Shining a spotlight on the performing arts community.

Firehouse Theatre Project: Full House

  • January 3, 2024

Now in its 30th year, the Firehouse Theatre Project (FTP) is a nucleus for the creative aspirations of the Richmond, VA, community and a beacon for continuous artistic expression. From humble but ambitious beginnings in 1993, the former fire station now houses three theatre companies, two dance companies, and a Fringe program that offers “place, space, and infrastructure to Richmond’s independent artists,” according to Nathaniel Shaw, FTP’s Producing Artistic Director.

Created as a locus for “edgy theatre” in what was then an iffy area part of town, the original founders Carol Piersol, Harry Kollatz Jr., Janet Wilson, Bill Gordon, and Anna Senechal Johnson envisioned premieres of contemporary American playwrights’ work. Thanks to their efforts, said Shaw, “If you are in and around Richmond and you have an appetite for new ideas, new voices, and new content, Firehouse has consistently been the community’s home to discover contemporary work and have a unique theatrical experience.”

One such experience was the memorable “Julie, Monster: A Queer Baroque Opera” (2021). Written by Raphael and Niccolo Seligmann, the opera was a collaboration between FTP and RVA Baroque, a community period instrument ensemble. It is a favorite of FTP’s Technical Director / Production Coordinator Emily Vial, who recalled that the production “was an enormous undertaking, with an 18-person cast, two months of rehearsals, a beautifully designed set that emulated a stone mausoleum with gold-trimmed Baroque architectural accents, and a live six-piece band that blended original electronic music with classic French Baroque chamber music.” 

This year has been particularly eventful. In 2023, Joel Bassin, who had served as Producing Artist Director since 2015, retired, passing the baton to Nathaniel Shaw, founder of The New Theatre and now Bassin’s successor. “Once the possibility of succession was on the table, we examined the pros and cons of consolidation between Firehouse and The New Theatre (TNT) and, given the considerable mission overlap, brought the two organizations together. Dr. Bassin and I worked alongside each other for the first half of 2023.”

In addition to TNT and FTP, a third theatre company, 5th Wave, is in residence. The latter was formed by the FTP’s founding Artistic Director, Carol Piersol, who passed away in 2023 from brain cancer. “Since I joined the team, we have honored our history by naming the stage after founding Artistic Director Carol Piersol. Doing this reconnected us to past Firehouse artists.”

Firehouse has unusually devoted fans, learned Kaghen Miller, who is the LUDUS senior account executive in charge of FTP. “What I found unique from other LUDUS users was that FTP offers an unlimited subscription model. Much like Netflix for live theatre, a subscription at Firehouse Theatre gives you open access to as many performances as you’d like. Specifically, with their series where a script is being workshopped, patrons have the opportunity to experience the work through its growth.”

“A big shout-out to Kaghen,” said Shaw, “who held our hand through the onboarding process, and continues to be an incredible resource!” Shaw also extolled LUDUS as a great addition to Firehouse: “It has made it so much easier for patrons, especially our members, to manage their own ticket-buying experience, and it has freed up staff-time. Additionally, the ability to view patron and donor data has made targeted outreach much easier and faster.”

LUDUS ticketing benefits extend to Fringe program participants, who, as FTP Director of Communications Amber Martinez noted, may not have “an artistic home of their own, and we provide that for them in addition to some tech and design elements they may need access to as well. What makes Firehouse so special,” she observed, “is that we provide a space for artists to perform, take risks, and have an audience.”

And that space is about to get better, noted Shaw. “We have made a major investment in our production capabilities by switching to greener, more efficient LED technology and adding 30 new LED lighting fixtures; purchasing two ultra-short throw digital projectors, and upgrading our audio package with a new soundboard and on-stage speakers for more localized design. We have made some small but meaningful upgrades to the lobby and performance space. We have also increased our investment in production values and increased artist compensation.”

These improvements can be made thanks to community partners and individuals who realize the importance of live theatre. “Because of Dr. Bassin’s leadership, I’m inheriting stewardship when Firehouse is in a strong financial position,” noted Shaw. Sadly, however, “contributed support, whether government, foundation, corporate, or individual, has not kept up with the rate of inflation over the last several decades. We have to realize that a healthy and thriving arts sector is reliant on everyone who cares about it participating in it. If you take it for granted, you may blink, and it may be gone.”