We Need to Talk

The Acts of Faith festival holds its preview event tonight and then this weekend the curtain rises on the first official mainstage show in the festival, Arthur Miller’s ALL MY SONS at Swift Creek Mill. There are people -- and by people, I mean me -- who have grumbled that the “faith” aspect of the festival can be a little dodgy. I’ve had conversations wherein I’ve tried to pinpoint the show that has the most tenuous connection to the theme in a particular year. That’s just the kind of thing judgmental theater nerds are wont to do.

But something that cannot be denied is that, for the more-than-a-decade of its existence, the festival has instigated many great things. The participation of faith communities in the festival has continued to bring folks to the theater that might have otherwise been reluctant to come out.

Also, theater companies have used the festival as inspiration to stage shows that they might have otherwise considered too challenging, risky or esoteric to produce. My go-to example of this is THE LAST DAYS OF JUDAS ISCARIOT that Henley Street and Triangle Players collaborated on 7 years ago. For its smart, very funny consideration of big, juicy issues utilizing an amazing cast at the top of its collective game, that production still stands out as one of the festival’s best ever.

Most interesting to me, though, is the response to the talkbacks. To be in the festival, each production commits to at least a couple post-show talkbacks and people seem to love them. I’ve been to several and in my experience there is a common rhythm to them. There is the awkward beginning where the audience seems to need a few minutes to warm up. I’m not sure if people are processing that the actors on the panel are not in character any more if they are just gathering their thoughts.

Then there is sometimes a somewhat frivolous or tangential question that elicits an over-earnest but not terribly illuminating response. But for every single talkback I’ve been to there is a moment, often several moments, where something gets asked or said that really hooks people in and involves both the panelists and the audience in a fairly intense consideration of something profound. Or at least, profound-ish.

People like to process experiences. Sometimes they NEED to. And theater, particularly good theater, can be an all-encompassing experience that fully engages both heart and mind; the kind of thing that demands to be responded to, processed, dissected, explicated, or just shared in a communal way. In requiring talkbacks, the festival does theater audiences a significant favor, allowing the stage experience to expand beyond the confines of a script. The discussions also invite people to go beyond their “wasn’t that fun!” responses and dig into issues and themes that are truly worth discussing.

Here at Firehouse, we’re jumping the gun on the Acts of Festival talkback train. Our show opening in just a few days, TO DAMASCUS, isn’t technically in the festival. But it is so chock full of potential conversation starters that we wanted to make sure people had a chance to ask questions, express reactions and share in the ideas generated by this wild and wonderful show.

So on Sunday, January 21st, we will be hosting a panel discussion/talkback after the matinee performance. The show starts at 4pm, the discussion will begin around 6pm. You don’t need to have seen that performance to attend; if you saw TO DAMASCUS on Thursday, Friday or Saturday, you are encouraged to come back for this discussion. If you are unsure about seeing the show or have tickets for a later performance, feel free to come. We want everyone and anyone interested to join in this conversation.

There will also be FREE FOOD offered in between the show and the panel discussion to keep everybody’s energy up.

And Boy Oh Boy, do we have some great thinkers and speakers on board to lend their insights on this show. Many people know Rev. Alane Cameron Ford either through Death Club Radio, a talk show on death and dying that she hosts on Richmond's WRIR radio 97.3 FM or from her many thoughtful pieces published in Style Magazine. And speaking of Style, Rich Griset, who covers both theater and opera for our own “alt” weekly, will be on hand to consider the “is it an opera?” kind of questions about this “anti-opera.” Finally, David Wojahn, who is an amazing poet and a professor at VCU, will be on hand to give some insight into some of the source material that inspired the piece.

Frankly, this is a collection of people I’d come hear talk even if there wasn’t an interesting, challenging, exciting world premiere show that they were going to talk about. And, perhaps best of all, not only will there be plenty of food for thought presented but there will be actual food to nosh on as well! Please come by and add your voice to the discussion.

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