Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Deborah Kirby wears a ring on her right hand, a flat silver band marked with crosses.
“The ring is from one of those jewelry stands in the airport,” the animated redhead says. “I liked the look of the ring and how the crosses circled my finger and how it was a constant reminder of who I live for.”
No one who talks to Kirby for long, or who has heard of her latest endeavor, the Journeymen Theater Ensemble—a nonprofit, “faith-based” professional theater company whose maiden production was the morality play Everyman—will be left wondering who that “who” is.
Of course, the 44-year-old McLean, Va., resident confesses to some discomfort with such easy categorizations. In one interview, she refers to herself as an “evangelistic Christian”; in a later talk, she amends that description. “Especially in the Northeast, you say you’re a Christian and suddenly you’re a radical right-wing, abortion-clinic-burning [type],” she explains. “A ‘follower of Christ’ is the best way for me to put it.”
Kirby founded Journeymen in July 2003, with the aim of mounting plays that deal with issues of faith. In her day job, she’s a legal secretary with the Washington office of Baker Botts LLP, a firm she describes as “incredibly supportive” of her artistic endeavors. The rest of the time, she’s working on implementing Journeymen’s mission statement: to “[c]reate excellent work that honors God and encourages conversations, [f]oster a safe and creatively challenging environment for theater artists, [and m]eet the needs of the community in tangible and relevant ways.”
For the moment, Kirby’s most important goal remains unwritten: defining Christian theater for the Washington audience—and, in some ways, for herself. “I’m still waffling with the term ‘faith-based,’” she admits, perturbed by its political connotations. “We are, as a company, reviewing our mission statement to make it clearer.”
Journeymen made a bold entrance onto the local scene with Everyman, which ran for three-and-a-half weeks at the Church Street Theater in July. The production, which boasted elaborate, surrealistic costumes and playful performances, drew heavily on Kirby’s interest in dance- and movement-based entertainment. A press release quoted her characterization of it as “Cirque du Soleil meets Tim Burton.”
But however entertaining the production was to the senses, it carried the same centuries-old message of redemption: Man meets death, man learns to get right with God, man goes off to face God. It’s a play in which death is a happy ending, because in its theology, death isn’t the real ending.
It also comes from a Catholic perspective, which isn’t the Protestant-raised Kirby’s own: In Everyman, a character called Good Works helps the protagonist gain salvation; in Kirby’s faith, only acceptance of Jesus as savior will do the job. But those doctrinal differences don’t contradict the Journeymen founder’s plan to spur dialogue on ethical and spiritual matters. Anyway, she’s not doing exclusively Christian plays for exclusively Christian audiences.
“So much Christian art is crap,” Kirby declares. “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t say ‘crap.’” She waves her hand. “Oh, never mind. I talk like that.”
Kirby comes across as simultaneously confident about herself and her work and uneasy about others’ perceptions. Mention of another spiritual buzzword, “born-again,” sends her into a pensive silence and then autobiography. “I was born in a Christian home,” offers the Dallas native. “I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know Christ as my savior.”
So Kirby doesn’t have a born-again date. “That’s always gotten me into trouble with the Baptists,” she says. “Every story doesn’t have to be the same. God is infinitely creative, infinitely individualistic.”
College, at Baylor University, marked the beginning of what Kirby refers to as “the first of the prodigal-son years”: “No one was making me go to church. I was in a sorority. I partied hard.” By the mid-’80s, Kirby had moved to New York to pursue acting, wait tables, and experience a few more prodigal years.
But when a fellow waitress invited Kirby to a nondenominational Bible-study group, she met a leader whom she describes as “a real pistol.” Even though they often disagreed, she found her faith reawakened by the dialogue. “I feel like God used that,” she recalls, “to hit me upside the head and ask, ‘Are you really happy?’”
Armed with a rejuvenated faith in God and in herself, Kirby went on to obtain an MFA in acting from Purdue University. Her stage work included such roles as Mame, Medea, and Romeo and Juliet’s Nurse. She trained actors. She trained teachers in using theater to enhance their curricula. Most notably, she stage-managed the Children of Uganda Tour of Light 2000, which took Ugandan child performers to more than 100 sites in the United States. But when she arrived in Washington, in October 2000, her prospects were drying up.
She recalls a time “when I wasn’t getting cast and looking at my therapist and weeping: ‘If I’m not an actress, who am I?’ Intellectually, I knew that this was absurd. Spiritually, I could give the pat answer that I was still a ‘child of God.’ But my heart was saying that I needed to do my art.”
