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Stoking Up the Firehouse 

New managing director promises to take theater "to the next level."

His skill at networking will come in handy given his new job. Last month, Brandon took over as managing director of the Firehouse Theatre Project, a new position the 12-year-old company was able to create thanks to a grant from the Carpenter Foundation. Brandon's mission, he says, is to take the Firehouse "to the next level." When asked how he'll accomplish that, he responds: "Theater business is about communicating and getting stuff done. One of the board members said to me early on, 'Mark, there's a lot of low-hanging fruit here,' a lot of stuff that just needs to be tended to. So now I'm knee-deep in low-hanging fruit."

Though still new in the position, Brandon has many plans for the Firehouse. Chief among them is improving the physical plant of its funky Broad Street facility. For instance, the theater's front door was broken. "I figured fixing that was pretty important," Brandon says. "If you can't come in the door, you can't see the play; if you can't see the play, we don't make any money. So a lot of my job so far is walking around with a tool belt and fixing stuff. The other half is going around in a turtleneck and a sports coat and building relationships."

A graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, Brandon sees VCU as a key partner. "I want to extend my relationship with VCU since we are essentially on campus," Brandon says. "When I graduated with a degree in theater back in 1977-78, VCU produced a lot of great technicians, people like C.J. Simpson, who's been art director for 'Law & Order' for 15 years. They got their experience when Theatre VCU was more like the Firehouse — everything was plywood and spray paint." Brandon sees opportunities for internships and other cooperative ventures that could improve the theater's technical capabilities while giving students vital experience.

He also envisions hiring a technical manager who would teach young up-and-comers as well as improve the technical aspects of productions. "The technical component is a big thing for me," says Brandon, "even if I have to fire myself at the end of the year. I'll tell the board, 'You need to fire me and hire a techie.'"

With the many directions as his life has gone, you'd never guess that theater was one of Brandon's first loves. "I was inspired by my sister Hannah, who has been an actress since age 8," he says. "When I ran 'Who's on First' [a restaurant/comedy club in New York], my biggest thrill of the week was going onstage and introducing the emcee."

The transition from restaurant manager to theater manager was a natural for Brandon, he says: "They're both jobs that have you on your feet 24/7. This is not a desk job; it's not an e-mailing job. It's a telephoning job."

Brandon gets fired-up when talking about the long-term potential of the Firehouse. "So many places in New York are looking for off-Broadway space. The potential is huge. We could really put Richmond on the map by doing cutting-edge stuff," he says. Then, after taking a needed breath, he adds, "I'm thrilled. It's probably going to kill me, but I'm thrilled." S
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