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West Orange Times & Observer Wednesday, Jun. 22, 2022 1 week ago

Director’s departure sparks concern

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Artistic Director Joseph Walsh has resigned after three years at the venue. The theater then announced former Artistic Director Rob Winn Anderson would return to the role on an interim basis until a permanent replacement was selected. However, Anderson le
by: Annabelle Sikes Staff Writer

Turnover in highly visible roles at the Garden Theatre has some questioning the future direction for the Winter Garden entertainment company.

Artistic Director Joseph Walsh has resigned after three years at the venue. The theater then announced former Artistic Director Rob Winn Anderson would return to the role on an interim basis until a permanent replacement was selected. However, Anderson left the post after only one week.

“My heart … I am feeling so many things right now, but mostly gratitude,” Walsh published on social media last week. “I am overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from our community. I am truly humbled by the posts, messages and texts I have received over the past few days, and I want to thank every person that took the time to offer comfort while they themselves are hurting.”

The theater’s board chair, Allie Braswell, said the nonprofit’s governing body was surprised at Walsh’s resignation, and the news unleashed a wave of questions throughout the community, with staff and theater patrons using words such as “disheartening,” “unbelievable” and “heartbreaking.”

Education Director Nick Bazo was one of the many to speak up on social media. He said although he is “being limited” in what he can say and that there are questions he can’t answer, he can say how he feels about Walsh and the work the theater has done with him.

“To say what is happening with Joe (Walsh) is a gut punch is an understatement,” Bazo wrote on Facebook. “In so many ways I feel the work that he and the rest of us, the staff, the artists, only began to scratch the surface. It hurts to not know what’s next with this journey. I love my job and my co-workers. This whole thing is painful.”

Walsh confirmed he was not asked to resign but said workplace circumstances led to his decision. 

And although Walsh’s departure was the most visible, it wasn’t the only one.

STAFF SWITCHES

The theater recently has experienced a relatively quick turn around in a few roles. 

Executive Director Nao Tsurumaki departed in the spring of 2020, and his interim replacement, Melissa Mason Braillard, left after two months. In November 2020, Elisa Spencer-Kaplan was hired in the newly titled role of managing director but departed after 13 months. The position has been vacant since, although about a month ago, the board hired Tom Carto as interim managing director.

Previous Board Chair Wes Catlett-Miller stepped down in December to spend more time with his family, and Braswell took up the position in March. 

And most recently, in addition to Anderson, Felichia Chivaugn, who was set to direct “A Bronx Tale” as the first show of the new season in August, also resigned, along with that show’s assistant director, choreographer and lighting/scenic director. 

Braswell said there have been recent transitions in leadership but Walsh’s resignation “caught us really off-guard.”

“We really thought we were moving in the right direction,” Braswell said. “Joe’s (Walsh’s) resignation was not asked for by the board. In no way did we try and shape what Joe (Walsh) put on stage. We were very pleased with this past season and his three years here.”

On Facebook, Walsh wrote he does not feel he can directly comment but wants to continue the practice of listening, supporting and uplifting voices in the community.

“Our staff , crew and creative teams have collaborated to create a space that uplifts voices, allows artists to be heard and understands that diversity without inclusion is performative, and I am so proud and grateful for everyone that came to work each day to take action to maintain that space,” Walsh wrote. 

COMMUNITY CONCERNS

Ron Miles, who worked with Walsh in the recent production of “Parade,” as well as two other shows, said although he does not have insight on why Walsh resigned or any direct knowledge involving the board, he was saddened by the news and said Walsh always impressed him. 

“Joe (Walsh) created a very supportive and inclusive working environment,” he said. “What I saw was that his commitment to inclusion and diversity is more than just words. He lives that commitment both through action and through actively listening. … He created a collaborative work environment where everyone felt safe and supported, and were given the freedom to be truly vulnerable in a way I have never experienced anywhere else. That is 100% Joe’s (Walsh’s) leadership, filtered down through the rest of the creative team. I am worried that, with his departure, the Garden Theatre will move backwards in those areas. Not necessarily intentionally but without a strong advocate to push for those things the natural tendency will be to regress to the norm.” 

DaZaria Harris, who has worked with Walsh most recently as Beauty in “Beauty and the Beast,” also spoke out on the resignation, saying the news was “heartbreaking.” 

“Without detail, you could see that there was foul play involved,” Harris said. “He is the reason many actors and production crew love the Garden. He created a safe space for everyone and gave actors a chance when it seemed no one else would. Anyone who has worked with Joe (Walsh) knows that he loves the Garden (Theatre) and calls it home and the people who work there, family.”

WHAT COMES NEXT?

According to the theater’s initial announcement on Walsh’s resignation, he will remain with the nonprofit until July 1 to help with the transition. 

His upcoming plans include co-directing Central Florida Community Arts’ June concert staging of “Ragtime” with Roberta Emerson, artistic directing consultant at the theater. He also has a previous commitment to work with the summer camp program of the White Plains Performing Arts Center in New York.

Braswell said the hope is to fill both the managing director and artistic director positions by December and that the board will take the time to find the right person that fits all of the nonprofit’s needs. 

“I’m on this board because I believe in its diversity,” he said. “I believe in its open mindedness, and I believe that we will continue to move in that direction to make sure all voices are heard, present and maintained in the Garden Theatre,” Braswell said. “I am one of those residents (who) wants the opportunity for the Garden Theatre to continue to move, to continue to thrive and continue to be a ‘golden nugget’ in Central Florida.”

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Annabelle Sikes is a staff writer at the West Orange Times & Observer, Southwest Orange Observer and OrangeObserver.com. She graduated in May 2021 from the University of Central Florida with a bachelor's degree in journalism and a minor in sociology.  Her past...

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