[I'm always interested in the ways theater rubs up against other aspects of society and culture, whether it's education, politics, history, or any other element of human, especially American, life. Here's an article from the Washington Post that reports on a successful (nine years and running) confluence of the art of theater with faith and spirituality, two aspects of our culture that haven't always been a comfortable fit.]
Conventional wisdom holds that January can be a challenging time for theaters, with winter weather and post-holiday fatigue tending to put a damper on attendance. But in Richmond, the period after New Year’s has become a regular buzz-generator for local companies. That’s because it ushers in the city’s Acts of Faith Theatre Festival, a yearly effort by local artists and a number of religious congregations to affirm an affinity between spirituality and the stage.
The festival, now entering its 10th season, was founded by a group of thespians who happened to be practicing Presbyterians. The concept has been embraced by Richmond’s theater companies, which now typically plan their seasons so as to open, between January and March, at least one designated Acts of Faith show – a play or musical featuring either religious or thought-provoking social and existential themes. Billing itself as “the largest faith-based theatre festival in the United States,” the Acts of Faith celebration kicks off Jan. 12, with a preview evening in which participating companies will present snippets from 18 upcoming productions.
Those shows will include a production of Moliere’s “Tartuffe” by Richmond’s flagship Virginia Repertory Theatre, as well as a staging of James Sherman’s “From Door to Door” by the city’s Jewish Family Theatre and Jihad Abdulmumit’s play “The Shootout,” mounted by For Our Children Productions, a grass-roots company that tackles social issues from an Islamic perspective. Richmond Triangle Players, a troupe focused on plays that relate to the LGBTQ experience, is hosting the pre-New York tryout of “The Mormon Boy Trilogy,” by out-of-town author/performer Steven Fales.
The festival “started out with just a handful of churches and theater companies participating, and it has exploded,” says Jacquie O’Connor, managing director of Henley Street Theatre and Richmond Shakespeare, a pair of classically oriented troupes that are in the process of merging. The two groups will present David Davalos’s comedy “Wittenberg” – about Hamlet, Martin Luther and Doctor Faustus – as an entry in this year’s festival.
Over the years, O’Connor says, the festival has “really brought the theater community and the faith community together in a way that is innovative and inspiring, and that furthers the conversation” about how art relates to spirituality and belief.
Bringing two realms together
That was the goal of Jeff Gallagher, Daniel Moore, Bruce Miller and a couple of other Central Virginians, who launched the festival in 2005 with support from Second Presbyterian Church in downtown Richmond. (The church is still the festival’s “convening sponsor.” More than a dozen other congregations serve as co-sponsors or advisers.) At the time, they felt troubled by the perception of a disconnect between the theater world and the world of religion, or at least Christianity.
“I frequently encounter people who are among my church friends who don’t get what I do in the arts, and I encounter people in my artistic family who don’t get why I enjoy teaching Sunday school,” says Miller, who is Virginia Repertory Theatre’s artistic director and a practicing Presbyterian. He adds, “To me, it’s so much the same thing,” with religious and artistic experience “using all the same mechanisms in my psyche and my being.”
Around the time of the festival’s launch, events from America’s latter-day culture wars had contributed to a sense, among some, that faith and the arts were at odds. Not too much time had gone by, for instance, since a New York theater producing Terrence McNally’s play “Corpus Christi” in 1998 had confronted denunciations from religious groups, and even threats of violence.
“There was the perception that if you were pushing the edges of art, you were poking the eye of the faith community,” says Gallagher, a playwright-turned-biotech entrepreneur. He remembers worrying in the aftermath of Mel Gibson’s controversial 2004 movie “The Passion of the Christ” that “consideration of faith in the public square was going to get increasingly polarized, and do damage along the way – and then possibly disappear.”
Miller recalls feeling mortified by reports of the homophobic religious group that had picketed hate-crime victim Matthew Shepard’s funeral – an event covered in the 2000 play “The Laramie Project.”
“They call themselves Christians, those people!” Miller says with exasperation. “They do something like this – and then the arts community goes, ‘Christians are all crazy!’ And some people in the Christian community go, ‘Artists are all devils!’”
Responding to this climate, the Richmonders came up with the idea of a theater festival designed, in Gallagher’s words, “to create a space where there could be an experience and enjoyment and discussion of faith in a way that was very public, and in a broader way that would be found in a synagogue or a church.”
Established theaters and other groups were invited to participate in the festival by staging plays with themes related to faith and – a key element – by holding post-performance audience talkbacks. The first festival included Regina Taylor’s church-hat-themed play “Crowns,” mounted by Barksdale Theatre – a company that later folded into Virginia Rep – and a production of Allan Gurganus’s “Blessed Assurance” by Firehouse Theatre Project, which focuses on contemporary American work.
