The Blue Raccoon

Thursday, September 06, 2007


My colleague, comrade, and co-founder of the Firehouse Theatre Project, Carol Piersol, is among the 25 arts and cultural makers and creators as assessed by Style Weekly. I'm happy to say that I count a number of these folks as my acquaintances, and have seen, at one point or another, all of their work.

But Carol is the special one for me. Since Halloween Eve of 1992, when me, Bill Gordon, and Anna Senechal now Johnson, (and, to be honest, Jeff Clevenger who was there that first meeting and assisted with technical elements and acted in a slew of Firehouse shows), and we were soon thereafter joined by actors, director and writer Janet Wilson. We were founded on the cornerstone of Sanford Meisner and in as authentic an urban space as you can get: a century-old fire station.

Above is the Richmond Fire Department Station #10, circa 1944, future home of the Firehouse Theatre Project, 1609 W. Broad St. All buildings pictured remain though some in altered forms. The Firehouse lost its bell tower in the 1950s, deemed as unsafe by city building inspectors and removed. I think this was in response to Hurricane Hazel that roared through in October 1958 and took down some mighty church steeples. Wish we still had the tower though, we could've mounted a Klieg up there for our opening nights.

In the image below, you see the place in 2005, from the perspective of the wonderful Lowe's parking lot, where Firehouse patrons are allowed to park. That's architect William L. Bottomley's Stuart Circle Apartments building in the background. Go here, the down to the MAIR, and look in the 1600 block for a somewhat better view. I've always enjoyed how the housings and cupolas of its roof resemble an Italian hillside village.

On the left is the spire of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, which has an exquisite building. The metal facade of the Nationwide Insurance building obscures the pediment of what was an auto repair place, pictured above. 1607 W. Broad, on the other side, is the birthplace of Pleasant's Hardware, a Richmond commercial institution.

[That's Anna, foreground, in a recent production of A Body of Water, with the Company of Fools, in Hailey, Idaho, via their site.]

Carol and me are the remaining founders still associated with the theater and she's there just about every day. The Firehouse is her fourth child. And I was one of the midwives. The Firehouse and its turning 15 in 2008. That achievment is in no small measure a testimony to her role as he theater's artistic director. The FTP's steadfast commitment to producing contemporary theater pieces of the United States, encouraging and developing new work, and emphasizing the actor, is due to her clear vision of how the company should develop.

This gives me the opportunity to push our show opening on September 13, Noah Haidle's Mr. Marmalade. Its a twisted dark children's story that Shel Silverstein would appreciate. But it's not for children. Well, I guess that depends on your kid.

The cast features the incandescent Laine Satterfield, officious and brooding Andrew Boothby, wondrous Erin Thomas, the always excellent Larry Cook, and the surprising Billy Christopher Maupin.

Opening night may very well be sold out at this writing, but you've got until October 6 to see this wild play.

photo by Scott Elmquist

September 5, 2007

Sex, Drugs and High Ceilings

Carol Piersol

In 1993, when Richmond city began to look for a new firehouse, Carol Piersol and several of her acting classmates jumped on the opportunity to create a theater space already outfitted with the requisite high ceilings. Thus, the Firehouse Theatre was born, and Piersol’s been the artistic director ever since.

Piersol, 55, had been in Richmond since 1985, and knew immediately that the theater company she wanted to form would be different from any other in the area. Since its inception, the Firehouse has produced only contemporary American plays that have never been brought to Richmond.

“We’ve never tried to do something for the masses,” Piersol says. “We only want plays that are thought-provoking, on the edge. Our audience is growing, and I think that’s because we’ve stuck with our mission.”

In addition to producing its own full season, offering acting classes, an annual playwriting contest and the musical Firehouse Cabaret, the Firehouse opens its doors to poetry, film, assorted festivals and other theater companies, including the Yellow House films and Just Poetry Slam!

“We try to partner with companies to keep our rent down because we know how hard it is to get started,” Piersol says, “and the city was so generous to help us.”

The Firehouse has gained the trust of Richmond audiences, Piersol says: “Its notoriety has changed from, ‘Oh, I don’t want to see the stuff that they do, it’s going to be that avant-garde, inaccessible stuff that I’m not interested in.’

“The audience understands now that cutting edge doesn’t mean it has no value or will be of interest to only a small group,” Piersol says. “It’s become legitimate. If we approach nudity, drugs and profanity it’s not done gratuitously or for shock value, it’s got value as part of the play. A play can be thought-provoking, profound and highly entertaining at the same time.”

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