Kirby had thought about starting a faith-oriented theater company since 1988, but she became serious about it only in 2002. She seemed to be in the right environment: The area already had companies such as Actors Theatre of Washington, which bills itself as “D.C.’s premiere GLBT Theatre,” and the African Continuum Theatre Company, whose productions “reflect an aesthetic rooted in the African and African-American experience.”
Washington, thought Kirby, was also a good place for dialogue. “What’s been interesting to me is the change from having moved…from Dallas, where ‘everyone’s a Christian’—in quotes,” she says. “[Here,] people who are agnostic or atheist are very willing to tell you that….I find that I have more spiritual discussions here than I did in Dallas. There’s more of a basis for discussion, because we don’t all look at ourselves as the same.”
Kirby drew upon her friends and associates for financial assistance. (“I’m not going to wait for it to fall from the sky!” she jokes.) Journeymen became incorporated in the summer of 2003, and the nonprofit company got its 501(c)(3) status in December. By May 2004, Kirby was overseeing rehearsals of Everyman at McLean Bible Church, an airport-sized worship center where she was once a member.
Most of the cast and crew found the company through the usual Washington-theater channels: Actor Jay Hardee read about Everyman auditions on the Actors’ Center hot line. The openly gay Adams Morgan resident admits to a little nervousness when he first read the company’s Web site. “I auditioned with a piece from The Laramie Project,” says Hardee, 26, who’d done the play about gay hate-crime victim Matthew Shepard while a student at Tufts University. “I didn’t try to go in closeted or anything. I was myself from the beginning.”
Kirby has no problem with this. Journeymen imposes few rules on its employees: “The only code of conduct that I ask of everyone who works with us is to work hard, be on time…and to not use the Lord’s name in vain,” says Kirby. “I guess that it is understood that I don’t want people drinking, doing drugs, or having sex while they are in rehearsals or the theater—but that is no different than any other theater, I think.”
Although the company holds a Monday-night fellowship, attendance is not compulsory. “It wasn’t going to look bad for you or be held against you if you didn’t go,” says Hardee, who never did. “I definitely do not consider myself a Christian,” he adds, “but I really believe in what they do—honoring God and ethics. Maybe there should be more of that in art—challenging people and elevating them.”
Journeymen’s own toughest challenge may involve Caesar more than God: According to African Continuum Producing Artistic Director Jennifer Nelson, starting a company is “less about the art than about building the audience and getting a funder base.”
“When people want to get a theater off the ground, what they’re excited about is the art,” she explains. “The momentum of that first production can carry you—your family is there, your friends. It’s that second one in which bigger challenges are revealed. You can’t carry it on your own personal Rolodex.”
Indeed, despite Kirby’s satisfaction with Everyman, its impact on the scene is hard to gauge. It garnered only one print review—a favorable one (by this writer) in the Washington City Paper—and numerous mailings to churches didn’t draw the expected group sales.
“The initial production lost money,” Kirby says. “I do not, however, see it as a failure, but a lack of public awareness.” Everyman, she says, “was funded by individuals. We just didn’t sell enough tickets to break even or make money. We made some financial blunders…but nothing too bad. I am proud to say, however, that we were able to pay everyone involved with the production.” The loss is currently being absorbed by the company and its board members.
“I don’t know where the next $10,000 is coming from for the next production,” Kirby admits. “We’re moving toward corporations, expanding our funding base. In the Christian community, I think that there will be more support…when they know about us and trust us. They’re trying to figure out who we are—as is the non-Christian community.”
Journeymen’s next production, now in the audition process, may not help: It’s Private Eyes, a comedy by Seattle-based playwright Steven Dietz. It involves marital misunderstandings, but Kirby says she won’t do a play that glorifies infidelity. In fact, one play that was considered for this season, involving a Catholic woman who strays from her marriage, was vetoed because the woman doesn’t repent. But Kirby says it was as much a dramatic consideration as a moral one: The character had no arc.
That decision, Kirby says, shouldn’t puzzle anyone. But until Kirby can convince Washington’s largely secular theater audience of that fact, she has her work cut out for her. “There are Christians who think we’re only going to do evangelistic plays,” she says. “There are non-Christians who think the same thing.”
In fact, Nelson expresses this very misconception about Journeymen—that it’s aiming at a Christian audience. Told that it isn’t, she responds, “It’s not necessarily gonna make it any easier.”CP