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Burning Down the House

In the wake of an ugly, public divorce with its founding director, can anyone save the Firehouse Theatre?

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A creative force of the Firehouse Theatre for two decades, Carol Piersol holds out hope that she can return as artistic director. But that's increasingly unlikely. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • A creative force of the Firehouse Theatre for two decades, Carol Piersol holds out hope that she can return as artistic director. But that's increasingly unlikely.

The fireman is gone.

Though the building that the Firehouse Theatre Project calls home hasn't functioned as a fire station in nearly two decades, a life-sized figure of a fireman stood guard over the theater's lobby for years. He was a hit at fundraisers, donors happily snapping photos with him. He liked to startle volunteers as they entered the building for a day's work, appearing at first to be a live person instead of a former fountain.

But the Firehouse's unofficial mascot is gone, unceremoniously thrown into a Dumpster and hauled away in the fall.

"If I was writing this as a play, that alone as a metaphor would alert the audience: Watch out, big changes are coming," Firehouse founding member Harry Kollatz Jr. writes in an email. "It won't be pretty and the people you've gotten to like will be hurt."

At the center of the pain is Carol Piersol, the theater's founding artistic director. The board ousted her in mid-December, and not a week has gone by without some aspect of the change drawing headlines. Protests and rallies. Board member resignations. Season ticket holders asking for refunds. Some theater artists are boycotting the Firehouse until Piersol is reinstated.

Richmond's theater community wonders how it all happened. What went wrong between the Firehouse's longtime co-founder and the theater's board of directors? Is there any hope for reconciliation? And is the removal of the Firehouse fireman just a sign of changing times, or an indication that some fundamental spirit of the theater has vanished?

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After her ouster from the Firehouse, Carol Piersol greets well-wishers Dec. 22 during a rally in her honor at the November Theatre. - SCOTT ELMQUIST

The first embers of the Firehouse started to glow around Piersol's kitchen table in 1993. The assembled group wanted to form a theater company, but differed on what sort of programming to feature. The classics or a variety of shows? Of the group, Piersol, Kollatz, Bill Gordon, Anna Senechal Johnson and Janet Wilson agreed to a mission of producing contemporary American plays. Producing off-Broadway shows was quite different from anything Richmond theaters were doing at the time.

In search of a venue, someone mentioned Fire Station House No. 10, near the Broad and Lombardy streets. After the fire crew moved to a new station on Hermitage Road, the fledgling theater company asked City Council to stage a fundraiser at the station. Council agreed, as long as the group ponied up $2,000 to cover insurance fees. Novelist and then-board member Patricia Cornwell paid, and the Firehouse Theatre Project began.

But the city still owned the building, using it to park ambulances and other city vehicles. For the next two years, whenever the theater company wished to stage a show, the vehicles had to be moved and a new building permit obtained from the city to erect a stage.

All was going well until the city put the building on its surplus property list. Piersol met with then-Mayor Tim Kaine in an attempt to negotiate a $1-a-year lease, but the city was determined to sell the property. Kaine made them a deal: If the Firehouse raised $80,000, it could buy the building.

After attending a show at the Firehouse, developer Roy Sutton stepped in and purchased the building. He allowed the company to operate in the old fire station as long as it paid the interest. He would hold onto the property until the theater could buy it from him. In the end, Sutton donated the building outright.

"It was like a Cinderella play, a miracle," says Piersol, who studied under Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City. The Firehouse obtained grant money to fix the roof and added risers to give the audience a better view of the stage. It obtained a new certificate of occupancy, cleared parking with the city and made the building handicapped-accessible. By this time, all of the founding members except Piersol and Kollatz, a senior writer at Richmond Magazine, had moved away, but the Firehouse continued its mission of producing off-Broadway on Broad Street.

Nevertheless, problems were brewing behind the scenes at the Firehouse. As time went on at the small, successful theater, some in the community expected it to grow. Murmurings began to spread that Piersol was unwilling to evolve how the company operated and lose her grip on the theater. There were frustrations that the company still operated on a shoestring budget nearly two decades after it was founded instead of growing staff — though that had been changing recently.