Wide variety on offer
Importantly, the festival founders left the definition of “faith” wide open. Moore, a director and actor, says they did not want to “be in a position where we were giving the green light, or thumbs-up or -down, to any particular play.” Each producing group could decide whether a given script was appropriate for the festival.
As a result, Acts of Faith productions have ranged widely in subject matter and style, sometimes seeming – at least to a casual observer – to connect rather tenuously with the festival’s governing theme.
When Henley Street mounted “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 2009, O’Connor recalls, “We had a lot of people say, ‘How could that be a part of the Acts of Faith festival? What is it about that show?’ But it actually is very faith-based, in the sense that it deals with tolerance and the understanding of how we should be treated.”
Last season, one of Virginia Rep’s Acts of Faith offerings was Noel Coward’s comedy “Hay Fever.”
Come on: “Hay Fever”?
Coward’s play evokes the aftermath of World War I, when disillusioned young people “were turning their backs on their religion and upbringing and adopting very much a ‘live-for-today-screw-it-we’re-going-for-it’” attitude, Miller maintains. He says he based an entire Sunday school lesson on “Hay Fever” at his church, leading a substantive discussion about how congregations can and should react when people turn away from traditional theological beliefs.
For his part, John Knapp, artistic director of Richmond Triangle Players, says he strives to program Acts of Faith productions that deal overtly with religion – plays such as Carol Lynn Pearson’s “Facing East,” about Mormon parents coming to terms with the suicide of their gay son, which RTP tackled in 2010; or “Next Fall,” Geoffrey Nauffts’s tale of love between a devout Christian and an atheist, which RTP staged in 2012.
“The thing that I really like about the festival is it gives us a platform where we can perform really meaningful, thought-provoking theater,” Knapp says. “Some of that stuff can be a really tough sell, but it gives us a platform to do it. And the faith community, because it supports the festival, will come to the shows, so you do have more bodies in the seats.” Without the festival, he says, “I don’t think I would ever have touched ‘Facing East.’”
Like Knapp, many Richmond thespians say that – separate from any rapprochement it might have fostered between believers and showbiz types – the Acts of Faith festival has been great PR, and good audience-building, for local theater.
By participating in the festival, “we reach out to people that normally we would not reach,” says Abdulmumit, who is the founder of For Our Children Productions. (At the festival last year, the company staged “The Madrassa Across Town,” about a young girl who aspires to memorize the entire Koran.)
“As the years have passed, our audience has widened because of Acts of Faith,” says Debra Clinton, artistic director of Jewish Family Theatre. (Jewish Family Theatre and For Our Children Productions are among the nonprofessional companies that join the festival on an “associate” level.)
Miller, who has spent decades in Richmond theater, says that attendance by church groups has become a significant factor for companies participating in the festival. “There are some small companies whose biggest audiences of the entire year are church groups that come to see their Acts of Faith offering. And with our larger companies, it brings new people in the door,” he says.
However, because no citywide marketing research or other analysis has been conducted, evidence of the festival’s impact on local theater attendance remains anecdotal. (The festival does have a headcount for Acts of Faith talkbacks: Nearly 1,200 people stuck around for those in 2013.)
What does seem clear is that the festival has become a Richmond fixture.
“There are places where this probably wouldn’t have gotten off the ground,” Moore says. “But it has taken root here.”
[The Acts of Faith Theatre Festival (http://theactsoffaith.org/) in Richmond, Virginia, took place at various venues from 12 January to 19 April 2014. The annual event, which bills itself as “America’s Largest Faith Inspired Theatre Event,” was established in Richmond in 2005. The city’s Second Presbyterian Church is the convening sponsor of this collaboration between the faith community and professional theater companies. The non-sectarian and ecumenical festival has grown from just a few participants in that first season to include, as of the 10th festival this year, 15 area theatres offering 18 shows.
[Wren is a freelance writer and editor focused on theater and media criticism. With more than two decades of experience, her articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Village Voice, Newsday, the Boston Globe, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the New York Observer, Smithsonian, Talk, Stagebill, American Theatre, Commonweal, Broadway.com, and South Africa’s Weekly Mail. She’s written about Broadway productions, HBO series, Masterpiece Theatre, Ken Burns documentaries, Animal Planet, online poetry, contemporary novels, a Christian video game, and more. Wren also teaches at Johns Hopkins University. This article was originally published in the “Arts” section of the Washington Post on 5 January 2014.]