Following a 2022-23 season shortened by controversy and changes in leadership, Garden Theatre is returning in downtown Winter Garden with a recently announced collaboration with Florida-based Victory Productions to launch a new theatrical season of live performances beginning this year.
The season will open later this month with “Rock of Ages,” followed by “Next to Normal” and “Something Rotten!” The season will close in early summer with “Dreamgirls.”
The theater halted producing live performances in August to allow its board and staff to conduct an internal review of operations from a strategic growth perspective. As part of this work, the theater established partnerships with the Edyth Bush Institute and Arts Consulting Group.
Keith Smith, interim vice chair of the theater’s board of directors, said the current goal is to get art back on the stage.
“What has been so difficult about this pause is that it has had an impact on the community, the community’s ability to come and see great art, the ability for artists in our region to come and practice their art — all of that has stopped,” he said. “My goal, after we get art on the stage, is to get back to that thriving organization that is so well known for what we do here in West Orange County. That we can continue to excel and push the envelope to challenge thinking but do it even better than before and to continue to do it in a way that has the Garden Theatre seen as an arts organization that’s leading the way in Central Florida.”
COMING TO A CLIMAX
Turnover in highly visible roles at the Garden Theatre has had some questioning the future direction for the entertainment company.
In June 2022, Artistic Director Joseph Walsh 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.
The theater’s board chair at the time, 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.
However, Walsh’s resignation was not the only one.
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 new role of managing director but departed after 13 months. Board Chair Wes Catlett-Miller stepped down in December 2021; Braswell took up the position in March but left to focus on his campaign for the Florida Legislature.
Shortly after Walsh’s departure, the theater announced the cancellation of the organization’s upcoming show “A Bronx Tale.”
In addition, two board members representing the Central Florida Entertainment Advocacy Forum resigned their shared seat on the board.
At the end of July, the theatre announced the cancellation of “PAPER THIN.”
In August, the board of directors halted all theater programming to shift its focus on the theater’s organizational health.
SEARCHING FOR SOLUTIONS
Smith, who started as a facilitator for the board before the theater opened, said after Walsh had moved on, a number of concerns were raised from staff members.
“We had a number of listening sessions to try and understand, and I think throughout that process, we recognized that we needed to just take a look at how our organization was structured, how we were operating, and really be thoughtful about how we were going to be moving forward rather than just back filling open positions,” Smith said. “We wanted to really make sure the people we had and the goals we had were helping to support our mission, vision and direction. There was nothing more important for us … to make sure that the structure and the environment of the organization were the best they could be.”
Smith said several listening sessions were held with board and staff members together. One of the asks from staff members was that the theater work with Edyth Bush.
Edyth Bush has prioritized conducting an organizational assessment that identifies theater board’s leadership strengths, challenges, opportunities for growth and how to grow successfully.
Smith said both groups, Edyth Bush and Arts Consulting, started off their work with a survey.
The Edyth Bush study surveyed current and former board members and current and former staff members. Smith said those results will be received by the theater shortly, and the results will kick off the work with the organization.
Smith said Arts Consulting recently kicked off its work with a subgroup and advisory committee to help with the process.
Arts Consulting Group is recognized for its expertise in arts and culture, and promoting strategic and operational best practices. Its work will assist in developing, evaluating and creating a vision and structure for the theater that supports important strategic alliances.
“We felt like engaging with them to help us inform our paths forward was the right thing to do,” Smith said. “We really felt like getting that outside perspective was going to be beneficial and that they could maybe bring voices to the table that we weren’t hearing.”
The biggest revelation so far: Communication is key.
“We recognize that there were gaps in what was being said and what wasn’t being said, and I think we could have done a better job on that piece of it,” Smith said. “The other piece that we’ve learned is that we need to focus on rebuilding trust with our board and our staff. Communication is a foundation to building trust, and if communication isn’t happening, then it breaks down from there.”
Brian Fallon, operations manager at Garden Theatre, has been at the theater since its opening, beginning as a volunteer. Fallon agreed open and clear communication between the board and staff is paramount.
“As a leader now in the staff, I make it my point to make sure that I am not the funnel for the staff for the board,” he said. “I am letting the board communicate directly to the staff. It’s all about respectful, honest and open communication.”
However, some still have concerns about the Garden Theatre and its decisions.
Ron Miles, who has participated in three shows at the theater and worked with Walsh on “Parade,” said he is not interested in auditioning for any of the newly announced shows.