For the majority of the Firehouse's history, the company had separated the roles of artistic director and managing director. After the company's second managing director left in 2007, the Firehouse brought in CultureWorks president John Bryan to assist as a consultant. Under his advisement, Piersol was asked to leave the board of directors and assume the role of interim executive director, essentially combining the duties of both the artistic director and managing director. The Firehouse couldn't afford to pay for a separate managing director, so Piersol assumed the role and received a small raise.

During the next several years, problems began to surface.

"Carol is not gifted at managerial skills," former board member Jim Vigeant says. "Carol's idea of administration skills is, 'I've got to do it, I'll get it done.'"

Gini Mallory, the Firehouse's managing director, and Jase Smith, the interim artistic director, are working to restore the theater's reputation after a month of turmoil. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Gini Mallory, the Firehouse's managing director, and Jase Smith, the interim artistic director, are working to restore the theater's reputation after a month of turmoil.

Kay Holmes, president of the Firehouse's board, says the disorganization under Piersol's watch often led to costly last-minute budget changes. The theater often appeared to be in a state of disarray, she says.

"We were frequently in crisis mode," Holmes says. "There were always last-minute problems. ... Staff was really tired of the same issues going around and around."

Piersol maintains that she received good reviews and substantial annual raises. She notes $100,000 in recent renovations — as well as partnerships with Richmond CenterStage, Virginia Union University and the University of Richmond's Modlin Center for the Arts — as examples of her good stewardship.

Though problems were brought to her attention, she says that none of them were significant. Issues raised included occasionally using office staff to build sets and complaints from the board that set designers needed more money. Piersol says she was never told that any of those issues were grounds for termination.

Another source of tension was whether to purchase a former Nationwide Insurance building next door. Throughout the theater's history, sets have been built upstairs or onstage. Moving sets downstairs risks damaging the building's walls, and building a set onstage meant the company couldn't rent out the theater between shows. Purchasing the building next door would give the Firehouse a place to safely build sets, allow for more office space and open the theater up to more money-making opportunities. But the Firehouse never got its act together. It didn't pursue buying the building and the property's owner leased it to a retailer.

It's another example, some say, of an opportunity missed on Piersol's watch.

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The Firehouse Theatre Project's most recent production, "Death of a Salesman," featured Joe Inscoe as Willy Loman, seated, and Adrian Rieder as Biff, standing — both of whom are protesting the theater's decision to dismiss Carol Piersol. - FIREHOUSE THEATRE
  • Firehouse Theatre
  • The Firehouse Theatre Project's most recent production, "Death of a Salesman," featured Joe Inscoe as Willy Loman, seated, and Adrian Rieder as Biff, standing — both of whom are protesting the theater's decision to dismiss Carol Piersol.

If the plight of the Firehouse sounds familiar, it should. The noisy removal of a founding member by a nonprofit's board is common enough that it's become colloquially referred to as "founder's syndrome." When an organization begins to move away from its familial atmosphere into a more corporate one, there can be friction.

Indeed, according to Piersol, the tone in communication between her and the board of directors changed a little more than a year ago.

"They started needling me about being managing director," she says. "I told them it was too big a job, and I was only getting paid for one [job]."

In either February or March 2012, Holmes stepped in as acting managing director until money could be found for a full-time position. Money has always been an issue at the Firehouse, with some staff members forced to work second jobs because the theater paid so poorly. In witnessing day-to-day operations, Holmes saw a number of things that needed improvement. Deadlines weren't being enforced, communication was poor and attention wasn't paid to the details of running the organization.

In giving up the acting management role, Piersol says she was able to focus solely on the theater's artistic vision, expanding the Firehouse's Festival of New American Plays and programming shows with sold-out and extended runs.

When it came time to choose a full-time managing director, Piersol wasn't part of the selection committee, although she put forward two names for consideration. Neither was granted an interview.

Though the position attracted a "boatload" of applicants, Holmes says, most were theater artists with no relatable experience. Ultimately the Firehouse hired Gini Mallory, who'd served on several nonprofit boards. Holmes says Mallory's recommendations were glowing, and that she'd served as president of a board that was going through major changes. Though she didn't serve on the hiring committee, Piersol met with Mallory and gave her approval, thinking they would work well together. They didn't.

