Queer Theater In the Heart of Richmond

by | Apr 25, 2023 | COMEDY, PERFORMING ARTS, QUEER RVA, RICHMOND NEWS


In the vibrant heart of Richmond’s ever-evolving Scott’s Addition neighborhood, Philip Crosby, the Executive Director of Richmond Triangle Players, has been a trailblazer in the world of theater for over a decade. As the first full-time employee of the company, Crosby navigated the choppy waters of bringing LGBTQ-themed productions to a city grappling with the AIDS epidemic and the accompanying societal backlash.

Through tales of serendipitous meetings and a commitment to authenticity, Richmond Triangle Players has grown from a small company performing in a gritty after-hours club to a nationally recognized theater. Under Crosby’s watchful eye, the company continues to make waves by celebrating queer stories, embracing drag culture, and cultivating the next generation of playwrights with their So.Queer Playwriting Festival.

Who are you? And what do you do?

My name is Philip Crosby, and I am the Executive Director of Richmond Triangle Players. It’s always tough to explain what an executive director does. I guess I’m the lead employee; I started off being the first full-time employee of the company a little over a decade ago. 

And then as the company has grown, I’ve stayed in that leadership position. And now we’ve got a total of four of us working full-time. We hire all the artists who work with us on a show-by-show basis. And my job really is to ensure that all the artists have what they need to do what they do. And mostly that means money. Both in terms of paychecks and also being able to access the resources they need to put the show on. 

Phillip Crosby, Richmond Triangle Players
Richmond Triangle Players first review ever in the Richmond Times Dispatch 1993

How exactly did Richmond Triangle Players get started in 1993? And what did it look like when you started working there?

The joke I always use is that a businessman and an actor walked into a bar, and then it goes from there. It’s a joke, but it’s also kind of true. In 1993, there weren’t many theaters in Richmond that were very open to doing plays with gay and lesbian themes. Richmond got hit with the AIDS epidemic a few years later than the rest of the country. And just like the rest of the country, because of that epidemic, there was some backlash against the gay and lesbian community. 

Mainstream theaters just didn’t want to deal with that kind of language and content. And of course, for the artists and the audiences who did care about that content, it was very frustrating because you couldn’t see yourselves on stage. So the actor was bemoaning about this in a bar with a businessman. And the businessman basically said, “Well, what do you need to do a play?” It turns out the businessman was very good at his job, and he also– in his off hours– was the manager of an after-hours club called Fieldens. 

As the name suggests, an after-hours club doesn’t open until the regular bars close at two. So Fieldens was available during the evening to do something like theater, and so that’s how they began. They did a benefit performance there for Health Brigade (previously called Fan Free Clinic) and decided to do a trio of Harvey Firestein one-act plays. The performance sold out within hours. And everyone after the show said, “Hey, we need this kind of theater.” So a small team got together and decided to commit to it. 

And they put the first season of Richmond Triangle Players together, still in Fieldens. It was a success from the get-go, which was lovely, and quickly caught the attention of some major press back in those days. An Arts & Entertainment writer took a liking to the Triangle Players and started writing about us a lot and got the word out there. And for 15 years, we performed in that grimy little after-hours club on a tiny, tiny, little stage. But the audience grew and grew until we had to leave the building. It was basically just falling apart around us. And we knew we needed to go. 

So we then we were lucky– well, we were a little mischievous, actually– we threw a big party, sort of a 15th-anniversary party fundraiser, and after a couple glasses of champagne, we told everybody that we needed a new space, and asked if could they help us find one. And luckily, in the group that night was a real estate entrepreneur who was checking out some property in this unknown neighborhood called Scott’s Addition. 

He was willing to buy us a building if we would do the renovation. And that’s what happened. He bought the building, we did the renovation. And then, about five years ago, we ran a very big fundraising campaign and we were able to buy the building. So that’s where we are.

Since we bought the building, its assessed value has gone up 50 percent. 10 years ago, when we opened this space, we were about the only thing open in the neighborhood. The biggest change I’ve seen in 10 years is just the explosive growth of the neighborhood. I’d like to think we had a little bit to do with that. 

Phillip Crosby, Richmond Triangle Players
The smash-hit musical “A Chorus Line” capped RTP’s 25th Anniversary season, 2018, photo by John MacLellan

So what was your introduction to theater and queer media personally?

Oh, wow. Well, boy, how far back do you want to go?

You can go as far back as you would like.

