Church Chats 

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If you look down the list of productions scheduled to be part of the Acts of Faith Theater Festival -- officially kicking off this Friday — you come across several shows that immediately make sense. "Godspell" (produced by the Seminary Shoestring Players) is an obvious choice. "Doubt: A Parable" (at the Barksdale), with its dramatic central conflict between a nun and a priest, is certainly appropriate. And if you want to delve into a bunch of thorny moral issues, you can't do much better than Richmond Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure."

But "Swingtime Canteen"? It's difficult to believe that what the Barksdale describes as a "finger snappin', hands clappin', toe tappin'" musical journey through the big-band era — playing at Barksdale's Hanover Tavern location — has much to say about faith or spirituality.

Artistic Director Bruce Miller begs to differ. "The first song in the show is 'Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,'" he points out. "In the context of the festival, that song compels us to consider the tension between those two phrases. Back [in the World War II era], there was a great deal of moral certainty about the course the United States was taking." Miller says such a song can help shed light on present-day conflicts: "Today we can talk about how you rely on your faith to help make contemporary decisions about war. I think issues like this prompt significant — and not easy — theological discussions."

These kinds of discussions are what the Acts of Faith festival is all about. Touted as the largest faith-inspired theater event in America, the festival features 13 shows produced by 12 theater companies. During the next eight weeks, each production offers post-show discussions with a theologian and a theater representative (a complete schedule is available at www.theactsoffaith.com). The 12 faith communities also taking part will sponsor discussions of their own, providing an opportunity to delve into some of the thorny issues surrounding faith. The ultimate aim of all this talk is to encourage unity and community across diverse faith traditions.

The event's coordinator, Susan Davenport, says that the festival demonstrates how local faith communities are actively engaged in contemporary issues: "The participants really encourage open and honest conversation. There are a lot of questions out there and the answers are in our community."

The wide variety of shows in the festival stems from each theater's unique approach to Acts of Faith. "I pick shows that fit into my season, and then figure out later if one fits into the festival," says Carol Piersol, artistic director for the Firehouse Theatre Project. Piersol initially thought the Firehouse's offering this year, Sam Shepard's "The Late Henry Moss," might not be appropriate. Like "Swingtime," this gritty portrayal of the fractured relationship between two sons and their abusive, alcoholic father doesn't immediately seem right. "While it doesn't deal directly with religion, it is about family dysfunction and alcoholism," Piersol says. "Churches and church groups deal with these issues constantly. I ended up thinking it fits quite well."

Davenport suggests that there are numerous entry points into discussions of faith: "A show can be about faith in the human spirit or about someone overcoming adversity. It can even be about a lack of faith." She mentions Swift Creek Mill Theatre's offering, "Little Women." "With a play by Louisa May Alcott, you can look at the religion of the playwright," Davenport says. "Alcott's family [raised in the Unitarian Church] had very different views on religion."

"It always struck me," Barksdale's Miller says, "that when you read the great religious texts, one-tenth of the book is sermon and the rest is stories." In most religious traditions, issues of faith are illuminated through mythology and songs. Miller, who is also the artistic director for Theatre IV, says that company's festival production, "Rumpelstiltskin's Daughter," is a theological parable in that classic tradition.

"Rumpelstiltskin is a character in the mold of an Incubus or Shedim or Rakshasa. All faith mythologies have these evil little men associated with the Satan of their faith that are invested with magical powers," Miller says. Since it is the only show in the festival explicitly for children, Miller says he "hopes the show will give youth groups in the different faith communities a chance to discuss profound issues as well."

Theater may be a particularly appropriate medium for exploring sensitive issues of faith. "There is an accessibility to this kind of storytelling," Miller says. "People have a personal response when you are in the same room with the actors. It's something you can connect with immediately." S

The Acts of Faith Theatre Festival's kickoff/preview event will be held Friday, Jan. 11, at 7:30 p.m. at Second Presbyterian, 5 N. Fifth St. It is free and open to the public. For more information, visit www.theactsoffaith.com.

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