Few subterranean spaces in Richmond are filled with as much blood, sweat and tears as the Basement at TheatreLab. A long and low room, the brick walls and informal atmosphere feel like you’re getting in on the ground floor of a theatrical production — sometimes literally. It looks like no other theater in town.
Annie Colpitts, its managing director, says the space is representative of the type of productions the nonprofit company is trying to bring to town.
“Our official tag line is that we are ‘Richmond’s home for unexpected and evocative performance,’” Colpitts says. “To put it a little more plainly, we go for stories that aren’t being told for whatever reason.”
Colpitts, who has a degree in business and arts management, co-founded TheatreLab with artistic director Deejay Gray, a previous Top 40 recipient, as an offshoot of Firehouse Theatre. They produced shows between other stagings.
After splitting off from Firehouse in early 2013, TheatreLab finally found its home in a basement on East Broad Street — a fixer-upper lacking working electricity when it signed the lease.
Even during the long renovation, the venue was an active host of shows. It debuted with “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” using the half-finished aesthetic for the rock musical about a wandering trans musician with a story to tell.
“If Hedwig’s coming to town, she wouldn’t be able to get into the November Theatre,” Colpitts says. “She would find a dingy, underground club basement. Throw stuff up on the walls herself and build a platform.” The gamble worked. “Hedwig” ran for seven weeks to sellout crowds.
Colpitts sees that approach as key to the company’s long-term survival in a town with a crowded theater scene. In the last three years the nonprofit has landed grants, produced innovative shows, earned accolades from theater critics, formed its first board of directors and this month received the Theresa Pollak Prize for theater.
“We don’t have a giant endowment or cushion in the bank, so we force ourselves to strive for really high-quality productions because we have to,” Colpitts says. “We consider every production, every performance, an opportunity to elevate.”