After 30 years, Richmond Triangle Players theater company is still keeping the conversations going.
What a long, queer journey it’s been for the Richmond Triangle Players.
“Our original space was so small that you could stand on the stage and reach over your head and adjust the light,” remembers the theatre company’s co-founder Steve J. Earle. Specializing in LGBTQ themed works, the resilient troupe will kick off its 30th anniversary season on Wednesday night with one of its most ambitious productions yet, “The Inheritance.”
The RTP company traces back to 1992 with its original productions staged in a place described by Style Weekly theatre critic David Timberline as “a postage stamp-sized stage in the attic of a seedy nightclub.” The venue was Fieldens, a sketchy-looking after-hours club on West Broad. “You could still be arrested for being gay back then,” says Earle of the company’s starting days. “We were threading a needle there, producing shows under threat of being shut down.”
Scene change thirty years later: Settled in its restored Robert B. Moss Theatre location, the Players are now widely acknowledged as a key economic driver in Scott’s Addition’s rebirth from an industrial area to a thriving business corridor. In 2016 Playbill.com named it “one of the 15 most important theaters of its kind in the nation.” From its very first no-budget shows, the Players have offered Richmond adventurous and entertaining theater that charts the drama and comedy of sexual orientation and gender choices. In many ways, Earle says, RTP’s survival and success can be traced to progressive changes within the industry itself.
“One of the things that happened when we were starting out was the availability of shows that had positive gay themes,” says Earle, now the chair of the department of theatre and film at Norfolk’s Governor’s School for the Arts. “We were at the very beginning of a time when those shows were being written. We were starting in an era when we could see ourselves as an inspiration, and supporting the positive aspects of our community.”
“The Triangle Players was born to fill a void,” says Philip Crosby, its longtime managing director. He became RTP’s first full-time employee in 2009 after Circuit City, where he worked in the corporate offices, closed down. “Triangle was founded as a response to what was going on in the world when it came to the AIDS crisis. In the early ‘90s, that crisis was really hitting Richmond hard, and the backlash in the community to queer folk was pretty severe. No companies in Richmond were really willing to do work that featured gay artists or gay themes.”
The Early Days
One play in particular — which, ironically, has never been performed by RTP — can be credited for sparking the whole thing.
“I wanted to do a specific show,” says Earle, who was part of a local theatre group in the early ’90s called the Production Company. “The play was ‘Amulets Against the Dragon Forces’ by Paul Zindel. I had seen it in San Francisco and the people in the company didn’t want to do it. I understand now that they probably didn’t want to do it because the gay characters in the play hated themselves, kind of typical of [earlier] gay plays like ‘The Boys in the Band’ and ‘The Madness of Lady Bright.'”
Disgruntled, Earle slumped to Christopher’s, a gay-friendly bar at Cary and Boulevard, and met up with Michael Gooding, who was managing Fieldens at the time, and local businessman Marcus Miller. “If I find you a space, you wanna do your play?'” Earle remembers Gooding asking him. “Michael found a space at Fieldens but we saw that the ceiling wasn’t high enough to do a two-story set for the play that I looked at. So we found something else and I’m glad we did. We went with Harvey Fierstein’s ‘Safe Sex Trilogy,’ a really gay centered play that no one would have touched back then.”
The production, a benefit for the Richmond AIDS Information Network (RAIN), was a sellout. And people wanted more. “That’s when Michael, Marcus and I got together and decided that there’s a market for this. Lucky for us, Fieldens didn’t open until 11 at night and they didn’t care if we used the space.”
“The company was literally performing in the same room as the drag performers,” says Crosby. “During our first seasons, we had to set up and take down the stage for every single performance. There were maybe 50 seats.”
“Michael Gooding had the wherewithal, the insight and the knowledge to put a plan together to create a real theatre company,” Earle says, even if it was in a space often littered with hair weaves and broken fingernails. “And that long staircase,” he recalls with a shudder. “We actually had to carry people up that staircase. That happened on more than one occasion.”
As challenging as it was, Fieldens is remembered with fondness.
“It was a safe place for the LGBTQ community,” says Crosby. “It was the only place outside of a gay bar where you could go out on a date and be seen together and not be worried that people are looking at you.”
The RTP’s first big success, in its first season, was a little number called “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” directed by John Knapp, who would go on to become the company’s artistic director for twenty years. “That title alone being printed in the early ‘90s by a very conservative Richmond Times-Dispatch was very shocking to some people,” says Crosby. “It exploded,” echoes Earle, who initially balked at the idea of the overly broad comedy. “That show was so different, so campy that it made a splash. And we got good reviews and suddenly became known.”
