There’s a new coat of red paint being applied to the distinctive exterior of the Firehouse Theatre on the day I interview producing artistic director Joel Bassin.
In the course of our wide-ranging conversation, it becomes clear that while covering up its facility’s wear and tear is relatively easy, pushing the recently embattled company to a new level of relevance is difficult.
But Bassin, who arrived in Richmond in November after decades working in New York, has embraced the challenge in a determined, creative way that’s already shaking up the local arts establishment. While most companies announced their 2015-’16 seasons in the spring, Bassin waited until summer — and then he rolled out a comprehensive overhaul of the Firehouse’s programming in a package dubbed Radical Change.
The initiative takes a three-pronged approach to promoting a broader spectrum of performances, offering a reduced number of traditional plays, three versus the standard four or five, but a greatly expanded number of Fringe productions and an evolving Studio series of experimental works.
“Everyone [in the business] understands that the landscape for nonprofit performing arts organizations has changed dramatically and yet everyone still adheres to the local house style that’s been entrenched for years,” Bassin says. “If we are going to break down barriers to admission and bring in new audiences, we’re going to need to take risks and find new models.”
Bassin hardly comes off as a radical. While he easily throws out bold challenges to the status quo, he does so with such an unassuming and quick-to-smile manner that it’s hard not to be charmed. If anyone can move the Firehouse beyond the drama that embroiled its 22-year-old company in 2013 — when founding artistic director Carol Piersol left in a dispute with its board of directors — Bassin seems like the guy to do it.
Progress is evident. The first production under Radical Change, a musical about obsessive compulsive disorder titled “The Boy in the Bathroom,” opened in July to a well-received run (see our review page 20). The upcoming Fringe production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential classic, “No Exit,” seeks to solidify the inroads that Bassin has made so far.
The Firehouse is co-producing the show with director James Ricks, and it will star some of Richmond’s finest actors, including two of Style’s 2015 Best of Richmond reader poll actor picks, Evan Nasteff and Bianca Bryan. It also will be the latest in actress McLean Jesse’s nearly nonstop run of highly acclaimed productions.
Arriving in town three years ago, Jesse quickly established herself as a leading talent, and over just the last six months has starred in 5th Wall’s “The Human Terrain,” Cadence Theatre’s “A Lie of the Mind” and TheatreLab’s “The Altruists.” She thinks people who may vaguely recall “No Exit” from high-school lit class are going to enjoy seeing it brought to life.
“There’s a ’40s-era formality to the play’s language,” she says, “but it tackles very contemporary issues.” The play contains Sartre’s famous line, “Hell is other people,” and Jesse adds: “I think people will leave wondering what their own personal hell would be.”
The actress was cast in a show at the Firehouse when the brouhaha erupted. She says the participation of Ricks, who directed her in “Twelfth Night” in 2013, lured her back.
“James was like a bridge back to being comfortable working there,” Jesse says. “Joel has been wonderful, very friendly and supportive. To open up his theater and allow James to co-produce was very trusting.”
Bassin sees himself as open to opportunity rather than trusting. He also understands that building relationships in the community is the only way he will succeed.
“Artists create energy and energy creates audiences,” he explains, which is the reason he’s opening up the theater to such wide-ranging entertainment as burlesque shows, magic acts and Tickle Me Tuesday comedy performances. “Our Fringe productions may each bring in its own audience,” he says, “but they help people become comfortable with the space and the experience and eventually, encourage them to sample the other programming we’re offering.”
Beyond fostering a busy venue, Bassin says he sees a potential long-term benefit in promoting the Firehouse as an incubator for new artistic endeavors: “Maybe one day a burlesque artist will start working with a poet they meet here and then bring in a musician. They’ll create the next big thing, take it to Broadway, and make us all a million dollars.” S
“No Exit” will run at the Firehouse, 1609 W. Broad St., starting Aug. 14. Tickets and information are available at firehousetheatre.org.