In November 1998, I took my father-in-law to see a guy simulate sex with an 8-by-10-inch glossy photograph. It wasn't my intention to expose my father-in-law to this act of public sexuality. But I'd brought the unsuspecting gentleman to see "Diary of a Madman," an adaptation of the famous Gogol short story produced at the Firehouse Theatre Project — and dry-humping was what was on the menu.
At the time, I'd been involved in the Richmond theater community for more than 10 years, and I felt pretty confident that I could bring anyone to just about any show here and they'd leave impressed. But I wasn't expecting to be impressed in quite that way that night. Beyond being a bit vulgar, the show simply wasn't good, more an exercise in self-indulgence than entertainment.
But in the years since, I've grown to appreciate that experience. While it was uncomfortable, it also was completely unexpected. As I get older and I see more and more shows, moments of pure surprise at the theater become fewer and fewer. And during the past 15 years, with challenging productions such as "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" and "I Am My Own Wife," the Firehouse has provided me with more of those moments than any other local company. The sets, lighting and air-conditioning all have improved exponentially since 1998, and the potential for shock and revelation still infuses almost every show produced in the converted Broad Street firehouse.
The artistic director and guiding light of the Firehouse Theatre Project, Carol Piersol, quit her position in December in a very public and acrimonious dispute with the organization's board of directors. Several attempts at reconciliation were unsuccessful. In a statement issued March 21, the board declared the split between Piersol and her former company to be final and irrevocable. The progression of this public-relations debacle played out in real time across social media, complicating an already murky story with accusations, counterclaims, recriminations and apologies. There seemed to be no end to the plot twists and potential story lines:
• The charge that Piersol was forced out because of the Machiavellian designs of one particularly ambitious board member, Jo Kennedy.
• That the situation was the result of months of erratic behavior by Piersol, behavior that couldn't be specified because of confidentiality.
• This was a clash between a bunch of powerful women — and the business women won.
• This was a case of a board getting an idea in its collective head and then acting capriciously in pursuit of it, akin to the University of Virginia's firing of Teresa Sullivan.
• The board presented a reasonable plan to begin Piersol's move toward retirement and she reacted emotionally and irrationally.
• The naming of Jase Smith as interim artistic director, which recast the story as a battle between a younger, energetic crowd of artists and the more established old guard.
• The naming of Virginia Commonwealth University professor Tawnya Pettiford-Wates as the director of the company's next production, which further split the argument between people with ties to the university and those without.
Since Piersol's ouster, several people who aren't so entrenched in the local theater scene have asked me variations of: What's the big deal? Isn't Richmond theater more than just one woman? Isn't this just a glorified human resources issue?
That's certainly another way to look at the situation. But it misses the reason why this mess has produced such a prodigious rip in the Richmond arts community.
As the Piersol drama was playing out, her theater company was finishing a sold-out run of "Death of a Salesman," a show met with raves by every critic in town. This was only the latest artistic success that graced the company's stage. The 2012 summer musical "The Rocky Horror Show" received several awards from the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle. The 2012 spring extravaganza "Dessa Rose" marked a new partnership between the Firehouse and Richmond CenterStage. The company was spearheading intriguing new initiatives, continuing to improve on its standard seasonal offerings while keeping its doors open to young visionaries in the community. By any objective measure, the Firehouse was at an artistic peak.
I believe the Firehouse imbroglio has made every creative person in town wonder whether any amount of artistic success will ever be enough, unless it's coupled with the only thing that really seems to matter: financial success. No one I've spoken to can imagine anything Piersol could possibly have done, given the nature of her theater's mission and the limitations of its facility, to make her company more successful. The company had moved light years beyond a scraggly-bearded actor simulating sex on a dimly lighted stage and yet Piersol still was pushing the envelope, challenging theatergoers with cutting-edge new shows and re-imagined classics.
In the end, nothing Piersol accomplished artistically could keep her secure in her job. The shivers felt down the spine of many a local artist was the result of this: When artistic success clashes with administrative authority, it seems that it's always the artist who gets screwed. S
Dave Timberline is a theater critic for Style Weekly.
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