A Brief History of Generic Theater – Scrappy, Nomadic and Very Much Alive
Updated: Jan 11
Words by Penny Neef. Images courtesy of Jeannette Rainey.
I’ve lived in Hampton Roads for seven years. I love going to the theater. I am ashamed to admit that I have never gone to a production by Generic Theater.
Let’s just take 2020 out of the equation. None of us went to live shows of any kind this year, but that still leaves six years of theater experiences. I’ve been to Chrysler Hall, Attucks Theatre, Wells Theatre, Harrison Opera House, L. Douglas Wilder Performing Arts Center at NSU, Sandler Center, Ferguson Center in Newport News, Little Theatre of Norfolk, American Theatre in Hampton (I saw a puppet show there- that counts), but I have never gone to Generic Theater. Why?
Generic Theater has been around for 40 years. According to Jeannette Rainey, the longest standing Generic board member, unofficial Generic historian, actor and volunteer since 1997, Generic Theater is a “testament to the forward thinking of Norfolk city officials”. In 1980, the “theater landscape of Norfolk did not offer a lot”- there was some dinner theater, college productions, and an occasional Broadway touring company.
Ron Stokes, a local boy and product of Norfolk Parks and Recreation’s theater program, found a small corner of the Norfolk Municipal Auditorium, which housed an arena, Center Theater and other Parks and Rec programs. It sat on the site of what is now the Harrison Opera House. The room he found was designated as a “senior lounge”.
Stokes was looking to do something daring, more cutting edge. He wanted to start an alternative theater in Norfolk and “push the audience to try things other theaters wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole”. The seniors that were evicted from that dusty, small senior lounge might have been shocked.
Stokes became Generic Theater’s first Artistic Director. He named it Generic Theater because it was anything but generic. The city gave him an “incredibly shoestring budget”, but according to Rainey, the lack of money forced Stokes and his band of enthusiastic volunteers to be even more creative.
The senior lounge was small. It had a few well-worn couches from Goodwill and 30 chairs for the audience. Sometimes there was a makeshift stage, many times there was not. The actors, stage crew, set designers and most everyone volunteered their time. They produced plays and performance art. Stokes gave them the chance to “exercise creative muscles on pieces that weren’t being produced anywhere else”.
In 1984, Generic Theater moved out of the senior lounge and into a vocational-tech building on 21st Street, where Norfolk students worked on cars. The industrial looking building is where Fresh Market is today. The space wasn’t much larger. It could fit 80 seats, but the mission remained the same. “Challenge the artist to be more creative with less. Make the stage fit the play, not the play fit the stage. Offer alternative content. Push the audience into ideas and performances that are not safe.”
These are all quotes from board member Rainey, who found the space on 21st Street in 1997 while she was waiting for her real estate license, volunteered to be the light board operator for the world premiere of an original play titled “Eat Your Heart”, and has never left.
Along the way, Generic Theater has had several Artistic Directors. Stokes moved to New York to run the New York office of Broadway Pacific Productions, owned by a Japanese multimillionaire, and created to bring American shows and stars to Japan.
Jeannette Rainey painted sets, sold tickets, worked concessions, and did whatever else was needed. She was doing data entry for volunteers when (then Artistic Director) Steve Harders asked if she was going to audition for “Laughter on the 23rd Floor”, a comedy by Neil Simon. She got the female lead. I’ll let her tell the story –
1998 - Cast of Laughter on the 23rd Floor - Photo credit: Gerry Rowe.
From left to right (back row): James Mitchell, Erin O’Malley, Rick Peters, Chris Kypros, Chris Morrell, Michael Joyner. Middle: Jeannette Rainey. From left to right (front row): Steve Harders, Bruce Hanson.
“I remember it like it was yesterday. I was so intimidated and nervous, as anyone is when they audition for the first time. Turns out I was the only auditioner that could properly use the work f#ck in a sentence. I just threw it away. Just said it like any other adjective, just very matter of fact or not emphasized. That character has a monologue about being a female in a man's world. She throws the explicative around quite a bit- like it's the word "blue". So... my first role at Generic Theater was as Carol in "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," by Neil Simon. It starred such local icons as Mike Joyner, Jim Mitchell, Bruce Hanson and Chris Kypros. I felt really, really fortunate to be a part of that show. “
Backstage at the 21st St location was... a bit cramped. 2000's production of Men of the Cloth.
In 2008, Generic Theater moved again, this time to its current location down in the bowels of Chrysler Hall. The Virginia Stage Company had occupied this 50’ x 50’ rehearsal hall, however it had been built to be a rehearsal spot for the touring companies that come through Chrysler Hall. It is still used as a rehearsal hall, so even though Generic has been staging five productions each year (pre-COVID), they need to schedule their productions around the “big shows” that come through and perform upstairs.
Over the years, Generic has staged productions that other stage companies thought “too risky”: Glengarry Glenross by David Mamet, Evil Dead: The Musical by George Reinblatt, Urinetown by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman, The Motherf**ker with the Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis, and many, many more.
Rainey is sure people are still talking about Generic’s production of Equus by Peter Shaffer and The Former Prostitute’s Potluck Supper by Frankie Little Hardin. “Each production is a feat to achieve and our local creatives get a chance to push themselves in different ways on each one.”
Maybe Generic’s current location is the reason I have never been to a production of Generic Theater, even though it is now called Generic Theater Downunder Chrysler Hall. I had no clue where it was, even though the website has a handy link titled “Where the #@% is Generic Theater?”
Maybe it is because the silver haired guy I live with is definitely scared of “alternative theater”. Maybe it is because I’ve always been a bit suspicious of really small spaces with not many seats in the house. I want to be part of the audience but invisible in a dark theater.
In any case, given a vaccine, and a more adventurous theater-going partner, I will go to a Generic Theater production in 2021. Generic has big plans. They are purchasing the old Riverview Theater on Granby Street and will finally have a proper theater space to call their own. The building is under contract. Rainey says Generic is “assembling our capital stack”.
Richard Levin, the current owner, could have “sold the building many times over the years”. Rainey says he has been waiting for the right buyer to come along, an organization that will restore the theater, not tear it down.
That organization is Generic Theater. Rainey hopes Generic will be able to open at Riverview Theater by summer of 2022. She says, “It’s ambitious, but we’re known for doing the impossible. We have 40 years of doing more with less dollars.”
In the meantime, Generic Theater is ready to present its latest production The Last Five Years, books, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Shon Stacy, Artistic Director, says this two-person musical will be recorded and streamed the last two weekends in January. Go to http://www.generictheater.org for more information.
Generic Theater is not a story about a building. It is a story about dedicated, passionate people who want to take risks, push the boundaries, evoke a reaction and put on a show that is accessible to everyone. The budget for all these cutting-edge plays has remained the same for 12 years. Rainey puts it best, “Generic Theater is aiming to produce equity quality theater for less. Our mission is to provide dramatic arts to everyone.”
When most of us have had our double dose of vaccine, we will go back to live theater, concerts, and the performances big and small. There is nothing quite like being part of a collective, to laugh together, to cry together, to experience great art together. We all miss it. The people of the Generic Theater are making plans, big plans.