OUTstanding Virginians 2010

Michael Gooding

Gay Theater’s Missionary

If you had told Michael Gooding twenty-five years ago that his mission would be to create the only full-time professional theater in the mid-Atlantic region dealing with LGBT concerns, he might have called you crazy. It certainly wasn’t the way he thought his business man’s life might turn out. Yet Richmond Triangle Players over the last seventeen years has not only provided Richmond with entertainment they could only access at the theater he co-founded, his troupe has gained national recognition for the high caliber of that theatrical entertainment. In 2006, for instance, the Columbus National Gay and Lesbian Theater Festival awarded its top prizes for outstanding production to RTP’s hilarious Stops. A leading industry publication moreover has ranked RTP as one of the five most notable theaters of its kind in the nation. Clearly, Michael Gooding has accomplished his important mission.

Michael’s early years, however, hardly suggested that he would later be staging in conservative Richmond a play entitled Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. Armed with a degree in business administration from the University of Florida, he began a career that would encompass insurance, banking and eventually restaurant management. After moving to Richmond to accept an executive position with a local food service chain, Michael began to realize he could no longer suppress who he truly was. About that time he met Steve Earle, a local actor and teacher who was bemoaning the lack of opportunities for gay theater in Richmond. Refusing to accept the mantra of “No, that can’t be done here” as an answer to their dream, Michael decided he would find Steve a place to produce his work. The first result was an evening of one-act plays to benefit local AIDS causes. It was staged in a postage-stamp sized area on the top floor of a local gay club. When the show proved to be a hit, Michael’s mission of staging theater for the LGBT community was launched: the Richmond Triangle Players had become a reality. And when the Richmond Times Dispatch ran a photograph of Michael in its article on the theater’s opening, Michael was unofficially outed.

Despite presiding as the managing director of RTP, Michael characteristically does not take all the credit for what his troupe has accomplished. He cites playwright Jacqui Singleton and director John Knapp specifically for helping shape the company’s artistic vision. He admits, however, to being the guy whose business acumen and ongoing refusal to acknowledge “no” has kept the company economically viable. When RTP was planning to move its operations from its cramped quarters to a building whose space was finally accessible to all patrons, the economy suddenly fell apart. Rather than delay the project, undaunted, Michael reconfigured everything. He renegotiated with contractors; he solicited volunteer help in lieu of some professional labor so that the theater could open on schedule. Because of Michael’s proven business skills, the company managed to shrink by 40% its originally estimated construction costs. As a result, Richmond Triangle Players opened its newly renovated, sleek new theater this February to rave reviews from audiences and critics alike. It sports a stage 2 1/2 times larger than the old one, much roomier wing areas, and a backstage door that will make it possible to wheel large items from street to stage. That last improvement will make possible some of the fun in this year’s final production in May, the baseball-themed play Take Me Out which, famously, features a shower scene!

When asked to name his proudest achievement, Michael cites two for the record. One, obviously, is the success of his mission not only to entertain audiences but also to “enlighten and educate” them. The first play in their new digs, Facing East, proves his point: it centers around a Mormon couple struggling to come to terms with the suicide of their gay son. This emphasis on LGBT issues is crucial to Michael’s mission because surveys confirm that 30-40% of RTP’s audiences are straight. His second source of pride is his own family which includes eight sons and daughters, all of whom he proudly says fully support his original mission. “My youngest son when he was fourteen served as an usher for our early production of Safe Sex” he notes. Mission accomplished, Michael.