The true-life story of the Firehouse Theatre Project has all the classic elements of a great drama. First, there's the main protagonist, the Firehouse Theatre Project itself, a scrappy, nonprofit, volunteer performance-arts organization founded in 1993 and committed to bringing cutting-edge theater and art to a not-so-cutting-edge city. Then there's the antagonist or in this case antagonists two private real-estate developers who want to buy the theater company's home, a city-owned former fire station at 1609 W. Broad St. One is a furniture maker who wants to expand his business into the firehouse next door. The other is a local manufacturer who says he wants the building to remain a theater, but that after six months, he will charge the theater company to use the space. The stage is set for a classic conflict: the arts vs. the business establishment. All this show needs is the deus ex machina, a hero to swoop in from stage left and save the day.
Unbelievably, this real-life drama has a hero, too.
Act I: March 1999 The city of Richmond, which has allowed the Firehouse Theatre Project to use the early-1900s building free since 1994, considers two cash offers for the space. The theater company springs into action as its future is in jeopardy. Board president Harry Kollatz, a quirky, fedora-wearing playwright and a founder of the company, meets with Richmond Mayor Tim Kaine and City Manager Calvin Jamison to try to work out a long-term lease agreement on the building. Theater volunteers and supporters mount a letter- and e-mail-writing campaign urging the city to give the company a break. In April, City Council tables all offers on the building and grants the company a 90-day reprieve to come up with a solution to the crisis.
Act II: May 1999 Dum-da-dum-dum. Despite their best efforts, and the moral support of much of the community, it looks as if the Firehouse Theatre Project will not be able to raise the $80,000 needed to purchase the building in a short 90 days. Though the mood is grim, the show must go on. The company mounts a play, "Four Dogs and a Bone." As Kollatz makes the curtain speech one night, he explains the company's plight to the audience unless a financial miracle happens, this may be the last play they ever see at the Firehouse Theatre.
During intermission, as Kollatz sips a Coke and considers his fate, a stranger approaches from stage left. (Cue drum roll and triumphant music.) Enter a humble, unassuming local land developer named Roy Sutton. Sutton walks up to Kollatz and without the slightest dramatic flourish, delivers the play's pivotal line: "I can buy the building for you," he says.
Kollatz nearly falls to the floor in shock. Talk about an unexpected plot twist and happily-ever-after ending. Kollatz still gets a bit giddy when he considers the scene and Sutton's performance. "I was hoping against hope that the gods and goddesses of theater would raise someone up when we most needed it, and it happened," he says. "Essentially what [Sutton] was doing was putting his foot in the door to prevent it from slamming on us. ... It's one of those show-business miracles."
Although the contract with the city has not yet been signed on the dotted line, Kollatz says Sutton will purchase the building and will give the Firehouse Theatre Project 10 years to pay him back the $80,000 purchase price, interest-free.
Sutton, playing totally against type of today's typical, media-hungry leading man, prefers not to comment on his noble deed. "I would like for Harry and those guys to get the limelight, not me," he says. "I don't want to toot my own horn. I did something I thought needed to be done."
But Kollatz isn't above tooting Sutton's horn for him. He explains that Sutton and his wife, Barbara, came to see "Two Dogs and a Bone," after hearing Kollatz and the company's artistic director, Carol Piersol, talk about the show and the Firehouse Theatre Project's plight on the radio. It was the first time the couple, who live in the 1600 block of Monument Avenue about two blocks from the firehouse, had ever been to the theater.
"No one knew him," Kollatz says. "He just wandered in."
Even Kollatz hasn't asked many questions of this kind and generous stranger. "He is a modest and unassuming man who I believe wants to see this kind of cultural activity occur in this neighborhood," Kollatz says. "I never asked him about his motivation because his actions spoke. ... It's great to see that there are people in the community like that who support the arts. We're extraordinarily fortunate." Kollatz also credits the theater company's board members, supporters and volunteers with sustaining the fledgling nonprofit through the crisis.
Act III, January, 2000 Sutton's heroic action is hardly the end of the saga. In fact, according to Kollatz and Piersol, in some ways it is just the beginning. Having a permanent home means the theater company will be able to do something it hasn't been able to do during the past few years have a regular season. Its first show of 2000, Israel Horovitz's "Lebensraum" opens Feb. 17, followed by David Mamet's "Cryptogram" in April.
The company must also face the monumental task of turning the crumbling former firehouse into a bona-fide theater with heat, air conditioning, a watertight roof, and most importantly, permanent seating and a professional stage. The company has a plan, drawn up by local architectural consultant John Lewis, with an estimated cost of $1.5 to $2 million to make all the necessary improvements. The plan calls for sectional seating that could be configured around different stage shapes. This would allow the theater which hosts performances by numerous other local theater groups in addition to its resident company to be adapted to many uses.
Piersol says the Firehouse Theatre Project would also like to eventually offer professional acting classes and to administer a theater library with scripts available to local actors and directors. "There is so much talent here," she says. "People really need a place where they can experiment."
Thanks to Sutton, there will be a place to do that. "I think we've done pretty much what we've wanted to do," he says of his and his wife's brief role in the story of the Firehouse Theatre Project. "It is up to them now to do the rest. We will support them with our
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