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A Proud Quarter Century 

A history of the Richmond Triangle Players’ first 25 years onstage.

click to enlarge Chris Hester stars in “The Boy from Oz,” a 2016 Richmond Triangle Players production.

John MacLellan

Chris Hester stars in “The Boy from Oz,” a 2016 Richmond Triangle Players production.

In 1985, Larry Kramer wrote "The Normal Heart," a play that portrayed the reaction of homosexual men to the spread of a mysterious "gay disease" in the early '80s. By 1991, the year Freddie Mercury of Queen died and basketball star Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive, AIDS awareness was becoming widespread. Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Angels in America" came out that same year.

Theater was the art form chronicling the gay community's reaction to the HIV/AIDS crisis, and so, in 1992, a trio of Richmonders produced a show to raise money for the Richmond AIDS Information Network. That show would lead to the creation of Richmond Triangle Players, the now-lauded company celebrating its 25th year.

Through seasons working on a postage stamp-sized stage in the attic of a seedy nightclub, the Triangle Players defied Richmond's historically conservative culture to grow and thrive, thanks to a mix of savvy leadership and campy creativity. After its recently completed capital campaign, the company now owns its new venue, a popular spot in Scott's Addition's burgeoning social scene.

The following history traces the company's unlikely development from a flippant idea, through a rocky transition during the 2008 financial crash, to its emergence as a Richmond cultural leader — a leader that, nevertheless, isn't above the occasional slice of frisky sex-positivity to spice up a theater-goer's Saturday night.

click to enlarge Marcus Miller, Steve Earle and Michael Gooding were in “Forget Him,” part of an early show of one-act plays by Harvey Fierstein. - RICHMOND TRIANGLE PLAYERS
  • Richmond Triangle Players
  • Marcus Miller, Steve Earle and Michael Gooding were in “Forget Him,” part of an early show of one-act plays by Harvey Fierstein.

In the early '90s, after 25 years managing the growth of the Bill's Barbecue restaurant chain, Michael Gooding left the company and was looking for new opportunities. Though married twice and the father to nine children, he had acknowledged his homosexuality and was living as an openly gay man.

Gooding: "My friend Marcus Miller and I took over management of Fieldens on Broad Street, one of Richmond's only gay nightclubs at the time]. It was in bad shape and getting ready to close. Marcus and Steve Earle were roommates, and we were all really good friends."

click to enlarge One of the racier early productions, “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” was a surprise hit. - RICHMOND TRIANGLE PLAYERS
  • Richmond Triangle Players
  • One of the racier early productions, “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” was a surprise hit.

Steve Earle was an itinerant actor for many companies in Richmond and had started teaching in the Chesterfield schools at the time of this conversation.

Earle: "The three of us were at Christopher's on Cary Street. I was moaning because I had proposed a show that had a gay theme to a local theater and the company said no. To be fair, in most of the shows that were gay-centered back then, the gay characters hated themselves or were stereotypes. Anyway, I was still upset I couldn't do my show.

I was griping about it and Michael said, 'If I find you a space, do you want to do your show? We had had a couple drinks by then, so I said 'Sure!'"

Gooding: "I tend to fall into these things. My thinking was that we don't use the upstairs at Fieldens until 2 in the morning. So, I asked the owners 'can we do a play upstairs?' They said, 'Sure, go ahead.'
We didn't end up doing Steve's show. I had been to Gainesville, Florida, and seen a night of three one-act plays by Harvey Fierstein called "Safe Sex Trilogy." This was back in 1991. AIDS was a still a new thing. Not many people in Richmond had even heard about it."

click to enlarge The cast of “When Pigs Fly,” a wacky musical revue by Howard Crabtree that was a favorite. - RICHMOND TRIANGLE PLAYERS
  • Richmond Triangle Players
  • The cast of “When Pigs Fly,” a wacky musical revue by Howard Crabtree that was a favorite.

From the beginning, there were challenges to being a gay-centric company.

