If you’re a fan of suspending disbelief and frequently find yourself entering a dimly lit, curtained room to escape reality in your leisure time, you’re probably familiar with Firehouse Theatre. For Richmonders who may not know, Firehouse Theatre is a local playhouse dedicated to showcasing local and premiering shows on its intimate, black box-style stage. It’s a hub for experimentation, and this month it’s hosting a world premiere called First Responses —a collection of one-act plays written by real first responders about their experiences in the field.
First Responses comprises four roughly 30-minute short plays, drawn directly from the experiences of first responder playwrights Anthony Jackson, Kathryn Kahlson, Betty Migliaccio, and Ben Toderico, who served in either the Richmond Fire Department or Richmond Police Department. Firehouse Theatre invited me to cover First Responses for RVA Magazine, and I attended their Friday night showing on March 31st.
First and foremost, it’s crucial to understand that this production is not for the faint of heart before attending the show. The encounters depicted in this collection of one-act plays range from somber to deeply unsettling, and can be triggering for those who may have experienced similar situations. Despite this, these plays offer a valuable glimpse into the often-overlooked world of those who respond to calls from people facing their worst moments on their darkest days.
These plays were originally written as part of Frontline Writers, a nonprofit organization founded in 2020 that describes itself as providing “writing education and a supportive community to those who work on the frontlines of humanity in the greater Richmond area.” Their program isn’t limited to theater; their website features numerous short stories and essays that also convey first responders’ experiences. After reading several of these powerful essays, it’s evident that this organization does fascinating work in helping traumatized professionals process their grief and pain. The plays selected for this production each address different aspects of being a first responder: seeing yourself in the victims, losing a friend, understanding the world differently, or working far outside your comfort zone.
“Mother at Work” recounts a particularly challenging day in the life of Kathryn Kahlson, who worked for the RFP several years ago. This is perhaps the most distressing encounter of the night, as the parallels between Kahlson and the mother she is called to help are emphasized repeatedly. There are clever moments in the script where characters appear on stage simultaneously but in different locations, performing similar actions and even speaking the same lines. This serves to highlight their shared motherhood and the differences in their lives—Kahlson is married with a supportive husband, while the young woman who calls her that night is single and depends on her own mother to help raise her child.
The subsequent play, “Something So Small,” tells the story of a homicide investigated by Anthony Jackson of the Richmond Police Department. Jackson arrives on the scene and questions three witnesses about their identities and what they saw. Each witness brings to light and challenges a preconceived notion that Jackson held before entering the scene. This culminates in him scrutinizing his own preconceived ideas about who these witnesses are, what they represent, and what led them to this point in their lives.
After a brief intermission, the troupe performs a story called “Pillar” by Richmond police officer Ben Toderico. This one-act play recounts a time when Toderico responded to a call at the Belle Isle footbridge about a man sitting atop a pillar, a hundred feet above the river, staring down. Toderico climbs up to talk to the man and helps him work through his dilemma. This play features charming dialogue between the police officer and the man, taking a simple concept and making the most of its 30 minutes with plenty of humor and heart.
The final piece in this festival is “Eight Buttons” by RFP first responder Betty Migliaccio. The story unfolds as Migliaccio sews a set of golden buttons on a jacket in preparation for a friend’s funeral, a friend she lost after their promotion out of her unit. Perhaps the most straightforward narrative, it is told entirely while a woman sits in the corner of the stage, sewing buttons on a coat and reminiscing about the fond memories she shared with her friend.
Staged by an ensemble cast, First Responses employs nine actors who portray various characters throughout the production. It makes use of a minimalist set consisting of black crates, facilitating easier and more cost-effective scene transitions through clever blocking and structure building with these set pieces. The sound design is also noteworthy, particularly the 911 call that seems to materialize from nowhere, introducing each piece.
Last Friday, I experienced a difficult night filled with raw emotion and cries for recognition in the face of severe adversity. It’s hard to discuss much beyond that, as these are real people sharing real, harrowing experiences, and it must be viewed through that lens in a broader context. Don’t go to First Responses expecting a flawlessly executed piece of modern American theater. The production has its unevenness and the necessary minimalism leaves something to be desired. However, it’s not about that. Instead, if this production finds a place in your schedule, attend with an open mind and remember that these are amateur playwrights and people writing about their real experiences.
If you can’t make it to Firehouse over the next two weekends but have some downtime, I highly recommend visiting the Frontline Writers website and exploring their short stories and essays. One particularly striking piece is “25” by Taylor Lisco, who discusses joining the RPD at 23 and her early encounters at such a young age, emphasizing that the human brain isn’t considered fully developed until the age of 25. Here, you can also read a short story version of “Eight Buttons” by Migliaccio. Reading it doesn’t diminish the impact of seeing it or vice versa, so if you feel compelled, check it out online—it might just drive you to visit Firehouse Theatre and see the production itself. First Responses is a hard look at real life, and like real life, it can be difficult to observe at times. It’s rough around the edges, but it’s authentic, it carries a message, and that’s all that can ever be asked. Pursue your thing, do it proudly, and then make yourself heard.
Photos Provided by Bill Sigafoos