1 of 4
(Photo courtesy: Richmond Catholic Theatre)
2 of 4
Christine Arena and her husband, Richard, performing in the Richmond Catholic Theatre's production of "The Jeweler's Shop" in 2015. (Photo courtesy: Richmond Catholic Theatre)
3 of 4
Richmond Catholic Theatre's first performance of "The Jeweler's Shop" at St. Gabriel Catholic Church on October 25, 2015. (Photo courtesy: Richmond Catholic Theatre)
4 of 4
(Photo courtesy: Richmond Catholic Theatre)
“It was a dream and a prayer,” Christine Arena says of the recently-established Richmond Catholic Theatre. Just over a year ago, the theater was only an idea bouncing around in the minds of Arena and her husband, Richard, who co-founded the RCT last year. After an invitation from the Vatican, the group is now on its way to perform a play with special meaning at World Youth Day in Poland.
While studying abroad in Turin, Italy in 2009, Christine stumbled upon a book, “Called to Love: Approaching John Paul II ‘s Theology of the Body,” by New York Times bestselling author Carl Anderson and Father José Granados, a professor at the Catholic University of America. The book is inspired by the teachings of Pope John Paul II; it spoke to Christine. While reading it, she formed the idea of the Richmond Catholic Theater. She and her husband set out finding actors and building the company.
By June 2015 RCT was officially founded, and the decision of which play to present for its debut performance came naturally to Christine. In 1960 Karol Wojtyla, widely known as Pope John Paul II, penned “The Jeweler’s Shop: A Meditation on the Sacrament of Matrimony, Passing on Occasion into A Drama.” Christine reasoned, what better play to present than one written by the man who inspired the RCT's founding?
Before the Richmond Catholic Theatre could perform it, they had to obtain the rights to “The Jeweler’s Shop,” and they initiated contact with the Vatican. Their first performances of the play took place in October 2015 at the parishes of the Diocese of Richmond last fall. The new group was also chosen to perform at the 12th Annual Acts of Faith Theatre Festival in Richmond at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in January.
A few weeks back on June 10, as husband and wife were moving into their new home, in between unpacking boxes and organizing, Christine received an email directly from the Vatican. It contained an invitation for the RCT to perform in Krakow, Poland for World Youth Day.
“World Youth Day is a celebration of faith of those who believe Jesus Christ,” Christine explains. “All are welcome, whether you are Catholic or not.”
While World Youth Day is celebrated each year, the International World Youth Day is held only every two to three years in different parts of the world; attendance usually numbers over 3 million people, of the Catholic faith and other denominations. In past years, millions have gathered in Madrid and Rio de Janeiro for this spiritual experience. This year, Krakow, Poland, home to Saint Pope John Paul II, will host the international event.
World Youth Day is not just a day, but actually stretches the length of an entire week. This year, from July 25-31, a complete cultural agenda is arranged, including 40 performers from across the globe. Of the millions attending, Pope Francis is expected to appear, as well.
“God sends people,” Christine says of Richmond Catholic Theatre’s actors. She believes each actor was specifically chosen for their role and that there is a deeper spiritual reason to why they were called to the part. Both Christine and Richard act in the seven-member cast of “The Jeweler’s Shop.” Most of the cast members have graduated college; one still attends Virginia Commonwealth University, and five have acted in productions by local theaters.
One of the cast members, Ria Gozen, not only has the opportunity to perform “The Jeweler’s Shop” in front of millions, but the one of their performances happens to fall on her birthday, July 29th.
“My younger sister, Katie Hillgrove, will turn 24 on July 29 as well,” says Christine. “And we are dedicating our performance for her too.” Hillgrove, a member of the Richmond Catholic Theatre, isn’t traveling with the group to Krakow, but her cast mates will keep her birthday in mind as they prepare to take the stage.
While the first thoughts of a theater productions may elicit images of props and costumes, “The Jeweler’s Shop” was written as a stage reading. As such, each actor wears black and shies away from anything that will distract the audience from the powerful lyrics.
The play is “onion-like,” says Richard, an appropriate explanation for a work with so many layers of parallels and Biblical allusions.
Richmond video production company Iceberg Media, LLC will create a film about the Richmond Catholic Theatre's experience at World Youth Day. In an effort to raise funds for the film, RCT has started a GoFundMe page. So far they have raised 24 percent of their $20,000 goal, but the couple is already overwhelmed by the support their community has shown them.
While both Christine and Richard feel incredibly blessed to be given the opportunity to perform at World Youth Day, over and over they say that first and foremost, they are pilgrims on a journey with 3 million others.
In addition to Krakow, Christine, Richard and the rest of the Richmond Catholic Theatre will travel through Warsaw, Czestochowa, Auschwitz as well as a few other cities, and they will be blogging each step of the way.
Once they return home, they plan to start rehearsing a classic theater favorite, “Peter Pan,” that will debut in January.
The Richmond Catholic Theatre is primarily made up of young adults in their 20s. As the group becomes more involved in the community, they will reach out to teens to become members, as well.
Richmond Catholic Theatre’s performances at World Youth Day will take place in Krakow, Poland on July 28-29. For more information on the Richmond Catholic Theatre and to learn more about their journey, visit their website or their Facebook page.