I’ve been enamored by theater all my life. I was very lucky to have been introduced to live theatre by my grandparents. It just clicked with me. I saw it, and I knew it was something I wanted to do. It was magic. And then, of course, being a queer fellow myself, the first time I saw anyone on stage portraying a gay male, was around 1970. I was 12 or 13 years old and my family was living in Connecticut at the time. So I pressured my mom to take me to New York and see a show. 

The first show we saw was a piece called Applause– there is no reason why you would remember it or know about it. But it was a musical based on the film All About Eve. And the star lady’s confidant was a gay hairdresser. And so he had the flashy clothing and had a little dish to him. But she, at one point, wanted him to squire her somewhere after an opening night. And he looked at her and said, “But I’ve got a date.” And she responded, “Well, bring him along.”

And all of a sudden, I went, “That’s one of my tribe up there.” So I think that spark has always been there. And I’ve been very lucky in my career in theater. I’ve worked at some pretty world-class places and got to work with renowned folks. But I’ve never been as individually fulfilled as I am now– because I think our work matters. 

I love all theater, I’m a great believer that stories can change the world. But devoting my life to something like this, to something that can have both a personal and communal positive effect means a lot.

Phillip Crosby, Richmond Triangle Players
Fielden’s were the first performances by Richmond Triangle Players were staged at 2033 W Broad Street

Recently, there have been a lot of conversations about representation in the media and its significance. How would you say that the Richmond community, and even the national community, have responded to Richmond Triangle Players and what they’re trying to do, compared to when you started? 

Well, I think there’s always been an appreciation of it in a small way. I actually was on the board of RTP, before I started to work for them. So I’ve been involved with the organization since about 2000. And early on, when we were doing grant applications, it was so wonderful to hear that people were grateful that we were applying. 

And generally, throughout the years, I think we’ve been very welcomed. Part of that is because we’ve done really good work. And part of that is we’ve been very successful at doing it. So we’ve gained a bit of a national reputation because of that. We’ve been called out as one of the 15 most important theaters of its kind in the country.

I like to think, deep in the little dark recesses of my heart, that we’re one of the things that have helped Richmond become a cooler place over the last twenty years. I mean, us and food. And tattoo parlors. 

How would you say that the presence of this queer media space has impacted the Richmond gay community?

I hope very positively, I hope we’ve been able to be a safe space for people to gather. I mean, that was one of the things that were so important when we opened in 1993– queer couples could actually date here and they couldn’t anywhere else in town. I know there were other resources in town, but we were one of the first, and we were one of the first organizations to be out there in the very conservative press. Every time we were covered, this very conservative, daily newspaper, had to have the words, gay and lesbian and LGBTQ in their print. It was probably quite a shock to people. And it was good.

Phillip Crosby, Richmond Triangle Players

I saw that Richmond Triangle Players did a collaboration with Miss Kasha Davis recently. What do you believe is the significance of drag in the LGBT community, especially in the midst of anti-drag legislation?

This anti-drag stuff is a whole lot of hooey. I mean, how stupid is that? It’s a false trope that is gaining traction in that mega ultra-right community. And so we have to be aware of it. But I think it means you double down in your support of those performers. And my lord, you can’t throw a ball and not be near a drag show in Richmond these days. The queens in town are all making fairly good money. 

At the end of the day, it’s an artistic expression that I think is a valuable part of queer storytelling. The bending of gender has been present from the very beginning of drag queens and drag kings– they were out there in the forefront doing that, so I of course am for it. I will tell you, one of the reasons originally that we went for Miss Kasha Davis– who was wonderful in the two shows that she did– is because, in her home base in Rochester, she works out of the theater very similar to RTP. And many weekday mornings, she does a thing called Imagination Station, which is a children’s production.

You’re probably too young to remember anything like Captain Kangaroo or Wonderama, but it was morning children’s programming, which had funny adults and funny costumes, reading stories and doing skits specifically for the entertainment of kids. And that’s what she does. I had thought how wonderful it would be to bring her in to do that. But then there was all this anti-LGBTQ stuff about drag performers and children, and it’s gotten very serious. 

Even in Richmond, it is serious. The Children’s Museum actually had an LGBTQ family night with their legendary Santa and there were protests. Folks were getting death threats. So I just had to decide inside myself, “Do I have the energy to be an advocate for this over the next week?” I decided I didn’t. Instead, I want to play the long game.

So we just asked Kasha to do two adult shows, and she was fine with it. But it’s sad. Because the whole concept of what they’re saying is just so stupid. A child is far safer at a drag show than they are in Southern Baptist Sunday school or in the Boy Scouts or at Catholic Church.

