Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Nuclear Option

I don’t have a lot of pithy things to say about the Firehouse / Carol Piersol train wreck. And I use that phrase purposely. Like a train wreck, the situation seems to have come up suddenly, gone out of control terribly, and people have been hurt needlessly.

Here’s what I know: non-profits are challenging organizations to run. Even in my limited and relatively short experience on the one non-profit (educational) board that I served on, I was gobsmacked by the complexity of issues I faced and the sheer number of decisions that I was forced to make that seemed to have no clear-cut right answers.

Having said that, I can think of at least a dozen different ways to do what the Firehouse Board says it wanted to do and it seems to have picked the very worst way to do it. Given that, you have to wonder how skilled this particular team of people is to lead such an organization. A transition of leadership is inherently fraught with complications and lends itself to awkwardness. But there is a light year's worth of space between ‘awkward’ and ‘train wreck.’

Sure, the Firehouse is more than Carol but Carol is the heart of the organization. And you don’t rip the heart out of anything and expect there will be no repercussions. In a worst case scenario, you rip the heart out of something and it dies. Usually rather abruptly.

This is the leverage that supporters of Carol currently have. The Firehouse is also a business and businesses run on money. To torture the metaphor a bit, to get the point across to the people that matter that the heart has been ripped out of the Firehouse, make sure that the blood supply is restricted. Listings of the people and organizations that give money to the Firehouse are easy enough to obtain.

Those of you who support Carol have power. You have numbers. The story erupted on social media but this is a situation where influence is best applied interpersonally, through emails and texts directly to people who can do something about it, through phone calls, even through visits to homes and offices.

But to borrow a phrase, with power comes responsibility. The Firehouse Board clearly failed at negotiation. Carol’s supporters can and should do better. A vehement and concerted campaign that reaches out to those who fund the Firehouse is a nuclear option. It could cripple or destroy the organization. Wield it if you must but wield it with care.

In the meantime, I join those who wish Carol and Morrie the best. Carol has done amazing things at the Firehouse. Perhaps more relevant than her professional achievements right now, though, is that she has always been (to me, at least) an open, fair, level-headed, creative, enthusiastic, collaborative, and supportive professional. And, even though I don’t know all of the intricacies of what happened and why, it angers and bewilders me that she has not been treated with the courtesy and respect she deserves in this situation.

My understanding is that the Board is meeting again tonight. I hope they understand (or I hope they are helped to understand) the importance of the decisions they make at that meeting.

UPDATE: I believe I was wrong: I hear that the Board met this morning. And I haven't heard what, if anything, was discussed or decided.


Anonymous said...

Carol is certainly a landmark in the Richmond theater scene and her work to found and grow The Firehouse Theater Project are emblems of artistic vision, persistence, and dedication.

While it is sad to see her tenure come to a close with FTP, I am confident that there are certain facts that contributed to the FTP Board decision. I would say that some of these facts and factors are confidential and not something that Carol would want brought to light. Moreover, I doubt the board would release these facts due to their sensitive nature. Therefore, only select pieces of information are being shared and are uniquely one-sided.

Why would there be closed door sessions to discuss such a situation? I would hope that people could draw the most obvious and logical conclusions on this. Sometimes very personal and sensitive topics require hard conversations without the person of interest being present.

Unfortunately this situation is now quite volatile. Many people who know and support Carol are doing so out of love and kindness. This is admirable, but would caution making rash comments or judgment decisions on the matter.

I also find is unfortunate that Carol, with all of her vision and dedication, would be making a media sensation of this situation. This will only hurt the image, reputation, and future of the theater company she helped to mold, grow, and develop. While she may not agree with the decision, she certainly should understand that this level of one-sided publicity will only jeopardize the institution she so cherishes.

Could the board have approached this situation differently? Without question. More appropriate communications with Carol, the patrons, donors would have helped to mitigate the reaction.