Gooding: "One of the one-act plays, "Untidy Endings," has a character who's the 11-year-old son of someone who dies of AIDS. We thought: We've got a gay afterhours nightclub in conservative Richmond, and now we're going to put a preteen boy on the stage? They'll run us out of town on a rail."

The three contacted Fierstein's management who allowed them to swap the potentially offending one-act with a different one. The three-night benefit, called "Safe Sex," was a sell-out.

Earle: "We never dreamed it would be so popular. People kept saying, 'When are you going to do another one?' Because of that peer pressure, we said, maybe we should put a season together and see how it works. The first show was just a benefit. We never meant to do more."

click to enlarge A look at the transformation of the current Richmond Triangle Players at 1300 Altamont Ave. in Scott’s Addition from when the company bought it to now.
  • A look at the transformation of the current Richmond Triangle Players at 1300 Altamont Ave. in Scott’s Addition from when the company bought it to now.

The trio asked local theater critic Roy Proctor for guidance on how to move forward.

Proctor: "They invited me to a planning meeting. I had just returned from a theater critics' convention, and I was buoyed by the success of a Seattle LGBT theater. The founders were playing devil's advocate big-time: Was Richmond too conservative for a gay theater? Would any straights attend the shows? I finally said, 'Look, guys, you can do terrible theater, but the need is so great that you'll still succeed.' They didn't believe me, but soon proved me right.

"One giant plus RTP had from the get-go was sound fiscal management. In a city where theaters are often founded by artists on little more than dewy-eyed optimism, that made a big difference."

Earle: "From the beginning, Michael was very savvy. I brought in Jacqui Singleton who was a playwright, and Michael brought in John Knapp as a director. John wanted to do a show called "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom." I remember a meeting where I threw my pen down on the table and said, 'We are not going to do underwear, fart theater in this company.' Michael mocked me, threw his pen down and said, 'Yes we are, Steve, so we can pay for the boring shit you want to do that no one wants to come see.' Michael was right. He coaxed us to balance the serious stuff with the fun stuff."

Knapp would end up working with the theater for 20 years, ultimately becoming its artistic director.

Knapp: "I fell into this high camp thing, the drag stuff. There's where I found my niche. I knew those shows were going to be fun. As part of the model for the company, we needed to cover all of the bases."

click to enlarge Artistic Director John Knapp, Managing Director Phil Crosby and businessman Michael Gooding helped build the Richmond Triangle Players from a small nightclub to a well-regarded theater company. - SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/file
  • Artistic Director John Knapp, Managing Director Phil Crosby and businessman Michael Gooding helped build the Richmond Triangle Players from a small nightclub to a well-regarded theater company.

Their venue, Fieldens, was a near-constant source of challenges.

Gooding: "We built the stage in sections because we had to put it up and take it down every night. It was horrible. It took us two hours to set up and an hour to take down. All the actors practically had to be construction workers."

Earle: "For our first light board, I bought the kind of sliding dimmers you have in your dining room. I put six or eight of those together in a box with electrical plugs coming out the back. We'd do a blackout [by pushing all dimmers down with] with a yardstick. The fire marshal would have totally destroyed me. The space was limiting, but it was also fantastic because it made us take a very utilitarian approach to theater."

click to enlarge The aliens confront the townspeople in the RTP’s irreverent sci-fi spoof, “Devil Boys From Beyond.” - JOHN MACLELLAN
  • John MacLellan
  • The aliens confront the townspeople in the RTP’s irreverent sci-fi spoof, “Devil Boys From Beyond.”

T. Ross Aitken was a regular stage manager and set designer during those early years.

Aitken: "The aesthetic at Fieldens was, 'How do we do a show for a dollar ninety-eight?' The lighting booth was a closet. The light board operator could only see about 75 percent of the stage. At least once during the run of every show you'd hear a loud bang and then me cursing because I'd hit my head on the air duct in there. There was a big gaping hole in the wall, so in the winter I'd have my pea coat on and a wool cap."

