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A Big Production

A new theater festival examines the controversial topic of faith.

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Audience members need not worry about being preached to. When Jeff Gallagher and Daniel Moore, both members of Second Presbyterian Church, came up with the idea for this community festival and dialogue, they wanted no part of censorship.

"This is not a situation where the church would dictate material to the theaters," says Moore, aware that fractious political events have distorted public perceptions of religion. "An awful lot of attention was paid to faith with a capital F, and for a lot of people, issues of faith have been hijacked by certain segments of the population. A lot of discussions about faith are pretty superficial, and they trigger knee-jerk reactions. I would like for this festival to look at faith without strings attached, without labels or caricatures."

This is the first time in Richmond theater history that 10 companies have collaborated on a project initiated by the community. The theaters include Barksdale Theatre, Theatre IV, Theatre Gym, Firehouse Theatre, Essential Theatre, Richmond Ensemble Theatre, Living Word Stage Company, Encore Theatre, Chamberlayne Actors Theatre and the Carpenter Science Theatre Company. Each will present a play chosen to fit the theme of faith. Productions range from historical pieces such as "The Diary of Anne Frank" and "North Star Light: Pathways to Freedom" to contemporary plays including "The Art of Dining" and "Crowns."

"A number of the plays, on their face, have nothing to do with faith in a traditional sense," Gallagher says, "but they show people in wildly different settings being confronted by the eternal."

Actors, directors and other facilitators will gather onstage after select performances to involve audience members in conversations about the plays. "It's not meant to be just a theater experience but an experience in the humanities with theater as a medium," says Larry Gard of the Carpenter Science Theatre Company. "The thing about having so many theaters doing this is that each play has its own energy, its own voice, its own interpretation and expression. This festival provides the proof that there is a wonderful spirit of ensemble in Richmond when it comes to live theater."

It hasn't always been so. Jockeying for audiences, stature, money and space has kept many local theater companies operating in isolation. The same could be said for people wrestling with issues of faith and connection, looking for ways to expand their spiritual understanding. That is where the power of live theatrical performance is key, Gallagher says.

"Many of the most meaningful moments of my life have come in theaters," says Gallagher, a playwright and businessman. "There are productions that have continued to stay with me. Of all the presentation arts, I think theater is still the one that unlocks the power of imagination in the audience most. And to me, the boundlessness of faith is something that can be grasped best, or possibly only, when our imagination is boundless, too. It's beyond what we can see."

Organizers encourage people of all faith traditions, and those without them, to become involved and to listen or engage as they desire. "No one is trying to hammer down a final answer in this," Gallagher says. "It's just a recognition that for many of us, faith is extremely important, and this is to acknowledge that and search for it openly. Let's get out of the realm of label-slinging and in a totally different way explore how faith impacts our lives.

"To someone who is interested in the arts, this is a grand experiment, a role for theater in our community that it's never seized before," Gallagher adds. "If these theaters can focus the discussion for us all and bring us together, what a neat cultural dimension that would add to all of our lives. And to know that there are, over the next six weeks, ten really interesting plays all within a thirteen-minute drive, that's pretty incredible." S



The first production of the festival, "Crowns," produced by the Barksdale Theatre in association with Living Word Stage Company, runs Jan. 28-March 6 at Barksdale Theatre. Tickets, which cost $28.50-$34.20, can be purchased by calling 282-2620. A full schedule and a listing of times and venues for post-performance discussions can be found online at www.actsoffaith.org.

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