Photo by Jay Paul
It’s a dreary, drizzly December afternoon, and Carol Piersol, the founder and artistic director of the 5th Wall Theatre company, is feeling at one with the scenery.
“This has been a rough week, because it’s the Firehouse [Theatre] anniversary,” she says, nursing a cup of tea at Buddy’s on Robinson (since relocated to North Sheppard Street). Last year at this time, Piersol was in the midst of producing a show called Race. “So I had something to concentrate on. And I still had hope that I would return to the Firehouse, but my hope is dwindling.”
The theater maverick, who resigned amid acrimony in late 2012 from her position as artistic director of the pioneering theater she co-founded and ran for nearly 20 years, didn’t just sit around and nurse her chops during a tense (losing) battle to regain her position. She produced a series of challenging and provocative plays — Breast in Show, Gidion’s Knot, Race — in different spaces. All of this creative energy led to the formation of 5th Wall, a theater venture started with actor/director Billy Christopher Maupin. This spring, Piersol will take the directing reins for the final production of the company’s inaugural season — Jennifer Blackmer’s The Human Terrain, a military thriller set in postwar Iraq, running from March 19 to April 11 at the HATTheatre. “Our audience wants to be challenged,” she says.
Even without a permanent home, 5th Wall (5thwalltheatre.org) hasn’t had trouble raising money. “We had a $20,000 two-for-one matching grant, and we got the Community Foundation to match that,” she says. “It’s not enough to buy a permanent space, but it’s comfortable.”
The sandy-haired actress, director and teacher, born in New York City’s Brooklyn borough and mostly raised in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, can trace her love for theater to a production of The Sound of Music she saw as a child. “It was beautiful. And I used to listen to all of those soundtrack albums — Peter Pan, The Music Man. I’d act them out, sing the songs.”
As an art major at Miami University of Ohio, she worked in set design, later nabbing leading roles on the campus stage. That led to a job with the Covenant Players, a troupe that traveled to Army bases around the world doing topical plays. When she went back to school, this time at Penn State, she immersed herself in theater. “Someone told me about the Neighborhood Playhouse and the Sanford Meisner method,” she says. “So I moved to New York to study acting there. It was a method of acting that just freed me up. It was all about listening and reacting.”
RM: How did you get to Richmond?
Piersol: My husband and I started a theater company in New York City, on 13th Street. We had the president of the Village Voice on our board, and some other heavy hitters. My husband [Morrie, who is also a director and acting teacher] was a theater major and attended the O’Neill Institute. My father had worked for Westvaco, now called MeadWestvaco, and one of the vice presidents said, “If you are in New York and need anything, come see me.” So my husband and I went to see him, to see if he would donate to the company. This vice president donated personally to the theater, and he also offered my husband a job in sales [laughs] because he liked his presentation. And then MeadWestvaco moved us to Richmond.
RM: Was it culture shock?
Piersol: Yes. It was 1985. Richmond was quite different. For theater, there were the big four: Barksdale, Theater IV, Swift Creek and TheatreVirginia. I didn’t have much to do with them. I auditioned for a TheatreVirginia show once, but never heard back.
Then Janet Wilson moved to town, and she taught acting classes in the Meisner method. So I took her classes and there were some great actors there — Matthew Costello, Maury Erickson, Liz Tunstall Ernest. After a while, we thought “OK, enough lessons, we need to perform.” We decided to do a one-act production of The Love Course by A.R. Gurney at a Carytown coffee shop. The space was so small, actors would enter from the street. We had a nursery monitor on the street for people to listen for their cues. It was pretty unusual, and it was packed. After that, we did a show of new 10-minute plays and then we decided we needed a company.
RM: So that was the beginning of the Firehouse?
Piersol: Yes. It was Janet, Anna [Senechal] Johnson [now the artistic and managing director of Cadence Theatre Co.], Harry Kollatz Jr., [Richmond magazine’s senior writer] and me. And Bill Gordon. We wanted to do contemporary American theater, with a focus on the Meisner method. We wanted to do works that hadn’t been done in Richmond. Like I said, it was a different time. TheatreVirginia had gotten very conservative. You couldn’t even swear in their shows.
RM: How difficult was it to start the Firehouse?
Piersol: It was a miracle story. We heard about a new fire station being built on Hermitage. They were going to use the old one to store vehicles. Bill Gordon knew [then Richmond City Manager] Bob Bobb, and so the city let us do a show there. We paid our own insurance. We did Women of Manhattan, Glengarry Glen Ross — someone said that it was very brave, but for me, it was just Mamet. We also did Speed the Plow at Shafer Street [Playhouse].
RM: When did you transition from acting to directing and managing?
Piersol: When we founded the Firehouse, I acted in all the shows. Then there came a point where I had kids and was busy on the weekends. I thought, “I have to cut back on the acting. I have to run the place.” Janet Wilson had left, gotten a teaching position, Bill Gordon had moved to Staunton to do Shakespeare Express, and Anna Johnson had moved to Idaho, so it was me and Harry, who had a full-time job, and we really decided that we wanted to make a go of it. So I stopped acting.
RM: Have you ever had problems with actors?
Piersol: [Laughs] Well, yes. Not often. You can have a cast where a couple of actors don’t get along, or one intimidates another. I had half a cast quit once; I’d better not name the play. I had to fire the director, who was a good friend, because the show must go on. The actors had complained about the director. Then I said I’d get another director and they still quit, so I hired the director back and replaced the actors.
RM: You’ve started from scratch before. Is it easier or harder this time?
Piersol: It’s harder, because we don’t have a space. I’m looking at spaces, but we got the Firehouse donated to us. Harry made a speech one night about needing a permanent venue, and [patrons who heard it bought the building and] donated it. And that’s all because of [then-Mayor] Tim Kaine putting it on the market in the first place. It was a Cinderella story.