Roy Proctor: Northside’s Theater Legend
It’s 3 p.m., and a brutal storm is rolling in from the east. I throw my gear into my bag and avoid the first few rain drops as I make my way to the front door of a living Richmond legend. Roy Proctor, a stout man whose impact in Richmond can be seen on live theater stages almost every night of the week, has made me a pot of coffee. I’ve never been so excited to ingest caffeine and pick someone’s brain.
Our chat took place on Tuesday. This Saturday, the merging Henley Street Theatre and Richmond Shakespeare will give Proctor their first Richmond Folio Award for contributions to Richmond theater at their first Bootleg Ball gala at the Virginia Holocaust Museum.
Roy Proctor started writing in grade school. His early passion was fiction, and his wordsmithing eventually led to acceptance in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop under novelist Philip Roth at the University of Iowa. He published a dozen short stories in his 20s as he continued to hone his craft.
When he was 30, he did what he calls “the Hemingway thing” by moving to Madrid and writing full-time for three years. He was married and had two children, one of whom was born in Madrid. His wife died in a TWA plane crash only months after he moved to Richmond in 1974. He never remarried, but has had several long-term relationships with men since then.
“The plane crash was the worst day of my life,” Proctor recalls. “Plane crashes are always something that happen to somebody else, usually somebody you don’t know. It’s something you read about.
When it happens to someone you love, it’s like winning the lottery in reverse. Your luck totally runs out.”
Proctor moved back to the United States from Spain in 1972 to work for the aptly named Chapel Hill Newspaper in North Carolina. While in Chapel Hill, he won a couple of state press awards for criticism and feature writing. He also caught the eye of Jerry Finch, then the managing editor of the afternoon Richmond News Leader. Finch hired him to begin work in May 1974. Within two months, he was named that afternoon paper’s arts editor and theater, art and movie critic. He had embarked on what turned out to be a 30-year journey through Richmond’s theater and arts scene.
Proctor became the arts editor of a medium-market paper at a time when print journalism was king. He traveled annually to New York and to cities across the United States and Canada to attend meetings of the American Theatre Critics Association, which he served as a member of its rulng executive committee and later its advisory council for two decades. His newspaper – first the News Leader, then the Richmond Times-Dispatch after the News Leader folded in 1992 – would always pick up the tab.
“For 30 years, I was the guy who was paid for trying to have fun,” Proctor says. “How lucky could I have been? I was paid to see movies in my first 13 years here. I saw about 2,000. I was paid to see plays here and elsewhere. I saw about 3,500.”
When Proctor arrived at the News-Leader, theater criticism often amounted to cheerleading in Richmond. He had written only three theater reviews in his life, but his lack of involvement in the Richmond theater scene was one of the reasons the News Leader brought him in.
“We’re bringing you here from outside, you have no debts to pay, call the shots as you see them,” Proctor recalls his editors telling him. “And, boy, did that strike terror into the heart of the theater community! Here was somebody who didn’t like everything he saw and wasn’t afraid to say so.”
When one of the owners of Swift Creek Mill Theatre got a whiff of Proctor’s approach, he wrote a letter to the News Leader’s managing editor.
“We notice that the News Leader has a new theater critic,” Proctor recalls the letter as saying. “We have a good relationship with your former critic, and we’d appreciate your continuing to have him review our shows instead.”
Proctor’s editor showed Proctor the letter and told him to “handle it.” Proctor interpreted that to mean that he should call up the former critic and assign him to the show. Proctor did just that and was summoned into the managing editor’s office the following Monday morning.
“Why did you send your predecessor to review ‘‘The Music Man,’” Proctor recalls him asking. “Well, you showed me that letter and told me to take care of it,” Proctor told him. “I certainly did,” the managing editor replied. “I meant for you to call Swift Creek Mill and tell them in no uncertain terms that you were the critic now.”
That support from his bosses never faded, according to Proctor. “For 30 years, the newspaper never told me to tone it down or pep it up,” he says. “They stood behind me. And God knows the theater community would come at me from all sides with guns blazing, but that made no difference. The editors always backed me up.”
It was this commitment to calling the critical shots as he saw them that made Proctor such a legend in the theater community.
“Roy went above and beyond what would be the normal critic responsibility,” says Jacquie O’Connor, managing director of Henley Street. “He loved and appreciated the arts. He wanted to see the theater community thrive. Roy didn’t always do it well, but he did it well most of the time.”
When Proctor was critical, O’Connor said members of the theater community could always call him up and get quality feedback. “They didn’t always agree with his reviews,” says O’Connor. “But his heart was always in the right place. He was always willing to listen and learn.”
