The Living Word Stage Company, founded March 2001, is the only black theater company in Richmond with its own performance space. Many of its productions deal with social issues in African-American history, and focus on inspirational themes like personal improvement, self-reflection, hope and community renewal. "A Raisin in the Sun," "For Colored Girls Who've Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf" and an original, "Langston is My Man," were the company's first season productions.
"We did not sell many tickets to our shows," Smith says. As a result, he decided to open the theater doors for free to build a regular audience. This decision came with some sacrifice. Actors in the company went unpaid. Most months, Smith and his wife had no idea how they would pay the rent.
"One month, the theater's landlord gave us until Thursday to come up with the money for the rent, and the same week the mortgage for my house was due," Smith says. "The landlord did not believe that we would get the money so he changed the locks." Smith, along with staff members and co-manager Kern Dowdy, phoned their patrons, raised the money in three days and collected a new set of keys to re-enter their space.
Although they're still financially strapped, Living Word won many small victories during the last eight months. The group received a free sound system from a fellow thespian, and Virginia Union University donated lighting equipment. Other theaters have donated costumes and props. A local nonprofit is acting as an umbrella organization until the theater gains 501c(3) status. In addition, company actors execute administrative duties in addition to participating in shows.
Transitions seem to come naturally for Smith, who led George Wythe High School from a nonexistent drama program to an internationally recognized one. Under Smith's direction, students in the program were nominated and invited to attend the world's largest arts festival, Scotland's Edinburgh's Fringe Festival.
Next year, he says, Living Word will charge for shows and company actors will be paid. He also hopes to expand the company's space within the next two years because they could not accommodate all potential theatergoers last season. In addition, Smith plans to expand services to the community by taking productions to retirement communities, churches, neighborhood youth facilities and prisons. This summer Living Word offers acting and tap-dancing lessons for children and adults.
Reflecting on the theater's first season of operation, Smith says it "was like starting a farm, you plant, work, water and watch, because a harvest is coming."
The Living Word Stage Company's next season will begin in October with Smith's own, "Tell the Stories." S
For more information on the Living Word Stage Company, 103 E. Broad St., call 233-9600.
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