The Richmond Forum stage is hallowed ground.
For the last thirty years—or for forty-seven years, depending on how you count it (I’ll let the author explain that)—the biggest names in the world have traveled to Richmond, Virginia . . . to speak. And to do so on a stage so large that it can easily swallow the person who doesn’t bring his or her “A game.”
Before each speaker, unseen to them in the lights of the theater, but sensed deeply, is the largest and most respected lecture series audience in America. This stage and this audience are why names like Clinton, Bush, Blair, Thatcher, Gorbachev, Kissinger, Reagan, Rice, Bernanke, Tutu, Netanyahu, Bhutto, Cronkite, Brokaw, Spielberg, Redford, Winfrey, Goodall, Buchwald, Asimov, and hundreds more, have made the trip to Richmond over the years.
This season, 4,500 subscribers and sponsors from the Richmond Region (as well as Williamsburg, the Northern Neck, Fredericksburg, Northern Virginia, and points west) will attend each of five Forum evenings. Most of these folks have been with us for many seasons and in that time have spent a few enriching hours in the same room with some of the most fascinating, accomplished, and connected individuals in the world. And, most rare in 21st Century America, there is no separation between a Forum attendee seated in the theater and a Forum speaker: No glass of a television screen, no ink on paper, no sound bite, no reporting bias, and most importantly, no pundit telling anybody in our audience what they should think about what they have just seen and heard.
We ask each of our speakers to come to the theater in the afternoon for a sound check before the evening’s presentation. The sound engineers fit them with their headset microphones and we ask them to rattle off something of their choosing so audio levels can be set—some use the opportunity to walk through a portion of their intended remarks, others recite some poem learned long ago in school, and others carry on a conversation with me, sometimes lasting well after the point that the sound man is happy—we finally see him standing quietly to the side, waiting patiently to remove our mics.
Aside from the all-important technical preparations, I really want our speakers to see the theater. To step out onto that massive stage before the house is full and the lights are in their face. To see the giant backdrops—created especially for their presentation—that will frame their every word. To see where the very top row of the upper balcony is.
Nearly to the person, every speaker asks me the same incredulous question: “And all of these seats are going to be full tonight? That’s amazing.” In recent years, since the addition of our very successful Simulcast Room in the theater’s ballroom, I’ve been able to say, “Plus, 800 subscribers in the ballroom, and 100 students in our Student Room.” Heads shake in amazement.
The longstanding and hard-earned reputation of The Richmond Forum precedes it and makes it possible for us to fulfill the first part of our mission statement: “To bring the leaders from the world stage to our stage in Richmond.” The second half of our mission talks about why we do this: “To expand horizons, stimulate conversation, and inspire our community.”
Although those particular words were crafted in 2009 by our board of directors, the mission has been there for a long, long time, as you will learn in these pages.
This book started as something nice to do in honor of our thirtieth season. My pitch to author and Forum subscriber Ray McAllister was simple: We want to tell the story of The Richmond Forum (including the behind the scenes stories) and also show how The Forum fits into a long tradition of lecture circuit speaking in America.
Honestly, we didn’t realize what we were taking on in such a short period of time. The book had to be ready for our opening program in November. “The thirtieth season runs through April, doesn’t it?”, Ray kept asking as the project grew. And grew.
What started out as something “nice to do” quickly turned into something “important to do.” Ray has successfully uncovered the mostly-forgotten history of this organization and given us the gift of perspective that can only come from a long view, as well as a fuller understanding of who we are and how such an impressive public forum was born here in Richmond, and grew to be the largest in America. Ray’s ability to transform a thousand data points gathered from old files, notes, clippings, correspondence, and interviews into a beautifully written narrative is without compare.
I often note an interesting physiological phenomenon at our programs: When a Forum speaker has transfixed our audience, nobody is coughing. Nobody. If the speaker hasn’t captured the audience’s attention, you can hear coughing coming from every corner of the theater. Perhaps, I should have suggested that I do one of those testimonial quotes for the back of this book’s dust jacket: “I didn’t cough once while reading this! – Bill Chapman.”
On behalf of everybody in the Forum family, I thank Ray McAllister for his good work and dedication to this project.
Before turning you over to his book, however, a parting word from another.
In his 2008 book, The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Pico Iyer wrote a wonderful passage about the obligation facing three high-profile speakers waiting to go on stage before a large audience:
“[Their] job now was to give this audience a human, living sense of contact that no audience could get from a screen (the crowd, after all, had been waiting for this day for months); and yet they had to leave behind them something that would outlast them, and maybe help people return to the clatter and commotion a little differently, in part by seeing how they could change the world by changing the way they looked at the world.”
The Richmond Forum
The Forum Files // Hardcover // 164 Full-Color Pages // $18.99