“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,” the late Michael Gooding told Style Weekly’s David Timberline in 2017 (Marcus Miller has also since passed away). “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.”
“I know that in the very early days, there were actors who wouldn’t work with us,” Earle says. “I had friends who told me, ‘Steve, I’m sorry. My agent is saying I shouldn’t do this play.’ That was happening in ’93 to ’95.”
The move to Scott’s Addition
Earle mentions one prominent fan, the late Roy Proctor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Roy always came through. He was a huge supporter from the start.”
The founders consulted Proctor before they started their first proper season. “Was Richmond too conservative for a gay theater?” Proctor recalled the founders’ questions in 2017. “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.'”
Crosby recalls seeing his first show in those early days.
“I just wanted to give them $100 so they could buy some scenery. I followed them for awhile and then, one season, I saw them do four amazing productions in a row, including ‘Beautiful Thing,’ ‘The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told,’ and ‘When Pigs Fly.’ I knew they had something.”
Crosby came onto the RTP board in 2000 and was made the company’s first full-time employee nine years later. His first charge was to find a new home.
“The Fieldens space was crumbling. It smelled bad and the bathrooms were terrible, and you had to go up this long wacky staircase, which was a firetrap. We traveled around to different spaces for about a year, and then we threw a party masked as a fundraiser, gave everyone a cocktail and got them in a room and said, ‘help us.'”
Within a week, he got that help in the form of a phone call from prominent real estate agent Robert Moss. “He was looking to invest in a neighborhood no one knew about called Scott’s Addition, and offered to buy us a building if we could renovate it and turn it into a theatre.” Formerly the home of Carl’s Radiator Repair Shop, the Altamont Avenue grease pit would be transformed into an intimate 93-seat theatre space.
“Back then, there was no way any bank would have given RTP a mortgage on that property,” then-Triangle board president Julia Flenner told Broadway World in 2017, when the Players purchased the building from Moss, and named it in his honor. “Robb put his reputation – not to mention his credit score — on the line for RTP, because he believed in us and what we were doing. Sometimes an angel arrives at just the right time.”
As does new blood. Artistic Director Lucian Restivo’s first show as an RTP intern was “Take Me Out,” one of the theatre’s first shows, in 2010. He became the company’s second full-time paid employee not long after the relocation, having first volunteered while he was a VCU Theatre major. “John Knapp had just stepped down so they needed some extra hands.”
The creative sparkplug behind initiatives such as the So Queer Playwriting Festival, which fosters new works, the Reston native knew he found a home at RTP. “It was fascinating as a gay man coming out my freshman year to find a place that was so warm and welcoming and accepting of me for who I was.”
One of Restivo’s jobs is to make sure the artistic choices line up to ever-evolving expectations.
“As an LGBTQ plus organization,” he says, “we have to keep in mind the general sensitivities of that community, making sure that our trans folk are represented properly. We’re not going to do a play that would offend non-binary people, for example. If there’s a slur, we won’t consider it because we know it will offend an important part of our audience.”
The repertoire is constantly being reevaluated, he says, and there are popular shows that the company will no longer perform. “Like ‘Santaland Diaries,’ by David Sedaris. It’s a Christmas show that was wildly popular in Fieldens and remounted here in the theatre. But there is some problematic language in that play.”
But why wasn’t it seen as offensive seven years ago?
“People are more sensitive now because they have the language to express how they are offended. To have a white woman presenting as an Asian woman on stage, and using the accent, is considered problematic nowadays. Yes, it might have been funny 15 years ago, maybe seven years ago, but it’s not acceptable nowadays to be on our stages.”
Choosing plays for a season has always been a balancing act, says Crosby.
“What’s helpful is that we have a very specific mission. The works have to be relevant to the LGBTQ experience.” Beyond that, there’s a wide berth, he adds. “Sometimes that can have very light relevance. The play we’re doing at Christmas is one we’ve done before, ‘Christmas on the Rocks.’ It has some lighter camp elements and only one character who is openly gay. But we can do a play with a light touch like that and then do a deep dive with something like ‘Angels in America’ or ‘The Laramie Project’ or, this season, ‘The Inheritance.'”
The new season centerpiece is the Mid-Atlantic premiere of Matthew Lopez’s Tony-winning “The Inheritance,” the winner of the Olivier and Tony awards for Best Play. It’s a massive work, directed by Restivo, that will be presented in two parts in two different productions, each three hours long with three acts each.