This ability, as a critic, to take criticism was something that made him stand out in the minds of his colleagues as well. Daniel Finnegan, editor of the Times-Dispatch, says in an e-mail that Proctor approached theater criticism with a great understanding of the weight his words carried.
“He approached criticism of local theater companies with the utmost responsibility, never pulling his punches when he saw room for improvement, yet putting his opinions in appropriate context,” says Finnegan. “That, combined with his ability to write with authority about his subject matter, made his reviews must-reads in the theater community.”
Finnegan also spoke of the quality of Proctor’s theater news coverage, his “encyclopedic knowledge of theater in general,” and his passion for the Richmond theater scene. “In short, he was an institution at the paper and in the community he covered.”
Like Finnegan, O’Connor had a few lasting memories of Proctor, especially when her own performances were reviewed.
During one performance of “The Wind in the Willows,” in which O’Connor played the Mole, Proctor wrote that O’Connor played “second banana” to the rest of the cast. For the rest of the run, people brought O’Connor bananas instead of flowers. “I kind of hated him after that,” says O’Connor with a laugh.
The lasting relationship Proctor had with so many individuals of the Richmond theater community is what has lead the Henley Street Theater and Richmond Shakespeare to honor him with the first annual Folio award. The recent news of a merger prompted the two theater companies lead to create an award that would honor the Bard at the same time it recognizes the impact someone in Richmond had made on their theater world.
“Roy championed every company that came around,” said O’Connor. “When Henley was getting founded, Roy met with the founding members and talked about the city and the love of the arts he had and what he thought we needed in the community. He was someone who was kind of a mentor to a lot of the theater companies when they started.”
This made Proctor an obvious choice for the award.
“”I was almost speechless,” Proctor says in recalling his reaction when O’Connor called him to tell him about the award about three weeks ago. “It was a big boost to my spirit.”
Although he retired from theater criticism nine years ago, that hasn’t slowed him down as he’s reinvented himself as a theater director and internationally produced playwright.
Shortly after leaving The Times-Dispatch in 2004, Proctor approached Carol Piersol, then artistic director of the Firehouse Theatre Project, and asked if he could direct a staged reading for the Firehouse. She enthusiastically agreed and, in the next four years, Proctor directed 11 plays for five Richmond theatre companies.
In the last 18 months, he has written 24 short plays and a full-length two act play. His work has been produced in an arc extending from Cambridge, England; to Washington, DC, to Richmond to New Orleans. The New Orleans play, which involves two senior gay men, has been published and opened recently in Cardiff, Wales. The Washington play, “Fabulous Water Sports,” led off the first DC Queer Theatre Festival last June at the DC Center in Washington.
Forty years of meeting daily newspaper deadlines made the playwriting process easy.
“I do what the great Irish short story writer, Frank O’Connor, advised,” Proctor says. “Get black on white. I sit down and write the whole play in some form. If it doesn’t make sense, fine. The important thing is to get the black words on the white computer screen. The I go back and keep adjusting and revising until I sculpt the play I want to write.”
“I’m my own worst critic when I hear what I’ve written,” Proctor says. “I think I have a pretty good sense of the theatrical moment, what’s going to make people laugh or shed a tear. That’s what I got from 30 years of seeing 3500 plays. I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t work.”
Proctor isn’t optimistic when I asked for advice for aspiring theater critics.
“Keep your day job,” he says with a rueful smile.
Proctor acknowledged the shrinkage of the newsroom and the fact that most newspapers today, unless they’re in major cities, don’t hire full-time staff theater critics any more. He acknowledges that dumb luck played a large role in him getting the job on the News Leader.
“I was in the right place at the right time and caught the eye of the right editor who apparently saw something worth developing. He saw something in me that I didn’t really see in myself.”
Proctor saw an era in daily newspaper publishing collapse and fade away. He was working for the News-Leader, Richmond’s evening paper, when, during the 1980s, a lot of national advertisers decided they would support only one paper in a city, and the morning papers were the survivors. When afternoon papers merged into morning papers, they didn’t need two theater critics in one arts field anymore. Proctor was fortunate to survive the transition.
It wasn’t all vinegar, though, Proctor knows there will always be a need for a critical voice in a theater community, especially one as vital as Richmond’s.
“The key to being a theater critic is to love theater so much as a vital force in your life that you’re not willing to put up with just anything in the name of theater.”
Proctor and I sat on his back porch and watched the storm roll across his Laburnum Park neighborhood on Northside.
The relationship he established with readers, in his view, made all the difference.
“Readers learned to trust me to call the shots as I saw them,” he says. “That was very important. I liked a lot of stuff, I didn’t like a lot of stuff, And I had mixed feelings about a lot of stuff. But no one had any reason to believe I wasn’t writing out of my conviction.”
“You make your own right and wrong.”May 18, 2015
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