VCU alum Harry Kollatz Jr. on his career in journalism and theatre
Right: Photo by artist Amie Oliver, Kollatz's wife
Having authored several books and serving as a senior writer at Richmond magazine, Kollatz’s love of storytelling is undeniable. Outside of the written word, Kollatz has a passion for the Richmond arts community. His involvement in the founding of the Firehouse Theatre Project launched a new kind of theater unbeknownst to the city — a theater that celebrated contemporary U.S. work and nontraditional forms of performance. In 1998 Kollatz co-created the Theresa Pollak Award for Excellence in the Arts at Richmond magazine, which recognizes individual’s contributions to the arts in the following categories: photography, vocalist/instrumentalist, fine art, dance, ensemble, film, lifetime achievement, emerging artist, applied arts, theater, and words.
As an active member of the Richmond arts community, I was particularly interested in learning more about Harry’s background and involvement in the arts.
Did you always want to be an author? What inspired the books you've written?
You know, authors craft books they want to read. Since my youth, I've wanted to somehow tell stories, first as comic strip books, other times in narrative form.
My first "book" was a booklet-sized history of the Village Cafe, which is still prized by folks who got them in that run of I think 1500, appropriately printed off-hours out of Back Alley Press on Grace Street. "True Richmond Stories" came about because the History Press called Richmond magazine and my then-editor Susan Winiecki took their query about whether anybody around there wrote about Richmond history. Susan buzzed me, "Harry, I think you want to take this call." And so that happened, in 2007, and in 2008 came "Richmond In Ragtime: Socialists, Suffragists, Sex & Murder," about three rambunctious years, 1909-1911, which I wrote because most people think of Richmond in the context of Civil War-Civil Rights-Today, and it's not that easy.
"Carlisle Montgomery," my first published novel, came out in the summer of 2019 through the small indie Primer Books of Sydney, Australia. I never do anything simple, it seems. That took eight years of getting up at the crack of dawn and, for the first draft, writing five pages a day. The rest of the time was revision and cutting and repeating the process.
What advice would you offer a student who wants to pursue a career in journalism?
Journalism gives you carte blanche—well, so far for the most part—to talk to nearly anybody about almost anything. There are fewer ways to learn about the workings of the world. It's less dangerous than the merchant marine (unless you're covering war zones or political corruption), and more consistently compelling than most anything outside of, I guess, inventing things or speculative physics, and with less math. It's more challenging now than ever. The jobs are shrinking as the technology is shifting. Making it your living requires adjustments. You will confront the greatest of tragedies and the most inspiring of our human achievements. There are also dreadful long and pointless meetings that the journeyman must cover, and, free food and drink at receptions and lanyards of many different colors and variations for conventions and conferences, backstage access, and permission to sit near the front. You can talk to princes and ditch diggers, performers and street people, who are sometimes both. You can travel—though seldom first class. You can see into your community unlike most people, and that can carry a burden. You realize you know too much while also not knowing enough, and that makes you a journalist.
Tell us about your passion for theater and the founding of the Firehouse Theatre Project.
I've possessed an affection for theater my entire life. I took chorus and drama classes throughout my secondary academics. I've never really excelled as an actor, but I love being around performers and being in theaters, especially small ones. I did a show at the Carillon—"Betrayal," by Harold Pinter—directed by Bill Gorden, then a reporter for what was WRVA-News and Anna Senechal. Out of this came a concept for starting a theater, and someone knew Sanford Meisner technique teacher Janet Wilson and she knew Carol Piersol. I first saw them do a show, "The Love Course" about college ill-starred professors in what was then Carytown Coffee & Tea, with the audience treated alternatively as students in a class than teachers in staff meetings, and that got me where I lived.
Extremely long and ultimately quite painful story short, I followed Bill Gordon as the FTP's board president for eight of its quite-near 20 years before the Great Unpleasantness of 2012 that stemmed from the board of directors ousting the founding artistic director, and my friend, Carol Piersol.
Before all that, we landed in the old fire station at 1609 W. Broad St., operating on special use permits at first, where they parked the health bus and we scrubbed leaked oil off the floor. The city kept the lights on to prevent vandalism and the water to keep things from breaking. We became the cheapest arts group that the city never funded. Eventually, a patron bought the property and later gifted the building to us. The present company exists due to the sweat equity and artistic chances we took in the place.
