By Isaac Butler
Over the holiday, Carol Piersol, the co-founder and long-time artistic director of The Firehouse Theatre Project, abruptly resigned in protest of the even-more-abrupt forced retirement handed down to her by unanimous vote from the theater's board.
When I heard the news, the story seemed, well, totally bizarre. I've worked at the Firehouse a few times, and know Carol and some of the crew down there, and, well, it's hard to imagine the FTP without her. The FTP is to some extent, Carol. She helped found it, acted in many of its productions, her husband directed several, she ran (how strange to use the past tense) the acting classes FTP offers etc. and so forth.
The story's only gotten stranger since then. Turns out, the vote to oust Piersol wasn't actually unanimous. As the Times-Dispatch reports here, a boardmember loyal to Piersol was removed from the board the same night. A protest demanding the immediate resignation of the entire board and Piersol's reenstatement as Artistic Director drew a crowd of more than 250. Three board members have since resigned.
You can read their resignation e-mails, as well as a good overview of the facts of the matter, at Open Source RVA. Regardless of whether you care about Richmond or its theatre scene, it's a fascinating story of what happens when the relationship between boards and Artistic Directors break down.
Except.... well, there's still a lot of stuff we don't know and isn't being talked about publicly. How acrimonious was the board/Piersol relationship prior to this whole forced retirement? Why did they force her to retire in the first place? The board e-mails make several mentions of some kind of executive committee plan that members of the board cooked up to help improve the operations of and grow the FTP. What's the actual plan? Had Carol seen it?
Whatever the story is down in Richmond, it's clear we don't have the whole thing yet.
UPDATE: So I've talked to some people (not Carol) and done some nosing around and the bottom line is... no one knows why the board ousted Piersol. The plan to do so was cooked up by a subcommittee of the Board that met in private and did not present their reasoning to the board at large. Furthermore, the (I'd argue poorly designed) by-laws of the board meant that once the motion to force Carol to retire in June was brought up for a vote, the only available options were to force her to retire immediately, force her to retire in a few months with some stipend, or the June retirement plan they went with.
Prior to this vote in December, Carol had discussed wanting to retire in five years and there had been some movement on this in September.
So in other words... only the Executive Committee of the FTP board knows why they wanted to
Style Weekly has also been on top of this story. They have two articles up on it here and here. If you're really interested in the story, I recommend you check out the comments of both. This story is a capital-b Big Deal in the Richmond arts scene. (I'll also note that there is one comment that alleges that Carol has a drinking problem. Having worked with and kept in touch with her over the years, I find this hard to believe and it is aggravating in the extreme that anonymity on the internet-- something i'm in general supportive of-- allows people to make those kinds of accusations without having to stand behind them).
One little note... The first Style Weekly article contains this little tidbit of information:
The turnabout follows a week of public outcry after the theater company's 15-member board unanimously voted Dec. 12, with one member abstaining, to force Piersol's retirement. She was given the option to remain with the theater in some capacity until June 30. Without citing specifics, Holmes says the decision was based on management issues and a desire to mold the Firehouse into a "tier-one" organization.
I'm not entirely clear on what a "tier-one" organization is supposed to mean. The Firehouse is a TCG budget group 1 theater that doesn't even work on LORT contracts (it uses special appearance contracts). It was not even a fully professional theater until Carol put considerable effort behind professionalizing it over the last five years. The last time I worked with them I was paid a thousand dollars. If the board thought they could turn FTP into the Carpenter Center (a "tier one" venue for sure, but not actually an arts org) or some kind of regional arts center and that Carol was the only thing standing in their way, they were living in a fantasy world.
It seems to me that a better path towards building the organization would be a more gradual transition to a new artistic director while also pushing the organization forward enough that it would be attractive to an AD who wasn't the founder. Assuming the information I've gotten is correct, I also believe that some of the issues here are the result of the Firehouse not fully transitioning from being an arts organization founded by a group of artsy friends with a dream. Piersol was working without a contract, for example, and thus could be fired without stipend or required counseling. Board by-laws that would allow a vote to go forward to remove the head of an organization without the possibility of a "no" vote are absurd.