Was the decision appropriate? Only those closest to the situation and aware of all of the facts and contributing factors would be able to assess that. Yet, I am certain that a group of professional men and women did not take this decision lightly and did so with heavy hearts.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous - It sounds like you are accusing Carol of something but are saying you can't say it because YOU are professional (That in and of itself is NOT professional behavior) If Carol had something to hide she would not have said anything to the press when they contacted her. Be VERY careful about what you are inferring - haven't you guys already made a mess of things? I don't think you want to add slander to the list. This board has behaved poorly to say the least and the fact that you are on a blog and have to say what you said only proves that- I have known Carol a long time and I know that she is a kind, truthful, talented lady. Anon - your entire statement here is unprofessional. It is not only slanderous but it sounds like you are threatening anyone who is supporting Carol. Good luck with all of that - good luck scraping the bottom of the talent barrel for D actors. Good luck trying to find money and support without Carol. The board needs to know when they have been beaten and let their ego go. No one is impressed. They all look like fools.

Dennis Lieberman said...

Yesterday afternoon, I sent the following to the Chair and Vice Chair of the Firehouse Theater Project's Board of Directors.

The Firehouse Theatre Project Board of Directors has behaved shamelessly and showed itself to be both cruel and amateurish in its ham-handed attempt to force the departure of Carol Piersol (one of Richmond's most treasured theater community assets) and then cover its tracks with this transparently ridiculous statement (issued suddenly and quietly during the holiday season in hopes that the profile of the action would be less noticeable). When a press statement like this uses heavy euphemism and fears straightforward explanation, it is a dead give away that the case for the action is is weak and the back story is less than noble. Having worked as a Federal Official in Washington, D.C. for many years, I am altogether familiar with this despicable technique. My wife and I will be withholding our traditional annual donation to Firehouse and encouraging all the other contributors we know to do the same until the Board reinstates Ms. Piersol. The Board has grievously injured itself, the Firehouse Theater Project, and theater as a whole in Richmond. Ms. Piersol is the edge in "cutting edge", and unfortunately the Board seems not to have understood this. But Firehouse audiences understand it. The ensuing withdrawal of public support from Firehouse (in both contributions and attendance) will surely hurt the institution and the city in ways that the Board can scarcely imagine. I have asked the Board to recognize the seriousness of its error and to reinstate Ms. Piersol."

Anonymous said...

Anon 2, I think you're taking umbrage a bit too swiftly with Anon 1's words. All s/he is saying is that we have only one side of the story here and that, while Richmond theatre loves Carol, a precipitous emotional reaction to such a situation is occurring in absence of most of the situation’s facts.

Having been privy to a few situations where non-profit boards were discussing the removal of a staffer, I’m unwilling to contribute to an environment wherein FTP’s board members are being vilified for actions that they very likely found extremely difficult and distasteful, actions whose details they have quite rightly kept confidential. That said, it certainly seems impossible to justify removing an Artistic Director of a company whose box office receipts and critical reception are at their peak. The only scenario I can possibly imagine at play here is one of a massive conflict of personalities, in which case the appropriate action is the resignation of board members, [b]not[/b] the removal of a founding administrator.

It is my experience that non-profit board members tend to be conscientious people with a desire to serve their community and a passion for the organization they oversee. Board members who sign up to feel big or to exercise power for its own sake are the exception, not the rule. All Anon 1 is saying is that it is extremely unlikely that the Firehouse board made this decision in the contextual vacuum with which we members of the RVA theatre community have received the news.

[b]Acknowledging that boards don’t make decisions like this for no reason is NOT the same as assuming that the reasons were good, or that the decision was the right one.[/b] This inescapable fact doesn’t diminish my love or support for Carol, nor does it lessen this board’s complete and utter bungling of the matter.

Anonymous said...

Very well spoken, Anon 3. While the Board's decision to remove Carol Piersol may have been ill-advised and poorly executed, their reasons for doing so still remain, for the most part, purely speculative. Many in the community are demanding that those reasons be made public, but as Anon 2 so aptly illustrated, what are the odds that they would be met with anything other than anger and accusations? Without going so far as to defend the Board, they have been placed in an almost impossible position (rightly so, some might say) in which being forthcoming might inevitably do more harm than any of them would like. They are the faceless and silent many; Mrs. Piersol, the vocal, recognizable, and much admired one. Still, only they know what is happening behind the curtain. Could the Board's reasons, however justified, possibly be accepted by this community? If the current backlash is any indication, the answer is a resounding no. Does that mean the Board deserves to be vilified and accused of not having the Firehouse Theatre's or the community's best interests in mind? I think not. To reiterate what the previous comment said so well, perhaps we should reserve our judgements about the Board until the story is not so one-sided.