The Firehouse demonstrated the change in Richmond audiences, that they would come and experience Mamet, Horovitz, Albee, Shanley, Shepard, Gersten, Lindsay-Abaire, Jane Martin and Wendy Wasserstein, Eve Ensler and Rebecca Gilman, Sheila Calagan and Tennessee Williams. And more. There were tough times, lean years, but we stayed on the positive side of the ledger. We held new play festivals and encouraged original work. We felt as though the theater contributed to our city and world, and audiences felt that way, too. Out of us came Cadence, headed by Anna Seneschal, TheatreLab, with DeeJay Gray, and an openness to the kind of non-traditional theater that prior to the Firehouse came along in fits and starts. We were one of the first Richmond venues to bring in contemporary burlesque. We were the first company in Virginia to produce "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and the first in Richmond to produce "The Vagina Monologues." A number of smaller independent companies rented our space, put up shows, and we functioned as a catalyst for theater arts. We built our own niche.
Nonprofit artistic work, I gotta tell ya, isn't for the faint of heart. I've not been to the Firehouse since the closing night of "Death of a Salesman." Joining with Carol and others I assisted in launching the 5th Wall Theatre.
In your opinion, what makes Richmond special?
I'm now 58, soon 59, and a Richmond regional lifer. The city used to possess a certain resistance to corporate hegemony. The corner bars, the little neighborhood stores, they are under pressure, especially these days, and fighting for their survival. The city used to be inexpensive, compared to D.C. and other larger cities, but that's not the case as much. I remember a real estate section of the Sunday Times-Dispatch from around 1988 that recorded with some shock when houses on Floyd Avenue in the Fan were going for $100,000 (!). The proliferation of breweries and distilleries is a national trend, but Legend came about almost 30 years ago. Our restaurants have achieved distinction, but, now with the pandemic, we'll have to see whether the smaller entrepreneurial efforts can regain their spaces in the market.
We're the city that nurtured Edgar Allan Poe and birthed GWAR. The first municipal electric streetcar system came to life here in 1888, ran for 61 years, and then was allowed to get dismantled. The city could've and should've stepped in, but, provincialism stayed their hands. The wounds and scars of our racial and class strife make us a test case, really for the rest of the country. We had Patrick Henry here and we had Gabriel Prosser. The four disastrous years of civil war scarred us, but so did the oxymoronic "express" and "park"-ways, that over citizen objections cut up the city like the "Y" incision of an autopsy.
Our cultural scene is dynamic, whether visual arts, music, or literary. You can make things happen here.
Our hillside parks, the Richmond Folk Festival and its Dance Tent where Richmonders come and groove and move and meet the world, our majestic Mother James, who birthed us and offers us solace and recreation, but access and appreciation for it exists because of the enduring involvement of citizens.
The city, too, is landlocked, as is every municipality in Virginia. We aren't part of a surrounding county thus are put upon our own resources and innovation.
The light of late summers. The colors of autumn. The creaky drafty old houses. The murals, sure, and the community gardens, the markets, and the festivals celebrating food and film and music of all kinds. But February and August each tend to be about three months long. Then again, if you don't like the weather, wait ten minutes.
Before March 2020, Richmond was busier and flashier than I've ever known. The energy may return, but not in the same ways, and maybe that'll be a good thing, to come out of the colossal amount of bad, and power other aspects of culture and life.
I can say this. Richmond during its past centuries has suffered flood, fire, war, pestilence, privation and privatization, plague, and the vagaries of municipal governance. We will, after a fashion, endure.
Tell us about any professors who influenced your education and career.
Jim Lindsey, the dynamic philosophy teacher, introduced me to the thought of Alfred North Whitehead that gave me a way to look at the universe as a process—an active verb; Cliff Edwards, whose teaching of Zen Buddhism provided an avenue of introduction that brought into my lexicon the definition of Zen/life as "round and rolling, slippery and slick"; Bryant Mangum, who ushered me into American literature and after I hungrily ate up; Thomas Wolfe's trilogy of "Look Homeward," "Angel," "You Can't Go Home Again" and "The Web and The Rock," he bequeathed to me a leaf he retrieved from Wolfe's home in Asheville, N.C., which I kept for a long while until it crumbled to bits; Joan Deppa of Mass Communications, whose world experience of a UPI reporter may have prepared her for the anxieties of students who paraded into her office for advice; art historian Sidney Alexander who paraded us through a survey course of Renaissance art that formed a foundation for my understanding of the period and prepared me to see the real things when I saw them in person. Their teachings gave me a perspective I maintain today.