineered all of RS’s education programs and co-created many of its successful artistic products, including the summer festival. “I’m proudest of my work to create the Bardathon, the 2007 Will Power to Youth Richmond, dedicated homeschool programming, and other educational work with partners in the community,” says Liffick. “My time at Richmond Shakespeare also represents an incredible artistic journey for me, through projects such as the creation of the Summer Festival, the adaptation of A Christmas Carol for Two Actors, and many others. I firmly believe that Shakespeare’s work is not only relevant to our modern lives, but is also a very powerful medium for social change. I will continue to work on similar artistic and educational projects through my new venture, Bard Unbound.” Liffick has also agreed to work as a consultant to Richmond Shakespeare and Henley Street education programs, and to participate in future productions and artistic projects. “Cynde’s positive legacy can be observed in everything the company does well,” says Williamson. “We wish her all the best, and look forward to collaborating with her in the future!”


A Year of Expansion and Discovery


Beginning this fall, the joint companies season will mount mainstage classic and contemporary productions,including Henleys well-knownBootleg Shakespeareproduction and the long-standing tradition of the Richmond Shakespeare Festival at Agecroft Hall. Additionally, the merger will allow the educational programs of both companies to continue and expand within a combined Education Department under new leadership.  With joint companies, combined board meetings, and a summer retreat planned, the governance and staff of the combined company are looking forward to a bright future together.


The combination brings new responsibilities and opportunities to Jacquie O’Connor. “As a founding member of Henley, I had small goals for our company when we started out,” she says. This is not something that I expected. But it’s a wonderful opportunity to be able to join with Richmond Shakespeare. We will be able to achieve greater results together than as separate entities. Coming together will allow us to produce the visionary theatre our patrons have come to expect, while remaining financially responsible to our donorsIn the words of William Shakespeare, it is amarriage of true minds’.”  We’re aiming for the stars here”, added Powell.“  Our ultimate dream is to become a center of, and a resource for, the highest possible level of classical and contemporary theatre.  Combining our resources and partnering our leadership will provide the support and energy we need to create theatre that is deeply connected to our community, so that we are vitally alive to Richmonds current concerns, delights and aspirations. Our performances will be entertaining, but more than that we intend to provide relevant, moving,eloquent theatrical experiences for our audiences.  This partnership will allow us to deepen and broaden our scope of influence in the dynamic Richmond theatre scene that‘s happening right now.”


About Henley Street Theatre and Richmond Shakespeare

Henley Street Theatre is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded in 2007 with a mission to stage classic and contemporary works that are relevant, affordable and alive. Its artistic standards are guided by three core values: a reverence for language, a commitment to diversity and a spirit of adventure. Henley Street produces five mainstage productions each year, including its well-known Bootleg Shakespeareevents. In the past six years Henley Street Theatre has helped educate more than 5,000 students through reduced cost or free mainstage student performances, after school drama programs and robust highschool student internship programs. These programs allow students to work with professional mentors behind the scenes and on stage in areas such as costuming, lighting, set design, stage management, sound, video, props and acting.


Richmond Shakespeare began in 1985 and became a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in 1991with a mission to create unique performances of theater, using original or established works and emphasizing the plays of William Shakespeare.It strives to demonstrate that Shakespeares works are understandable, exciting, and applicable to modern life.  Richmond Shakespeare produces five mainstage shows each year, including two full Shakespeare productions for the Richmond Shakespeare Festival, which has taken place at historical Agecroft Hall since1999.  Richmond Shakespeare also has a tradition of excellent Shakespeare education programming, including the Bardathon,” a Shakespeare festival produced in partnership with Richmond CenterStage’s BrightLights education program.  High schools from the greater Richmond area and a Russian high school from St. Petersburg come together each year to celebrate Shakespeare in performanceEach school prepares a scene from a Shakespeare play, the scenes are then performed as a single play and streamed live online for viewing at schools around the world.  For more information about Richmond Shakespeare, please visit www.RichmondShakespeare.org.


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