"She's very strict, and I'm very artsy," Piersol says, describing the transition as "rocky." "We had various disagreements."

With Harry Kollatz Jr. standing by, Carol Piersol addresses a crowd of about 250 supporters at Virginia Repertory's November Theater on Dec. 22, a week after she was forced to resign from the Firehouse. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • With Harry Kollatz Jr. standing by, Carol Piersol addresses a crowd of about 250 supporters at Virginia Repertory's November Theater on Dec. 22, a week after she was forced to resign from the Firehouse.

Mallory and Piersol decline to discuss those disagreements, but the general consensus is that there was friction between Piersol's more casual approach and Mallory's by-the-book demeanor.

"She's very disciplined," former board member Vigeant says of Mallory. "Business people who are disciplined are very successful. She's not a softy. She's a very strict, firm, professional type of person."

At an emergency theater-board meeting Sunday, Dec. 9, Holmes and board vice president Jo Kennedy read from emails of the executive board, arguing that Piersol should be removed from her position. Holmes and then-board member Vigeant have two very different accounts of this meeting.

Vigeant says the board wasn't provided with copies of the emails and hasn't received minutes from the meeting. According to Vigeant's notes, Holmes said that Mallory was doing a good job in her new role, but that Piersol was being disruptive and not following the proper policies and procedures. Holmes says these were "middle of the night emails" between executive committee members and weren't intended to be passed around the group. She also says that no minutes were kept because an official meeting must have 48 hours of notice before it's held.

Board members raised questions about Mallory, saying that she was "confrontational, cold and short" in communication with them. Holmes then said new policies and procedures enacted by Mallory would lead to better oversight. Holmes and Kennedy said the problem was Piersol.

According to Vigeant, Kennedy said that Mallory couldn't work under the current conditions at the Firehouse. Kennedy also said she no longer wanted to become president of the board as long as Piersol was there, Vigeant says. Holmes disputes this, saying Kennedy didn't want to be a part of an organization that was moving backward managerially. Kennedy declined an interview for this story.

"These problems have gone on since the 1990s," Holmes says. "This is not about Gini Mallory. ... It is widely known that the Firehouse has been a very loosely organized organization."

At the end of the meeting, the board agreed to see how a scheduled mediation between Piersol and Mallory went the next day. They set a two-month period to review Piersol's progress. But the mediation didn't go well, Holmes says.

On Wednesday, Dec. 12, a scheduled training for the board was scrapped for a private board meeting. Piersol, who normally attended board meetings, was asked to leave. The subject of the conversation was her removal from the position of artistic director.

"They basically ambushed us and canceled the seminar to push the vote," Vigeant says of the board's majority. "They had their minds made up."

Among the concerns, Holmes says, was that Piersol would drive away staff and jeopardize grant money for the management of the theater.

Vigeant attempted to table the conversation, but was voted down. A board member moved to negotiate a retirement package for Piersol, with a deadline of retirement by June 30, 2013, the end of the company's fiscal year. Fourteen members voted yes, with one abstention.

"I will regret for the rest of my life voting yes to that," Vigeant says.

According to Holmes, former board president Ty Toepke called Piersol the next day, Dec. 13, to set a time to meet and gave Piersol an outline of the choices she had. Toepke told Piersol that the board still wanted her to be involved, possibly as artistic director emeritus. But Piersol says future involvement wasn't discussed.

Days later, she turned in her letter of resignation.

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Supporters of Carol Piersol line the Firehouse Theatre in a silent protest last week during the opening of "Zhe: [noun] Undefined." The traveling show wasn't produced by Firehouse. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Supporters of Carol Piersol line the Firehouse Theatre in a silent protest last week during the opening of "Zhe: [noun] Undefined." The traveling show wasn't produced by Firehouse.

Ruth McCambridge, editor-in-chief of the journal Nonprofit Quarterly, says that in her experience the two types of nonprofits most afflicted with founder's syndrome are religious and arts organizations.

"Most organizations hit those developmental moments and they have to change the way that they are working," McCambridge says. "It may be that the board saw a number of things that needed to get done."

