When is a door not a door? Adam Ferguson, ’11, confronts this question nightly.
He keeps a thousand details in his head as his cast rehearses “The Boy in the Bathroom,” which he is directing for Richmond’s Firehouse Theatre. Where does a character set down her grocery bags? (On the kitchen table, not next to it.) Are her keys in her purse or coat pocket? (Purse.) Where in the script are the song lyrics an actor keeps flubbing? (He names the page from memory.)
But Ferguson hasn’t yet solved the riddle of actors poking their noses, elbows, and fingers through an imaginary door at center stage. At a recent rehearsal, he sits cross-legged in a chair a few feet from the front of stage right, a small yellow legal pad in his lap. He wears his thoughts on his face. When actor Cathy Shaffner, forgetting her lyrics, scats her way through part of a song, he laughs audibly. Other times, his eyes dart between the actor singing and the characters at the periphery to make sure everything presents a unified vision. Whenever his actors break the plane of the imaginary door, he turns and chuckles to whomever is sitting closest to him in the house’s front-row seats. Often, the actors laugh at themselves through their lines as they continue a scene.
In two weeks, an audience will be sitting in these same front-row seats for opening night. The set is still being built, the costumes and props are not yet assembled, nary a light has been hung, and actors are still learning lines. But if Ferguson is worried, he doesn’t project it.
“Tonight’s the first time we’ve had 90 percent of these props,” he tells the cast after its first full run-through. “A lot of my notes have to do with props. Most of it is just stuff we need to work through.”
“If I may,” production stage manager Trey Tetreault chimes in, “we got through it. This is the first time we’ve actually done it, and it went really well for a first run-through.”
I was looking for somebody crazy enough to take a chance.
Firehouse Theatre is going through something of a first run-through of its own as it enters its 22nd season. Founded in 1993, the company is named for its home, a decommissioned fire department station on Broad Street near VCU’s Siegel Center. The space retains its firehouse charm — the old fire pole is still there, now descending from an upstairs workshop to the lobby — and its mission of presenting new works and nurturing developing artists.
But new leadership is bringing new ideas. When producing artistic director Joel Bassin left New York City to join Firehouse in January, his hiring was covered by the national theater press. (“Firehouse Theatre has found a new fire chief,” American Theatre wrote.) He came in as the third person to hold the post in three years, his outsider status being perhaps one of his most important credentials after the controversial departure of the company’s founding artistic director in 2012.
That lack of local connections complicated his search for new staff. He hired Ferguson on the strength of just a few chance encounters, common connections, and a shared desire to start something anew.
“I was looking for somebody crazy enough to take a chance,” Bassin said of Ferguson. “I couldn’t have found somebody more suited. He is ideal.”
Without knowing it at first, he said, Bassin found in Ferguson someone with a “producer’s mind,” someone who combined a jack-of-all-trades background and natural sociability with a problem-solving mindset and desire to “just be around people making stuff. That’s the work we do.”
“People like me, and, I think, Adam, we tend to gravitate to the traditional theater and get bored,” Bassin said. “At Firehouse, there’s not one minute that’s like the one before it. We’re inventing a new kind of institution and rejecting conventional ideas and notions of what our goals should be.”
The company has cut the number of its main shows, letting each run for longer. It has also branded a broad array of less traditional offerings. Its inaugural Firehouse Fringe series aims to offer more than 50 eclectic performances, everything from happy hour poetry to carnival and burlesque. Firehouse Studio will incubate new works with a focus on process and innovation. In an open letter, Bassin identifies the theme of the company's 2015-16 season as “radical change” through which “audiences can collectively engage in a diverse range of live, collective experiences.”
In “The Boy in the Bathroom,” Ferguson has been given the reins to direct the first show of the new season. Its plot, inspired by real events, concerns an undergraduate student with obsessive-compulsive disorder who has locked himself in the bathroom of his mother’s house for more than a year as he writes his thesis. In addition to the title character, it features only two others: the boy’s mother, tormented by the memories of men who have left her, and a disappointed young woman working as caretaker to the mother after she slips and falls.
For a director, the show presents an array of creative choices. While the women interact directly with one another on stage, they interact with the boy only through the door. Ferguson has opted for a minimalist, evocative set, indicating the door, for example, by adding only a doorframe to the stage, leaving the actors to see one another even as the characters cannot. But for the illusion to hold, the actors have to stop poking through the invisible plane.
Each time they maintain the fiction of the wall, the world that the play conjures becomes more real. The door really is a door, and believing is more than seeing. That’s what theater does.
By the time the show opens, the boy at the back of the house, the one who has nurtured this production from its inception and who helps nurture this company through a season of radical change, will be turning over a thousand new details in his head — upcoming shows, marketing pitches, problems big and small that land in an associate producer’s lap to solve.
“I love theater, but I love the new, edgier ideas,” Ferguson said. “This company is established, but we’re at the point of revitalizing. It’s almost like we’re building a new company.”