The Garden Theatre’s Board of Directors released an update in relation to the ongoing controversy surrounding turnover in highly visible roles and production cancellations on Wednesday, Aug. 17.
“After months of working in good faith to find common ground with Garden Theatre staff, the Board of Directors has made the decision to leverage the near-term programming gaps and temporarily shift our operational focus to the organizational health of the theater,” the board said in the released statement. “The board and staff will spend this time conducting an in-depth review of our organizational structure and operations.”
The board said although the decision is difficult, the theater is able to take the step not only because of its financial strength but also the fiscal responsibility of its staff and board.
“We believe this decision provides the theater with an opportunity to thoughtfully refocus priorities and collectively forge a path forward to ensure that Garden Theatre remains the foremost local provider of performing arts in the Central Florida area,” the board said.
The board stated although members and actions have been misrepresented, the group believes an honest review of its organization will be beneficial.
In addition, the board explained it has been intentional in withholding response to public statements made by some staff and members of the community in the hope that the matters would be resolved professionally, respectfully and within the organization.
“This approach was based on our recognition of the significant impact that the theatre and its successful operation has on the patrons, staff, surrounding businesses and countless youth who benefit from the education programs offered by the theater,” the board stated in the release. “It comes from the board’s strong commitment and desire to preserve and perfect — not to destroy or dismantle. After hearing from staff today, we are encouraged that we can work together for our shared love of Garden Theatre.”
To address the turmoil, the board devised a plan that includes engaging with subject matter experts to build the board and staff capability regarding effective management of non-profit organizations, and evaluate the appropriate organizational structure, staffing duties and leadership practices.
The board will meet with experts starting this week.
The board explained diversity, equity and inclusion are matters the organization will prioritize.
“We expect that these decisions will inspire further criticism — please understand this was not a decision the board took lightly,” the statement read. “However, as fiduciaries of this organization, the board is tasked with acting in the best interests of the theater and the community it serves. We are confident that time and introspection will bring understanding, healing, and clarity to what sadly has become a hurtful and confusing situation potentially bringing irreparable harm to the theatre and the city of Winter Garden.”
Although Board Chair Allie Braswell left the board a few weeks ago because of the demands of his campaign for Florida Legislature, Keith Smith, vice chairman of the board, said the board is grateful to the community for its support in the last 16 years — especially during difficult times.
“Like a garden that has weathered a hard season, our theater currently requires tending, patience and care,” Smith said. “We are embracing the future with optimism. In this time of new growth, we maintain a clear commitment to working with our team, board and staff focused on continuing to bring our mission into fruition.”
A former staff member, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, resigned Aug. 22 — less than a week after the board released the update.
“As I have now gotten away from the disingenuous board, it has given me pause to reflect on the magic that was Garden Theatre before it was systematically dismantled by a board more concerned with their own personal reputations than with preserving the beauty created over the last three years,” the former staff member said. “As difficult as it was to be a team of artists who wanted to effect change working under a group who mentioned how much money they have four times in their last statement, and took accountability zero times, it allowed us to build a beautiful community full of support, respect and love unlike any I have found in a workplace before.”
The former staff member would like to stop focusing on the “immense damage done by the board” and instead focus on the community.
“It (the community) will continue to flourish in spite of anyone trying to tear it down,” the former staffer said. “They may have gotten us out of the building, but they have not gotten rid of us.”
The Observer first told the community about the turnover in highly visible roles at the Garden Theatre in June, after the resignation of Artistic Director Joseph Walsh.
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.
Braswell said there were 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 in June. “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.”
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.