“It’s kind of like binge-watching your favorite Netflix series,” Crosby laughs. “It’s about the younger generation of gay men what they inherited from the generation before them as they went through the AIDs crisis.”
Not only is it an important piece for RTP to tackle given its status as an LGBTQ organization, Restivo says. “‘The Inheritance’ really pushes the actors to the limit with sort of a play within a play.” Influenced by E.M. Forster’s “Howards End,” Forster himself is a character in the drama. “It’s quite an ambitious play, with 14 actors, all of whom are on stage the entire time,” says Crosby. “And it will play out for different nights during the course of the run with three weeks of each part of the production.” [see our separate preview by David Timberline].
Alongside more scaled down pieces such as Trey Anthony’s family drama, “How Black Mothers Say I Love You,” Lopez’ opus is the pinnacle dramatic play of the RTP season. “but it still has heart and comedy behind it,” Restivo says. “As do all of our shows. We did that for a reason, we want people to leave having a good time. Coming back from COVID, people don’t want to be inundated with these really heavy dramas.”
He points to two musical productions in particular: “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” which was staged here to great acclaim in 2019, and “Head Over Heels” by James Macgruder and Jeff Whitty, a musical directed by actress Susan Sanford that features the music of the Go-Gos.
An intimate space for actors
“It’s one of my favorite places to work,” says Sanford of RTP, which she was a fan of before she ever got connected. “Everybody loved the shows that were there. And there was and is such a need in the community to celebrate the voices in the LGBTQ world. There weren’t a lot of theaters when they started that were really aware so I was happy that they embraced their niche and thrived.”
Sandford, a veteran of Richmond thespian scene since 1998, first worked with the Players on a musical, “It Should Have Been You,” which won her an Artsie award for Best Actress from the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle. She later won a second for her work as Little Edie in the RTP’s production of “Grey Gardens.” The performer says she owes a lot of the success to the intimacy of the Moss Theatre.
“Because it is a smaller space, it really affords the actor an opportunity to have the audience come to you, and to let them in a bit more personally in the work. I found that especially with Little Edie. If I just exist in this space, the audience will go along with me on the ride. It’s a rare gift for an actor to have that kind of intimacy when you are performing.”
Scott Wichmann also loves the intimacy of the room. The veteran actor and director oversaw one of the first shows in the Moss, 2010’s “Take Me Out,” an undeniable success. “It won Best Play that year at the Theatre Critics Circle awards,” he says proudly. “For it to be the first effort out of the gate, tackling more technically challenging things, like a working shower, was a real triumph. They were expanding outward and I was proud to be a part of that.”
The theatre has not only given Wichmann, an unabashed fan of the Rat Pack, the chance to develop his own Vegas-style cabaret show — Georgia Rogers Farmer has also made that cabaret space her own — it also afforded him the opportunity to star in challenging fare such as “I Am My Own Wife,” a one-man play about a transvestite trapped in Nazi Germany.
“At a time when forces are trying to demonize those in the LGBTQ community and trans people, just to score cheap political points, Richmond Triangle Players is more important than ever,” says Wichmann. “It’s the old bogeyman again and we have to guard against it by establishing a community and that’s what Triangle Players does. That’s why it’s so important.”
The productions planned for the upcoming anniversary season will help to expand that outreach, says new RTP Vice-Chair Lucretia Anderson, who directed last year’s acclaimed “Sugar in Our Wounds,” She says that one show in particular, the satirical “Log Cabin” by Jordan Harrison, helps to “question biases we face and may have within our own community.” Representing the new guard at the Players, the longtime actor, director and educator wants to see even more outreach. “What I really hope to see is an expansion of our audiences across demographics… we have an opportunity to maintain our current audiences while continuing to cultivate more theatre goers from the greater community.”
When it moved into the Moss twelve years ago, the Richmond Triangle Players participated in a study with VCU that showed that nearly half of the company’s patrons identified as straight.
“It didn’t change the mission,” Crosby says. “But it sometimes changes the stories you choose to tell. Instead of telling stories about ourselves to ourselves, it becomes what stories do I tell my straight allies which thanks them, includes them and gives them talking points as to why diversity and inclusion is a good thing.”
Richmond Triangle Players has always given Richmond a lot to talk about, and the conversation continues.
The Richmond Triangle Players will open its 30th Anniversary season with “The Inheritance Pt. 1” on Wednesday, Aug. 3 at the Robert B. Moss Theatre, 1300 Altamont Ave. [See our preview here]. For tickets and more information, visit the RTP website.