Earle: "By the end of the second year, we knew we had something. Michael was a consummate businessman. He had an amazing vision. If it were not for him, we would have folded early on."

Gooding: "My first goal was to finish a show, pay all the bills, and have enough money to pay the starting costs for the next show. Eventually my goal was to have enough to pay the total cost for the next show. That way, when we hired an actor, they knew they were going to get paid. We gained a good reputation with actors."

click to enlarge Nicholas Wilder and Nick Baldock get a rude awakening in “2 Boys in a Bed on a Warm Winter’s Night.” - JOHN MACLELLAN
  • John MacLellan
  • Nicholas Wilder and Nick Baldock get a rude awakening in “2 Boys in a Bed on a Warm Winter’s Night.”

While the subject matter of its plays still proved challenging to some, Richmond was surprisingly supportive of the new company.

Knapp: "There were a few things like they wouldn't let us put up posters in Carytown for "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom." But when we did a show called "The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told" with the characters Adam and Steve, I was thinking: I hope we get picketed. It would be great publicity. One lady called and left a message: 'I think it's just disgusting you people are doing a show about the Bible and homosexuals. I hope no one comes to see it. But your show is sold out tonight, so never mind.'"

click to enlarge Robert Throckmorton in “Christina Darling.” - RICHMOND TRIANGLE PLAYERS
  • Richmond Triangle Players
  • Robert Throckmorton in “Christina Darling.”

Singleton's involvement ensured the company's focus extended beyond gay white males. She died in 2014. Katie Fessler became a subscriber early on with her partner and four other lesbian couples. She would later join the board of directors.

Fessler: "We went to every single production. It was more of a roulette-wheel spin what the quality of any production would be, but it was an expression of social connection for us at a time when the world of gay women in this town was practically invisible."

Knapp: "The tipping point was when we did "When Pigs Fly" [in 2001]. It got extended and extended, and we eventually moved it to the Barksdale at Willow Lawn. It was just gangbusters. It was a turning point because it brought in audiences that never would have walked in before."

click to enlarge Christy Mullins and Holly Lucas in the noir musical “Pulp,” a 2009 production. - RICHMOND TRIANGLE PLAYERS
  • Richmond Triangle Players
  • Christy Mullins and Holly Lucas in the noir musical “Pulp,” a 2009 production.

By that time, Gooding was the only founder still involved in day-to-day operations. Phil Crosby had joined the board of directors in 2000 and would prove instrumental in the company's next steps.

Crosby: "The season of 'When Pigs Fly' was the point that I thought, this place really has a shot. Because the company was still in its relative infancy organizationally, I was able to go in and be highly impactful."

Gooding: "After 12 years, Fieldens was getting to be a real problem. At the same time, our budgets were growing, we had a surplus every year, we were doing better and better shows."

Crosby: "I had put together a grant for about $5,000 to redo the carpeting, make the bathrooms not as petrifyingly awful as they were. The owners at Fieldens were going to match it, then they said we don't have the money. It was coming down to: We need to leave or just close it down. That's when we concocted the idea to throw our first big party for our 15th anniversary."

Gooding: "Our idea was: 'Party with Triangle Players at the Jefferson? When Pigs Fly!' The queer company is going to be at the Jefferson Hotel? No one would believe it. We ended up making a substantial amount of money, and we met a lot of friends there. That party in 2007 started our serious fundraising."

Crosby: "[Real estate investor] Robb Moss said, 'I think I have a building that could work as a theater.' It was a time when people were speculating in Scott's Addition. Robb was going to buy the building, and we were just going to pay for renovations. We didn't even know how that was going to happen."

Gooding: "The next fall, we announced we were going to raise $1 million. That was September 2008, exactly when the bottom dropped out of the stock market."

click to enlarge Richmond Triangle Players’ summer 2014 run of “Cabaret.” - JOHN MACLELLAN
  • John MacLellan
  • Richmond Triangle Players’ summer 2014 run of “Cabaret.”

