Andrew Paul was fired Feb. 26 by Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre — the company he co-founded — just six weeks before PICT was to open its 17th season with Paul directing a play he’d hand-picked.
The timing is unusual, to say the least. But Paul, reached by phone in Las Vegas last week, suggested one explanation: The company was waiting to receive grant money Paul had secured before it dismissed him.
“The shocking thing is … we’re doing so well right now,” Paul said of PICT’s artistic and financial position. “Why would you fire me now?”
The PICT board voted unanimously to remove Paul. Board member Richard Rauh, a major presence on the local theater scene and a friend of Paul’s, says the board was principally concerned about Paul’s absences since he relocated to Las Vegas two years ago.
But while Paul acknowledges that as recently as October, the board raised concerns about the time he spent in Pittsburgh, he says he was blindsided by the call from with PICT board president Eugene O’Sullivan last week. “I was in the dark,” Paul said.
Paul attributes his firing to a longstanding personality conflict with O’Sullivan. And he believes that while the decision to fire him was actually made last fall, the board “very manipulatively waited” until two large grants he had secured came through. In particular, he cited a grant from the Philip Chosky Charitable and Education Foundation, which Paul had secured in part as a result of his relationship with the late philanthropist.
When reached for comment yesterday, O’Sullivan denied that personal conflicts were the reason for Paul’s dismissal. He also rejected “categorically” that the receipt of grant money played a role in when Paul was fired, calling the allegation “completely false.”
O’Sullivan acknowledged that PICT received the check “a little before” the board voted to fire Paul. But he said that at the time of the vote, at the February board meeting, neither he nor the board knew whether the funds had arrived.
The firing shocked the local theater community. Paul and Stephanie Riso founded PICT in 1997 and built it into one of the city’s top troupes, critically acclaimed and with a budget of over $1 million. Paul was the artistic director; Riso remains with the company, as its operations director. And to PICT patrons, little seemed to have changed since 2011, when Paul moved to Las Vegas with his wife and children after his wife, a physician, relocated for a job there.
Paul said that ultimately he and Sullivan “just have a huge personality conflict, which is why I got fired. … We’re oil and water. He sees me as being a cowboy personality. He is an ultraconservative accountant.” (O’Sullivan is vice-president and CFO at the Elliot Co.)
“I’ve had a long history of struggle with boards,” Paul said. He said board members often questioned his artistic choices, including politically themed plays like David Hare’s Stuff Happens, about the Bush administration during the Gulf War. And other board members, he said, expressed disapproval of his choice of Polish playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s The Class, a Holocaust drama, to open the coming season.
Paul had recruited O’Sullivan, as he had all the board members. “The guy is passionate about theater,” Paul acknowledged. But Paul says that in 2010, after he announced his intention to move, O’Sullivan tried to get him fired. However, Paul says, he lobbied the board to overturn the vote.
O’Sullivan tells a different story. He says that the board at the time asked Paul to announce his final season as artistic director, but that Paul refused and the board agreed to retain him — until last week.
O’Sullivan rejected the notion that his relationship with Paul led to the firing. “Personality conflict … has not been an issue for me,” he said.
Rather, said O’Sullivan, the key issue was the impact Paul’s out-of-state residence had on the company. Paul was in town about half the time — and, Paul says, for most of the summer, PICT’s busiest season. But O’Sullivan said that with Paul spending only half his time in Pittsburgh, the company’s small staff was feeling the strain. (Complicating matters was the fact that development director Gail McGloin left, in December.)
O’Sullivan also said that Paul’s absences limited his ability to meet with funders and supporters. While Paul says PICT has been “in the black” four years running, O’Sullivan says that last year, the group ran a small deficit: $23,000 on revenues of more than $1 million.
Paul says if his family-related absences were truly the reason for his firing, “If I was a woman, I’d have a million-dollar lawsuit on my hands.” He added that he is contemplating legal action against PICT.
Asked about the timing of Paul’s dismissal, O’Sullivan said, “There never is good timing for these things.”
In the short term, Paul says, “the thing that breaks my heart above all else” is losing control of the theatrical season he assembled. He notes The Class, which will now be directed by Ireland-based Aoife Spillane-Hinks. She’s an associate of Alan Stanford, the Irish actor and director Paul had recruited to the U.S. and who did some work for PICT before being named interim artistic director after his firing.
“You can’t just hire another director to do a play like that,” says Paul.
O’Sullivan, however, says the show will go on. “We think Andrew has planned a very exciting season,” he says.