The Richmond Triangle Players – The Little Theatre That Could

by Charles McGuigan

Not long ago, noted comedian-actor-raconteur Steve Moore, played an 80-year old woman impregnated by aliens from outer space. It was during The Richmond Triangle Players performance of “Devil Boys from Beyond” and Steve was in his element. After one of the shows, RTP screened his HBO comedy special for the audience. Steve hadn’t seen the show in more than ten years and in the interim his dog and his brother, who were both featured in the special, had died. After the screening, during a question and answer period, Steve blurted out: “I’m supposed to answer questions. My brother died; my dog died. Anything else?”
Philip Crosby, who’s sitting across a cabaret table from me in The Richmond Triangle Players new space in Scott’s Addition, is laughing like all get out as he tells me this story. He can’t help himself, and you can easily hear Steve Moore delivering those lines.

As we talk, you can barely hear the distant hum of the HVAC system as it kicks in—a muted white noise, barely perceptible; and the seating is comfortable and there’s plenty of leg room—a far cry from the way things used to be when RTP staged its performances out of Fieldens. And the chairs we’re sort of paved the way to RTP’s new space at the corner of Altamont and Marshall streets.

Philip remembers how it was back at Fieldens where the chairs were all mismatched. And he recalls what RTP’s founder, Mike Gooding, would do. “People would fight to get the good chair,” says Philip. “And actually Mike got cagey. He’d shift the chairs around from show to show so that you never knew where the good chair was going to be. And there were only a few of them.”

The chairs we’re sitting in are about all that remain of the Fieldens’ days. “These were one of our first major fund raising efforts and we still have them,” Philip says. “These chairs were the chairs we purchased while we were still at Fieldens. To raise the money Michael (Gooding) would literally take a sample chair and every night before every show he’d put it down on the center of the stage and say, ‘This chair will be in the lobby for you to sit on, we need you to help us get these chairs in to our theater; they’re sixty dollars a piece.’ And we still have the list of names of those first contributors and that list is going to go up in the lobby.”

This new space still has the intimate quality Fieldens possessed and for good reason. When I tell Philip it reminds me of Sycamore Rouge down in Petersburg, he nods. “That’s a beautiful space and actually we were a bit inspired by it,” says Philip. “Keeping it intimate was not by accident. We surveyed our audience as we started dreaming about a new space and asked them what were their likes and dislikes about the old space. They told us this: ‘We want to keep it intimate and we want it to feel like our place, but we want more leg room and we want it plusher.”

RTP’s new and permanent home seats 80 people on a normal night. “But we can go up,” Philip says. “For Judas Iscariot that ran during Acts of Faith we flexed up to 95.”
In an era when certain performing arts spaces can cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars to construct RTP renovated its new location for comparatively small potatoes.

“People will be shocked at how little we spent to renovate the building,” says Philip. “It was about $350,000 and in this day and age—Lord, Centerstage raised over $100 million—it’s probably the tightest little capital campaign in Richmond. Originally, it was going to be half a million and it included a few more bells and whistles, like the exterior of the building, but we launched the capital campaign just as the economy tanked. So we had a choice: we could either stay in our old location, which was really not possible, or we could move forward and go for it; and that’s what we did.”

The space itself, which was found and purchased by real estate entrepreneur Rob Moss (RTP is purchasing the building from Moss by making the monthly mortgage payments on the property), was perfectly suited for the theatre company’s needs.

“We were very lucky with the building because it had been an old radiator repair shop,” Philip tells me. “The section of the building that houses the theater proper was the garage so there were no poles, no obstructions to getting the building done.”

Richmond Triangle Players have been in their new home for about a year and a half now, which was about the time it took to raise money and complete renovation of the interior—no easy task. “When we actually started construction it only took about seven or eight months to finish the renovation,” says Philip. “The four really expensive things we had to do was rerouting all the plumbing through concrete; installing an HVAC system that was comfortable for the patrons, but soundless; bringing in additional power to the building; and working on the roof to make sure it was nice and tight.”
Though the venue has changed, the mission of this theatre company remains constant. “We embrace the widest possible audience while focusing on works that are a relevant to the LGBT community,” Philip says from memory. “And we are still the only LGBT theatre in Virginia.”

When I ask why areas like Northern Virginia and Virginia Beach don’t have an LGBT theatre, Philip shrugs. “I don’t know,” he says. “They’re both much more politically liberal areas of the state than Richmond so you would think that’s where they would be. But you know, I often think that we’re here in Richmond because we need to be here in Richmond. It’s a little more conservative and the gay and lesbian community say, ‘You know we live here too, this is our town and we have hugely positive things to contribute.’ And that’s always been part of the message of Triangle Players.”
Since opening their doors in Scott’s Addition, Richmond Triangle Players has had one success after another. And last year, the Richmond Theatre Critics bestowed their award for best play of the entire year on Triangle Players for their flawless rendition of Take Me Out.

“It was a terrific production,” Philip says with the pride of a parent. “The whole team of players was tremendous. It also validated us in a way. We weren’t the little gay theatre company performing on the top of an after-hours club anymore. We were a real theatre company with real chops and we’d arrived and we were as good as anybody else in town.”
Their reputation as a theatre company extends far beyond the city limits of Richmond and the state borders of Virginia. Not long ago RTP presented Alan Palmer and his Fabulous Divas of Broadway, in which this versatile performer impersonates everyone from Ethel Merman to Liza Minnelli.

“Alan had such a good time here that when he was developing the sequel called the Fabulous Divas of Hollywood which he’s taking to the Edinburgh Fringe
Festival next month, that he broke it in a couple weeks ago at Richmond Triangle Players. We have brought in cabaret artists from all over the country who repeatedly say this is one of the nicest places we’ve ever performed in. So you can go to New York and see all these people, or you can come here to Richmond Triangle Players.”

Philip considers the range of theatrical fare available at RTP. “Devil Boys from Beyond was certainly, as we like to say here at Triangle Players, the gayest thing we did all season and it was hoot,” he says. “Then we did the docu-musical called This Beautiful City which takes place at the graveside of a Mormon couple who lost their only son to suicide. He killed himself because he was excommunicated from the church for being gay. We had people standing on their feet applauding and sobbing simultaneously.”

As if they had experienced exactly what the characters had experienced, which may be the highest function of theatre and any other narrative art form. “There is that ability to change lives and the way people think,” in the words of Philip Crosby. “I think any art is doing its best work when the viewer is changed. And it can be in a huge way or it can be in a tiny, little way. There’s a little life change that happens when you’re sobbing and going, ‘Oh I never looked at it that way; I never quite understood it that way.’ It is the magic and power of theatre.”

Now, Richmond Triangle Players, which has enjoyed good fortune for the past 19 years, is hosting a brand new theatre company called Stage B Theatre Company.
“Their very first show is going to be right here in our space,” says Philip. “Because we had so many hands stretched out to us when we were looking for space. Two gentlemen and a young lady, who had worked with us on several shows, all recent VCU grads, have decided to start their own theatre company. They’re learning to do it professionally just as one must. And we’re glad to be there for them.”

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