Removing founders from a nonprofit can be dangerous, McCambridge says, because they often have a lot of social capital with the very community that the organization serves.

"It can really drive away some of the best resources that that organization has, particularly if it's done in any sort of precipitous manner that's seen as being unfeeling and disrespectful of the time and effort that's been put in," McCambridge says. "It's a very risky thing, to unceremoniously dump a founder."

And founders can cause damage if they dig in their heels. McCambridge recalls working as a consultant for an arts organization in Missouri where a founder was removed by a nonprofit board. Years later, the community was still divided over the split.

"You get caught in this adversarial mindset," McCambridge says, "and it almost always ends in tears."

Tears have flowed since Piersol's ouster. Following a failed mediated conversation Dec. 22, Piersol appeared at a rally held at Virginia Repertory Theatre's November Theatre. Some in the crowd of roughly 250 were moved to tears by the situation. Emotions still run high among some in the theater community who can't picture a Firehouse without Piersol.

Phil Whiteway, managing director of Virginia Repertory, says the situation reminds him of the firing of founding artistic director Peter Mark from the Virginia Opera three years ago. He says that action hurt the impression of professional performing arts organizations as a whole.

"It clearly looks like a lot of people are upset, and I understand why," Whiteway says of the Firehouse. While Virginia Rep's November Theatre was the host of a Piersol rally, Whiteway says his organization has no position in the Firehouse controversy. "This should not have happened. ... There needs to be communication and open dialogue and a period to fix things."

But as for Piersol returning to the Firehouse, talks have reached a stalemate. Piersol has made it clear that the only way she'll return is as full artistic director, and only if the board's executive committee is removed. Holmes has made it clear that the board won't allow that to happen, instead suggesting Piersol could return as artistic director emeritus, or in some other limited capacity.

Board members Vigeant, Robert Double and GeorgeAnn Jones-Broth have resigned. So has longtime Firehouse producer Amy Wight. Bill Patton and Keri Wormald, who were slated to direct the Firehouse's main season shows, say they're boycotting the theater until Piersol is reinstated. In a half-page, paid ad scheduled to run in this week's issue of Style, 125 members of the theater and arts community call for Piersol's reinstatement.

The Firehouse has brought in former Children's Museum of Richmond president and chief executive Randy Wyckoff as an adviser. The theater also has hired local director Jase Smith as interim artistic director. Smith has directed shows locally for years, including Firehouse's recent productions "The Rocky Horror Show" and "Rent."

"It's to finish [the season] up well, and for him to have a chance to build the next season," Holmes says of Smith's hiring. "When we start hiring for a new artistic director he will be welcome to put his name in there."

Smith also appeared at early rallies in support of Piersol. But he says his main point in accepting the interim position is to re-engage Piersol in talks with the Firehouse. Piersol says all it did was alleviate any pressure to reinstate her. The two spoke by phone Jan. 5 before the public announcement of Smith's appointment, though they have different accounts of what took place. According to Piersol, Smith had already signed the contract. Smith says he only made up his mind later that evening.

"I told him there was no way they would have me back," Piersol says. "I can't blame anyone for wanting a job, but don't pretend it's going to help me."

Smith's task is to get the season's schedule back on track. The company's next production, "Any Given Monday," was postponed after the director and actors left the show. Smith is trying to get as many of them back as possible.

"The Firehouse won't be the Firehouse if Carol's not there, and worse if those same people are running it," Vigeant says. "Carol may be disruptive, but there are a lot of people that care and love her."

Though Piersol has been essential to the creation and development of the Firehouse, Holmes says, the theater is bigger than any one person.

"I really do respect her intelligence and her character. The more I got to know her, the more I realized what an amazing person she is," Holmes says. "But I think it's time for the community to step back, let the board do its work, let the mission continue, and let the Firehouse get back to doing what it does best — presenting edgy, contemporary, new American theater."

If Piersol can't be reinstated in her former role, she says she'll still be involved with local theater and is open to any possibilities.

"I'm already thinking of projects and talking to people about them," Piersol says. "But I'd rather save the Firehouse. After all that, it would be a shame." S

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