Visiting the Firehouse Theatre Project over Columbus Day weekend, Joel Bassin says he immediately felt at home.
"I fell in love with it as soon as I walked in," says Bassin, recently named artistic director of the Firehouse. He says the theater reminded him of a similarly converted firehouse where he watched avant-garde theater while growing up in Minneapolis: "I have really fond memories of that space."
Good vibes are just one of the perks for Bassin, who's leaving his post as chairman of the theater department at New York City's Hunter College.
"It just seemed like the perfect fit for me," Bassin says. "It's these kinds of spaces where the really exciting work happens."
Bassin comes to Richmond with an impressive résumé, including serving as producing director of the Tribeca Performing Arts Center, managing director of the Wooster Group and company manager for avant-garde theater company Mabou Mines. Though much of his recent work has involved experimental theater, Bassin says he isn't so neatly pigeonholed.
"I love all theater," Bassin says. "I started out doing musicals. I am a musical theater nerd, and as an academic I've been exposed to a lot of plays, a lot of different styles. Probably the reason my work has been primarily in the experimental performance field is because those are the people I associated with during my years at the Wooster Group."
By the time Bassin officially takes the reins of the theater company in January, it will have been two years since founding artistic director Carol Piersol was ousted from the Firehouse, a move that spawned protests, boycotts and dozens of theater artists to declare that they wouldn't go back till Piersol's reinstatement.
While some of those artists and patrons have tricked back, others are resistant. Bassin sees his job as being a bridge builder from the Firehouse's past to its future.
"I hope that I'm able to cut through all the noise, address all the noise, and I'm really looking forward to meeting with Carol and talking to her about things," Bassin says. "I wasn't here for that. I acknowledge it was a difficult time for everybody, but now we're talking about the future of an institution and a theater in a community."
Piersol was replaced by Jase Smith as artistic director, who moved to San Francisco in April and has been jetting between coasts. Smith says that Bassin will be able to take the Firehouse into its next chapter.
"He has this incredible background," Smith says. "He's working with all of these awesome, experimental groups in New York, and he's been chair of Hunter College's theater department, which does traditional theater."
Later this month, the Firehouse will open Paula Vogel's "A Civil War Christmas," the last production with Smith as artistic director.
"It will be very poignant because it's a huge anniversary of the Civil War," says Smith, who says he's proud of making the Firehouse known for offbeat musicals. "It's not a traditional musical. It's more a play with music."
From its beginnings 21 years ago, the Firehouse consistently has produced off-Broadway plays, but in recent years has expanded to include musicals and contemporary classics such as "Death of a Salesman."
For now, Bassin is mum on plans.
"I feel it's way too early for me to declare what a season at the Firehouse is going to look like," he says. "I'm really looking forward to talking to a lot people, getting to understand the arts ecosystem that exists in Richmond, figuring out how to support that, add to it, be the place where another flavor or tone is contributing to the richness and diversity of the Richmond community."
And, he adds, "I'm hoping to renew everybody's willingness to give the Firehouse a chance." S
"A Civil War Christmas" runs Nov. 20-Dec. 20 at Firehouse Theatre Project, 1609 W. Broad St. For information, visit firehousetheatre.org or call 355-2001.