The dramatic arts enter a new age of spiritual awareness on Richmond stages. 

Theatrical Theology

Has Richmond theater found religion? All sorts of preachers, nuns and biblical characters have tramped across our stages this year. Jesus H. Christ made an appearance in "Sincerity Forever," which played at Artspace Gallery in January, and God himself was the lead character in Swift Creek Mill Playhouse's "Children of Eden." In recent months, at least a half-dozen local shows have dealt with religious themes, and several more are due in the coming year. And that's not even counting the traveling gospel shows — "The Devil Made Me Do It" and "Love the One You're With" — that played to packed houses at the Carpenter Center this spring.

Have the dramatic arts entered a new age of spiritual awareness or have theater marketing experts found an easy audience in local church groups? The truth behind this relative glut of theatrical piety combines a little bit of both answers.

Ashland Stage company mounted three productions in its inaugural 1998-99 season; two ("Agnes of God" and "To Whom It May Concern") had theological issues in the forefront. "It was not a conscious decision [to schedule shows with religious themes]," says Staci Trowbridge, ASc's managing artistic director. "We look for scripts that people want to see."

Still, Trowbridge mentions tragic events in the past year, such as the war in Kosovo and the shootings in Littleton, Colo., and suggests, "a lot of the art produced in the past year has been in response to that. Some theater is returning to more spiritual connections, becoming more grounded in who we are."

Chip McCoull, manager of Swift Creek Mill Playhouse, prefers to offer shows that are uplifting, whether or not they are overtly religious. "We've done our job if the audience leaves the theater feeling that there is a better chance than not that everything is going to be OK," he says. "The word-of-mouth we get [from an uplifting show] is different. A play can be funny and a nice diversion, but it's harder to find something with lasting spiritual value." The Mill has produced one show with a religious theme in each of the past several years and will offer two next season: "Sanders Family Christmas" and "Livin' in the Light".

At the same time however, McCoull points out that explicit biblical stories can turn some people off. "Some shows have cost us audience members," he admits. "Some people don't want to feel like they're being Bible-thumped at."

And religious-themed shows can cost theaters patrons for another reason, says Randy Strawderman, the Barksdale Theatre's artistic director. "When we do 'Godspell,' we always get protesters," he says. "People think it's sacrilegious. But it's really just a clever way to retell these stories." Barksdale's big seller this summer was a revival of the Old Testament story, "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."

The Bible has always been ripe for theatrical exploitation. And before the Bible, the Greeks and Romans used their theology as the basis for some of their most compelling dramas. A modern-day irony is that religious themes sometimes receive attention due to the immoral activity of some church leaders.

"If you look at the headlines over the past few years — Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Leonidas Young — preachers are becoming more in the public eye," observes Tony Cosby, artistic director of Theatre & Company.

T&C's bread and butter has been Cosby's play "Church Fight," an exploration of ministry politics that the company has performed the play for numerous local churches. "The play brings some things out front that people whisper about," Cosby says. "People will talk about how the pastor got a brand new Town Car, but no one will confront him face to face." Cosby says the show has been successful because it has dared to examine some touchy subjects. "The money is in controversial stuff. I can't make money doing 'Peter Pan.' [But] we are just holding up a mirror to society. This stuff is happening in life." Cosby has written a new work, "Preacher, Can We Talk?" that T&C will produce in October.

Perhaps, in this willingness to consider the theological, Richmond is actually treading on the theater world's leading edge. New York Times critic Ben Brantley has called for alternatives to "self-conscious, style-obsessed" plays that dominate theater these days. While New York is starkly devoid of religious-themed shows, plays like "The Great Debate," a dissertation on the creationism-evolution debate, have popped up way off-Broadway. And it is rumored that, after several successful regional runs, "Children of Eden" may finally make it to Broadway. If it does, many Richmond theatergoers can have the satisfaction of saying they saw it here

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