Richmond’s Acts of Faith Festival brings sexuality and spirituality together on local stages for over 10 years
Faith and diversity can sometimes have a dysfunctional relationship. This relationship can be particularly strained here in the South. And then there’s Richmond, a “more-progressive-than-it- wants-to-be” haven which Billy Christopher Maupin, Associate Artistic Director at the 5th Wall Theatre, calls “of the South and beyond the South.”
Virginia’s capital is a thriving city in its own right with budding restaurateurs, expanding and newly-opened breweries, numerous tourism awards, a vibrant LGBTQ community, and some of the region’s finest theatre.
Yet, in many ways, Richmond (affectionately RVA) has a small town feel with a great deal of community cohesiveness and pride. Nowhere is that community atmosphere more evident than on Richmond’s exciting and cutting-edge live theatre stages.
From that haven comes The Acts of Faith Festival (AOF), “America’s largest faith inspired theatre event” occurring annually from January through April here in the Capital of the Commonwealth.
AOF just completed its 11th year and continues to going strong. Co-founder Bruce Miller, Director of Virginia Repertory Theatre, is delighted that AOF continues to grow and warns that “anyone looking for a narrow perspective on faith should not look to the Festival for support. We welcome all perspectives; we seek a community as broad as God’s love.”
In 2004, Miller was part of a group of about eight men of faith who met “at the crack of dawn” to discuss “issues of the day.” Jeff Gallagher, former Managing Director for Williamsburg Theatre Festival and Daniel Moore, another leader in the local theatre community, broached Miller with the idea of assembling a group of professional theatres and multi-faith congregations to establish a festival that would present diverse faith-related works while encouraging congregations to attend the plays and participate in post-performance discussions on issues of faith.
In 2005, the trio of Miller, Gallagher and Moore, along with all members of Second Presbyterian church, realized their vision and January through March of 2005 was the inaugural season of this thriving and beloved festival.
From its inception, AOF was intended to be “completely open and completely diverse,” said Miller. “We’ve always viewed transparency and diversity to be plusses.” He continues, “from the very beginning, the theatres have enjoyed the opportunity to partner with congregations of faith . . . once in a while someone will be offended by content or language, but I think that comes with the territory . . .”
In order to fully qualify as an AOF entry, each production must have a talkback after at least one of the shows which allows the audience to interact with the company and openly discuss the issues presented in the play.
When pressed to name his favorite AOF entry, Miller recalls Virginia Repertory Theatre’s 2007 production of Smoke on the Mountain at Hanover Tavern, which he personally directed and was a favorite of various congregations who “absolutely loved it.”
And the other participating theatres have enjoyed the collaboration just as much as Miller and the congregations have.
TheatreLAB has been proud to participate in AOF since 2013. They’ve produced three shows: Riding the Bull (2013) (above image), Grace (2014), and Oblivion (2015) – as part of the main stage production. They also produced an additional show – when last we flew – as part of the Fringe Festival with Richmond Triangle Players during the run of their production of Angels in America (top image), the play that inspired Flew.
The Fringe Festival runs concurrently with AOF and, according to AOF’s website “offers non-professional theatres to engage their audiences.”
Deejay Gray, TheatreLAB’s Artistic Director said “this festival is much more about faith than any particular religion or realm of spirituality. To me, this festival transcends all of that because regardless of who or what we believe, there is nothing more human than our desire to understand the world around us.” His favorite of TheatreLAB’s AOF entries? “Riding the Bull,” which put Gray’s company on Richmond’s radar. He said that the AOF is his “favorite time of year to be a theatre artist.”
Philip Crosby, Managing Director of Richmond Triangle Players (RTP) the “leading voice in the community’s exploration of equality, identify, affection and family, across sexual orientation and gender spectrums” believes that part of the festival’s popularity is audiences’ desire to “take a deep dive into tackling the hard questions. They want to be challenged in their faith views, discuss them, defend them, wrestle with them.”
RTP’s most popular shows for AOF, “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” (co-produced with then-Henley Street Theatre and “Angels in America,” were also the most challenging in terms of content, and length (over three hours each).
Crosby said, “I love all the shows we have done for “Acts of Faith”, each for very different reasons. “Angels in America” for its epic scope; “The Busy World is Hushed” and “Next Fall” because they challenged and almost defied easy answers at every turn; “This Beautiful City” because of its hard yet objective examination of the rise of the Christian evangelical movement in Colorado Springs; but a special favorite is “Facing East.” It was the inaugural production in our wonderful new venue; it was intimate and heartfelt and deeply moving; and the production was simply exquisite.”
Crosby called AOF “one of the biggest gifts a theatre like RTP can get. It enables us to do serious substantive work; it expands our capabilities and expands the world of our audiences; and it can help prove that being LGBTQ and having a faith life are not mutually exclusive, as some conservatives and churches would like to espouse.”
Dr. Jan Powell Artistic Director of Quill Theatre is a “huge fan” of the festival, calling it unique and a source of bragging rights when she travels outside Richmond.
Powell’s favorite AOF entry? “Probably the honest answer is the Macbeth I directed for Richmond Shakespeare. . . I was so surprised that the Festival embraced it.” And in an example of the collaborative and collegial nature of the Richmond theatre community, Powell gives her own shout out to 5th Wall Theatre’s “Human Terrain” which was “such a wrenching question of faith and so relevant to US citizens today – the play raised faith questions that we should be asking ourselves every day.”
5th Wall’s Maupin said of the festival, “It’s working.” The AOF festival is Richmond at its collaborative finest and “working together is much more effective than any one of us is going to be alone,” he continues. Maupin loves the AOF because it is “beautifully inclusive.” Maupin has had three entries into the festival: Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead (image below) (Maupin’s favorite entry which he directed at Firehouse Theatre Project) a show while “not blatantly religious” still explores issues of drug abuse, suicide, identity and orientation; and 5th Wall Theatre’s Breast in Show which contains “major faith issues” and The Lyons a dark comedy that while not majorly religious spoke to identify issues and family dysfunction.
So can faith and diversity coexist? Here in award-winning RVA, it would seem so. Particularly, every January through April when theatre professionals and the faithful gather in meaningful and powerful dialogue in their own acts of faith.
lie Harthill Clayton is an out and proud bisexual with a passion for reading, writing . . . and NOT arithmetic. She’s the proud mom of two young adult men and is slowly adjusting to having them both away at college. Her work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Internet Review of Books, Curve Magazine, Lambda Literary and more. She is the newest member of the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle. A paralegal by day, Julie spends her free time knitting, writing, and reading anything she can get her hands on. She lives in Richmond with her partner, local artist David Turner, and their mischievous and loving hunting dog, Max.
It more largely illuminates how hard it can be to forge both a satisfying career and a fulfilling personal life in an era that seems to demand superhuman achievement from everyone.September 19, 2016
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