If You Want Civil Discourse, Do Something About It
Six years ago, the good men and women of Second Presbyterian Church decided that something needed to be done to elevate civility in public discourse. I was privileged to become a part of their conversation when Jeff Gallagher came to my office at Barksdale Theatre to discuss a new idea. Jeff is a prominent local attorney, an elder at Second Pres, and the former Managing Director of the nationally prominent Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts.
Jeff began our meeting by posing an interesting question. What if the reason that public dialogue has become so contentious in the 21st century is because we no longer provide opportunities for the community at large to learn how to engage in civil discourse? Town meetings, in their traditional definition, have vanished in all but the smallest villages of New England. The lyceum movement that combined performances, lectures and discussions into a potent and inclusive force in adult education peeked during the antebellum era. The Chautauqua assemblies that were so popular and encouraging of public participation in the 1920s and 30s have now evolved into little more than summer concert tours.
What if Richmond’s faith and theater communities were to buck the national trend by establishing an annual Acts of Faith Festival, in which professional theaters would produce compelling plays and musicals designed not only to entertain but also to prompt open, respectful discussions among faith practitioners? What if participating congregations were to invite actors and directors into their houses of worship, or meet with them during post-performance talkbacks held in area theaters? Might we once again provide a forum in which diverse individuals could discuss important issues, re-learning the skills that a multi-opinioned citizenry needs if it is to engage in public debate with courtesy and respect?
These questions now have been answered with amazingly affirmative results. As Greater Richmond kicks off the seventh annual Acts of Faith Festival, we do so knowing that we have created America’s largest faith-inspired theater event—right here in River City. Over the next ten weeks, eleven professional theaters, three emerging or community theaters, and one university theater program will partner in the presentation of approximately 250 performances of 14 different theatrical productions, from the delightfully ridiculous (The BFG – Big Friendly Giant,for children and their families at Theatre IV) to the sublime (Romeo and Juliet at Richmond Shakespeare).
Many of the plays will be thought provoking; some inevitably will prompt disagreement. The purpose of the Festival is not to preach only to the choir. It is to entertain but also to challenge. At the packed public kick-off event held last Friday at the historic Empire Theatre, it was clear that riveting new plays like The Last Days of Judas Iscariot produced by Henley Street Theatre in collaboration with Richmond Triangle Players, Dog Sees God presented at the Firehouse, and August Wilson’s Jitney co-produced by Sycamore Rouge and African American Repertory Theatre, have the potential to arouse strong and conflicting emotions. If a goal of the Festival is to help society experience disagreement in a positive and forward-moving manner, isn’t this a perfect forum?
Seventeen co-sponsoring, multi-faith worship centers, from Congregation Beth Ahabah to Tabernacle Baptist, and from St. Bridget’s Catholic to the Islamic Center of Virginia, have contributed funds to promote the Festival to the general public. In league with countless congregants of diverse religious organizations all over town, the members of these seventeen churches, synagogues and mosques also will contribute the words of their mouths and the meditations of their hearts to pre- and post-performance dialogues in which the most pressing issues of our time will be discussed with civility and respect.
Theater’s earliest manifestations sprung from religious practice. Now, through the Acts of Faith Festival, theaters and congregations will once again unite in promoting healthy, enjoyable public discussion, just as our forebears did in the lyceum and Chautauqua programming of days gone by.
Maybe, just maybe, all of us in Richmond are on to something that ultimately will affect positively political debate in our nation.
As we engage in this entertaining and invigorating community dialogue, our convening sponsor, Second Presbyterian Church, invites everyone in Richmond to take part. You can find complete lists of participating theaters, sponsoring congregations, ticketed theatrical productions, discussion events, and free community forums at www.theactsoffaith.org. All of us hope you will consider joining in this fun, locally produced, nationally prominent event.
Bruce Miller is the artistic director of Theatre IV and Barksdale Theatre. Each fall he also teaches adult Sunday School at Bon Air Presbyterian, one of the co-sponsoring congregations of the Acts of Faith Festival.