The Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre board of directors fired founder and artistic director Andrew Paul and told him he would not be working on the four plays he was scheduled to direct this season.
Mr. Paul, who co-founded the company 17 years ago, moved to Las Vegas two years ago when his wife got a job there and has been splitting his years between his family and Pittsburgh. He had a plane ticket to return here next week and begin rehearsals for the season-opening show when he received a phone call Tuesday saying he had been dismissed in a unanimous board vote.
Alan Stanford, an actor-director whom Mr. Paul brought into the PICT family, has been named interim leader of the company, while company co-founder Stephanie Riso will stay as operations director. Mr. Stanford, set to direct two PICT shows this season, is at work on Point Park University Conservatory Theatre's "The School for Scandal," which opens the day after PICT's season opener "Our Class" on April 10.
"It was out of the blue," Mr. Paul said shortly after the pink-slip call from board president Eugene O'Sullivan. "I was given zero notice. The board has had concerns about this from Day 1 when my wife got this job, but the company has been doing fine. Artistically we've been thriving. ... In fact, we've been named best production of the year in the Post-Gazette three years running, which is seemingly what your goal would be -- to be the best."
Mr. Stanford said he was offered the position a couple days ago, and with short notice he reached out to Aoife Spillane-Hinks, a colleague from the Gate Theatre of Dublin. She will replace Mr. Paul as director of "Our Class."
Mr. O'Sullivan said the board voted to replace Mr. Paul because of his long absences from Pittsburgh and the potential for audience engagement during those months -- and the dismissal had nothing to do with PICT's financial or artistic success. The nonprofit company has been operating at a break-even pace in recent years.
"The board has been discussing this right along and more intensely since October. We've given it thorough deliberation. Once the decision was made, it had to be delivered." He added, "Andrew has been a terrific leader, and we have the greatest respect for him."
Richard Rauh, a board member and longtime contributor to the company, admitted to "ambivalence" about the decision to drop Mr. Paul. "The timing is horrendous, and I did not think to say that at the [vote]."
Over the years, Mr. Paul has programmed works from Shakespeare to Ibsen to McDonagh and ambitious festivals celebrating the works of Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and Anton Chekhov. He offered choices that differ from what he sees as "the mind-numbing sameness" of many companies. "Sure, there's risk," he said. "But there's also great reward."
Mr. Paul had wrangled with the board over budgets, and a restructuring took place before the 2009 season. The production budget went from $700,000 in 2007 to $575,000 by 2009, with an overall budget of $1.18 million, about the same as for the upcoming season, Mr. Paul said.
He had recently spent time in New York with Mr. Stanford, who was helping to cast this season's shows.
"I got the man his green card; he's going to be an American citizen because of me ... To me, this is the utmost contempt," Mr. Paul said. "And he didn't even call."
Mr. Stanford said he would reach out to Mr. Paul soon.
There was hesitation accepting the role, Mr. Stanford said.
"Andrew brought me here and Andrew has been a good friend and the founding artistic director. The thing is, it wasn't my choice or Andrew's; it was the choice of the board of directors. To me, I believe fervently ... theater is bigger than any individual person in it, including me."
Mr. Stanford has been a stage and television presence in the United Kingdom for more than four decades. He also appeared as Lady Bracknell in "The Importance of Being Earnest" for Dublin's Abbey Theatre and reprised the role for PICT in 2011. With Mr. Paul's help he made the move to Pittsburgh permanent, and last year he directed "After Chekhov" and performed in "The Pitmen Painters" for PICT.
Mr. Paul, who has worked without a contract since he founded the company, said he was considering his options after hearing "the very small compensation" offered for 17 years of work. He knows now that he will be on the sidelines for the Holocaust drama "Our Class."
"I tried to explain to Gene [on Tuesday] morning, you can't conceptualize the play and cast it and work with the playwright and then change directors with two weeks notice and assume it's going to be fine. It doesn't work like that," Mr. Paul said.
"We don't expect any problems," Mr. O'Sullivan said. "It's a wonderful season with some very attractive shows, and they will go on."
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960. First Published February 27, 2013 5:00 AM