Anonymous said...

This is a sad affair for all involved. There is no question that the FTP board could and should have handled this in a more formal and thoughtful manner. Moreover, Carol has proven her artistic vision and experience year over year.

Yet, I do wonder what would lead a board to request early retirement for Carol. Given the background and business expertise on the FTP board, I am trying to give some benefit of the doubt. Surely they forecasted such an ill response from the theater community. So, why take the chance? Why not be more forthcoming with the details and rationale?

At the end of the day, the FTP board is mean to provide stewardship, management, and oversight of the entity of FTP. This includes employees.

In my experience there have been unique situations/circumstances that could warrant such dire actions. These are certain situations that cannot be discussed externally or released publicly due to employee privacy laws. These could be both positive and negative items, but neither of which can be shared by the employer. Examples of such negative actions range from minor to severe and include things like:
 Not adhering to management directives or requests
 Interpersonal relationship issues with other employees
 Disrespecting other employees
 Not showing up for work
 Lack of professionalism when representing the employer
 Personal issues – including substance abuse, outside personal situations impacting work, etc.
 Financial impropriety
 Sexual harassment
 Criminal issues or investigations

NOTE: I am not implying that Carol has had any of these. This is not specific to her or her situation. I am not close to those details and would even begin to speculate on her specific situation. I am just trying to share some of my own experience encountered when working for a non-profit board or within my own current employer.

And to someone who says I am implying this by simply posting these items, please hesitate before doing so. I can assure you that I would not ever try to tarnish the reputation of someone I value, respect, and admire.

At the end of the day, I hope that the board just made a series of terrible judgment calls and that this is all some sort of a terribly conceived “vision for the future”.

At the same time, I am trying to not jump to conclusions based on:
a) Limited information being presented by the FTP board
b) One-sided information coming from Carol and her supporters

I encourage people to do the same.

Anonymous said...

I do find it sad that a number of the people I have been told were in photos and holding signs to protest have not only criticized Carol behind her back, but have also reported such issues to the management of FTP.

So, on the level of integrity and professionalism, is that right? Are some people really rallying for Carol because of their own reputation in the theater community?

Anonymous said...

I am a wild supporter of Carol and FTP. As a technician I also rely on theater projects for revenue.

There is a rally for all artists to boycott working at FTP until Carol is reinstated. While that is a nice gesture, I am feeling shamed into signing my name to a document.

I commented on this and another artist said “You have to live with your conscience”.
What to do?

If I don’t join in the protests and petitions and blackouts for FTP, then I feel that I will be viewed negatively by my peers and leaders at other theater companies who are championing this effort. If I do join, I am limiting the work available for myself as an artist (assuming FTP rises above all of this).

So, while I am a supporter of Carol and the theater community, I feel that this level of posturing, while well-intentioned, is causing undue pressure, stress, and anxiety.

Several of my peers have shared this same sentiment.

I would attach my name to this, but I am legitimately scared of what backlash I might receive.

This is not right.

Anonymous said...

On a slightly related note, I wonder how many of Carol's "supporters" have inquired about filling the artistic director vacancy.

From a reliable source, I have been told that at least 2 such people have submitted resumes and emails for consideration.

The 2 people have been vocally and visibly decrying the FTP board decision, yet are maneuvering behind the scenes for Carol’s job.

With friends like these…

Susie said...

To the writer of the 8th comment here: You don't sound like a "wild" supporter of Carol to me, and that doesn't sound like "undue" pressure to me. It sounds like "due" pressure, appropriate pressure. I agree that everyone has to live with his or her conscience. There are hard choices in life, and this is one of them. You are being asked to risk the possibility of financial sacrifice in order to support Carol. If you are not prepared to do so, maybe you are a supporter of hers, but probably not a "wild" one.

Anonymous said...

"[W]hile I am a supporter of Carol and the theater community, I feel that this level of posturing, while well-intentioned, is causing undue pressure, stress, and anxiety.

Several of my peers have shared this same sentiment.

I would attach my name to this, but I am legitimately scared of what backlash I might receive."

I completely agree.