The economic downturn crippled the transition to the new venue. The company relied heavily on the generosity of the community.

Gooding: "I have a son-in-law in the carpet business and his company put in the carpeting at cost. The Richmond Men's Chorus painted the whole building. The wall coverings were given to us by a friend of the architect. The whole community coming together was how we were able to build our million-dollar theater for about $350,000."

Knapp: "During the transition, the shows were all at different venues. We had to revert back to the way we did stuff the very first season. The set had to be taken down, the stage had to be pulled up [and] the costumes all had to be hidden. We never knew if our stuff was going to be there when we came back."

click to enlarge From left, Katie Fessler, Ross Aitken, Phil Crosby, Julie Flenner and Lucian Restivo, a recent winner of Style’s Top 40 under 40 issue. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • From left, Katie Fessler, Ross Aitken, Phil Crosby, Julie Flenner and Lucian Restivo, a recent winner of Style’s Top 40 under 40 issue.

The new venue officially opened in 2010.

Crosby: "We were a little concerned about Scott's Addition, just that people didn't know where it was."

Maggi Beckstoffer runs a marketing company that started renting space in Scott's Addition 20 years ago.

Beckstoffer: "When Robb Moss bought the building for RTP, there still wasn't much going on. It wasn't an unsafe place necessarily. There just wasn't anybody there. They were an island in the middle of the desert. Triangle Players was very brave to move into Scott's Addition when they did."

Gooding: "For our first show [in the new space], we didn't have money for a bar. I said, 'A bar is two 6-foot tables with a tablecloth and someone standing behind it. We're going to have a bar.' It wouldn't be a Triangle Players' show without a bar."

click to enlarge Steve Earle and Michael Gooding - RICHMOND TRIANGLE PLAYERS
  • Richmond Triangle Players
  • Steve Earle and Michael Gooding

Crosby had been working for Circuit City until it went bankrupt in 2009. The theater company hired him as managing director, its first full-time employee. The new location soon became a popular nightspot, drawing new audiences.

Crosby: "This is now the big hot neighborhood. I like to think we had a little bit to do with that. We do bring 10,000 people into the area every year."

Knapp left the area in 2012, moving to Baltimore with his husband.

Knapp: "The joy of Triangle is that it has done stuff that nobody else would ever, ever, ever touch. We were always doing shows that people couldn't see anywhere else."

click to enlarge The cast of the Richmond Triangle Players’ “This Beautiful City” accepts the first-ever people’s choice award, selected through $5 apiece votes at the 2011 Artsies. - JAY PAUL
  • Jay Paul
  • The cast of the Richmond Triangle Players’ “This Beautiful City” accepts the first-ever people’s choice award, selected through $5 apiece votes at the 2011 Artsies.

The Richmond Triangle Players recently completed a $1 million capital campaign that allowed them to buy their building, upgrade lighting and sound equipment and add another full-time employee, recent Style Top 40 Under 40 winner Lucian Restivo, as associate producing artistic director.

Crosby: "We've discovered what works here and what doesn't. Whatever mojo this building has, it has been incredible for us. When this place is cooking on a big sold-out night, you walk into that lobby and everybody is laughing and talking, and you feel like you just walked into the best party in the world."

Fessler: "We try to maintain a balance between staying dedicated to having a really good time while also having voices around the table that will keep us on a solid business path. That's the sweet spot for a company like this."

Gooding: "I am most happy that we have transitioned from a small seat-of-your-pants operation to what we think is the neatest little theater in the eastern United States. I am certainly proud of it for Richmond."

Crosby: "We had some discussion three or four years ago about whether our mission was going to become outdated. But I think there needs to be an RTP in the same way I think there needs to be an African-American theater in town and a Jewish theater in town. The minute you lose each of those glorious individual voices, then the choir as a whole gets less strong and less beautiful." S

This week, the Richmond Triangle Players opens "The Santaland Diaries" and "Season's Greetings," two one-acts it originally produced at Fieldens in 2004. It will be producing Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart" in April.

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