“My opinion is that the board has continued to operate in a secretive and non-transparent way, to the point where they have removed any public information from the website about who even is currently on the board,” Miles said. “To my knowledge, they have made no effort towards any kind of accountability for their part in the chain of events, nor have they to my knowledge reached out to make amends with any of the persons or communities that their decisions have impacted. I don’t believe, personally, that the Garden Theatre board has done anything to regain my trust or to take any accountability, and as such I have no desire to work for them.”
Smith said one of the projects the theater had on its list prior to the pandemic was to redesign the website, and it has kicked off that work again. He said the website has been broken down to what is critical for people to know with shows. Although board and staff members are currently not listed, he said those pages will be reintroduced.
“Even if maybe I did audition for a show, I would be worried about the impact working there might have on my ability to successfully audition at many other venues in the area,” Miles said. “They are watching, and whether or not there is any formal black list, I have no doubt that anybody whose names appear on the cast or crew of those four shows will be received poorly by the rest of the local theater community. That is what the Garden Theatre has lost — all for the wont of not hiring a managing director in a reasonable period of time. It is ridiculous how tragically avoidable the entire situation was.”
Smith said another big focus during the production pause was diversity, inclusion and equity.
“When I said we’ve changed the community, I mean we’ve changed the community in many different ways,” he said. “When I think about where we started and the types of shows we had on our stage and the reactions that we would get from our audience and where we are today, we have gone down a very long path of changing a community. Changing perceptions and what people are seeing, talking about and thinking. We have very slowly but surely introduced programming that has stretched people and where we’ve been as an organization. Are we finished with that? No. Is that something that’s imperative for us to continue to do? Absolutely. And will it be part of our future? Absolutely. Not only for the art that’s on our stage but for the performers and production teams that practice their art here, for the staff that works here, for the board. It should not be in addition to. Diversity, inclusion and equity should be part of how we operate.”
Fallon agreed, saying the values are part of the theater’s DNA and drive every decision made.
“We want the Garden Theatre to be someplace that no matter your race, your creed, color, identity, beliefs, ability, will have a safe space to come and enjoy shows,” he said. “I just want patrons to come in, especially of all abilities. I have a disability, and it’s very important for me to make sure that our theater is accessible for everybody. That everybody can come and enjoy a show, maybe get something out of it, regardless, have a wonderful time here and escape from the reality that is what our reality is right now. I just want to see people in here enjoy amazing entertainment on stage.”
A NEW BEGINNING
Despite varying opinions, Smith and Fallon both said their love for the theater is what keeps them continuing on the journey.
“It feeds my heart,” Smith said. “I never came to downtown Winter Garden until I got involved with the Garden Theatre. The staff here is phenomenal, the product here is phenomenal, and it’s one of my favorite boards I’ve ever been on. The venue itself is incredible. The first time anyone ever comes through the doors, they’re always like, ‘Wow, this is really nice and it’s so unique.’ They fall in love with it. I think it’s the attention to the detail when the building was originally even built to try to have it be representative of what it used to be. I think that speaks to people a lot. The fact that we’ve changed the community, we’ve changed the face of Plant Street. The Garden has been a key driver of the revival that occurred in Winter Garden. We are an anchor. I love that we’re able to showcase what a small nonprofit arts organization can do and the impact we’ve had on this community and beyond.”
Fallon said not only does he love the space but also the people who perform at the theater.
“I’ve seen all of the shows, as well as the weddings and the other life celebrations that we have here,” he said. “I’ve always said that if the Garden Theatre was in the middle of a field somewhere, it wouldn’t be as special as it is. Because of its location in the heart of historic downtown Winter Garden, the fact that it is a historic building, it’s the hub for this city. The volunteers, the patrons, all make this such an amazing and welcoming place to come and see a show.”
THE SLATE OF SHOWS
The first show of 2023 — “Rock of Ages” — replaces the planned “Stick Fly.”
“Even in a ‘normal year,’ our season can adjust,” Smith said. “Sometimes, we lose the rights to shows, sometimes something changes in the calendar, and we have to shuffle our season around. That’s more of our normal practice than out of the ordinary. The ‘Rock of Ages’ change-out was really in response to us having to think differently about holidays rolling into the new year and trying to fill a gap between the holidays and the next production.”
“Something Rotten,” “Next to Normal” and “Dreamgirls” already were part of the theater’s season, determined by the artistic team and approved by the board. Fallon said “Rock of Ages” was a production new partner Victory Productions wanted to stage. Victory is a full-service entertainment company that specializes in concert promotions, production of live theater and special events. Part of the proceeds from productions benefit several programs that serve underprivileged children in local communities and abroad.
“While Victory Productions has a national clientele, Central Florida is our home, and we look forward to being a part of Garden Theatre’s new focus and direction bringing quality production that audiences have become accustomed to seeing,” Fernando Varela, president of Victory Productions, said.