Phillip Crosby, Richmond Triangle Players
Matthew Lopez’ 6.5 hour, two-part epic “The Inheritance” had its mid-Atlantic premiere at RTP in August-September 2022, to rave reviews from audiences and critics, photo by John MacLellan

It is stupid. And it’s so nonsensical to me that I can’t even understand where it’s coming from. Just sheer hatred and fear?

You know, some of it is just the upsetting of the norms, which drag has always done in a fun way. I think the confluence of this alt-right fear of trans folks and nonbinary folks has a lot to do with a concern that some basic beliefs are being challenged. And if those are challenged, how do they get their world settled again? But it’s really pretty easy, actually. I don’t worry about who’s doing what to who and neither should you. That should be the end of the story. 

They all seem to go back to the days of Leave It to Beaver, and the 50s, claiming that everything was so much more peaceful. That life was simpler. That we didn’t have to worry about all this stuff. But, it was all simmering under the surface, right? This was all before a big round of the civil rights movement– it was the last gasp of white male patriarchy not being challenged. And we’ve been fighting that battle ever since.

Phillip Crosby, Richmond Triangle Players
Donja R. Love’s “Sugar in Our Wounds” won the 2022 Richmond Theatre Critics award for Best Play, photo by John MacLellan

Queer people have always existed. They just weren’t as visible as they are now. 

Yes, folks are visible and no longer willing to hide. RuPaul’s message was great when he called these people bullies. And bullies are really cowards. I loved him calling the drag community, the “Marines of our community,” because they’re on the frontlines. Fighting the battles first.

You’re asking about representation, and to have folks on our stage who are able to authentically be themselves–they can be queer folks telling queer stories– means the world. We’re very committed to the fact that if a script calls for a trans character, it will be portrayed by a trans actor. Authenticity of voice basically means you, as an artist, understand what the issues are. It doesn’t mean you are a better actor or worse actor than somebody else. It just means that at your core, a lot of the homework that an actor has to do already lives in you. 

Could you talk about the So.Queer Playwriting Festival?

Absolutely. I mentioned earlier that we did a big fundraising campaign in the past that enabled us to buy our building. One of the other things that happened was our former artistic director, who’s a great champion of our theaters, was able to give us a very big gift. As a part of that campaign, he wanted to endow a fund to help develop new works. This basically means that there’s a pot of money sitting in the bank, and we can use the interest on programs designed specifically to develop new queer work for the theatre. 

We thought that was great, but then we also thought, well, what does that mean? You know, How do we develop queer work? Do we just sit there and wait for someone to hand it to us or do we go out and actively look for it? And that’s where the So.Queer Playwriting Festival came from. It was an effort to actively research and develop new southern queer playwrights. 

This year is our second round of a two-year process. We got about 35 submissions this year. We don’t read full-length plays, we ask them to send us a representative sampling of the play that we can judge and then we narrow it down to a top ten and then a top five. We’re about to launch the finalist presentations, which will actually be the top four because one of the finalists is getting their play produced somewhere, so they had to bow out of the competition. 

The presentations will be up online, so anyone all over the country can watch and vote for their favorite. From those results and an internal vote, we come up with a winner. And the winner then gets their play workshopped over the next year, and developed into something hopefully, better than it was when it started. We don’t guarantee its production. The first year though, we thought the play was so good that we had to produce it. 

But then at the end of the process, the playwright will hopefully have a wonderful play that they can go pedal to other theaters. And then we’ve done our job to help develop that work. The intent is, is that this will be an ongoing festival. So we’re very, very excited about that.

Phillip Crosby, Richmond Triangle Players
Log Cabin opens Friday April 28, 2023, at 8 pm, following two low-priced previews on Wednesday and Thursday, April 26 and 27 at 8 pm. The production will run for sixteen performances through May 20

What else is coming up for Richmond Triangle Players? What are you excited about for the upcoming months?

Oh, Lord, I get excited about everything. We have two more places in season; one’s called Log Cabin. There are lots of letters in the acronym LGBTQIA and not all of those sections of people get along all the time. So Log Cabin asks– what happens when we all get some money and acceptance? When we sit in our own little roles, do we start becoming the people we don’t like? 

Then we’ll end this season with our big summer musical, Head Over Heels, which is like if you took Shakespeare’s 12th night, but smashed it up with the music of the GoGo’s. It’s a great, fun piece. We’re working on figuring out our season for next year, which I hope will be just as exciting.

For more information rtriangle.org/experience
Follow Richmond Triangle Players @richmond.triangle.players

Main photo by Robyn O’Neill

Audrey McGovern

Audrey McGovern

Audrey McGovern is a former creative writing student who studied at Virginia Tech. She likes telling stories.




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