The Children’s Theatre has left its location at Willow Lawn and is looking for a new one.
“Our lease was coming to an end, the rent was going up quite a bit — almost 2½ times what we were currently paying — and we realized this was not going to be economically tenable,” said Phil Whiteway, managing director of the Virginia Repertory Theatre, the parent company of the Children’s Theatre.
For 25 years, Virginia Rep had a home at Willow Lawn in Henrico County, starting with the Barksdale Theatre in 1996. In 2012, Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV merged to become Virginia Repertory Theatre, and Willow Lawn became home to the Children’s Theatre.
Over the years, the Willow Lawn theater staged 139 shows.
“We’ve had amazing shows where actors poured their hearts and souls out,” Whiteway said. “It was a great space and a terrific location for the theater, and we will definitely miss it.”
The last show at the Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn was pre-pandemic: “Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad” closed March 1, 2020. The theater has been dark ever since. With an approved vaccine still unavailable for children younger than 12, the Children’s Theatre wasn’t able to reopen to host camps or performances.
“The very reason we’re here is to serve families and children. And that’s the only demographic that can’t get vaccinated. We can’t do anything safely for kids. It was time to get out,” Whiteway said.
Maryland-based Federal Realty Investment Trust, owner of Willow Lawn, declined to comment on the terms of the lease.
Virginia Rep is looking for a new home for the Children’s Theatre.
“We expect to make an announcement soon about relocating all of our children’s, family and school programs in a new-to-us home. Our hope is that camps, tour, children’s shows, story drama and the departments that support those programs will finally all be located together,” the organization said in an emailed statement to its subscribers.
After being closed for much of the pandemic, Virginia Rep reopened its doors at the November Theatre in downtown Richmond in July for “Ella and Her Fella Frank.” During its nine-week run, the show drew more than 5,800 patrons, which is a little less than typical but a good turnout, according to Whiteway.
“I take that number as a signal that people are really anxious to get out in a safe manner and return to the theater,” Whiteway said. All patrons had to show proof of vaccination, and seats were spread out for social distancing.
Earlier this year, Virginia Rep received a shuttered venue operators grant for $1.4 million.
“It’s very helpful. It’s allowing us to plan what we can do safely and will support operations that will be in the red as we continue to ramp up,” Whiteway said.
Virginia Rep employs 37 full-time employees and 10 part-time staff members, as well as production hires.
For the 2021-22 season, Virginia Rep will perform six productions at the November Theatre. Its next performance, “Pipeline,” about race and education, will open next Friday and run through Nov. 7. Performances are also planned for the Cadence Theatre Company in the Theatre Gym space. It’s undecided whether performances will be held at the Hanover Tavern.
Virginia Rep had hoped to host a large going-away party for the Children’s Theatre but decided to go the digital route. It invites patrons to share their memories of the theater in a self-taped video phone message or via email, which can be sent to email@example.com.