Musical staff

A wave of resignations among the Garden Theater’s creative staff raises questions about leadership | Art Stories + Interviews | Orlando

In the theater world, it’s sometimes shocking how quickly a fairy tale can turn into a nightmare. Just a few weeks ago, I interviewed director Roberta Emerson about her multiracial reimagining of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast at the Garden Theatre, a seat-filled example of the diversity and equity that seemed to thrive under artistic director Joseph Walsh. Although I never had the chance to know Walsh personally during his three years in office, everyone I spoke with — from Emerson to The top of the mountain director Felichia Chivaughn to Jason Horne, who helmed Ben Hur in 2020 – was enthusiastic about its efforts to create a safe and inclusive space for artists and staff.

It therefore came as a shock to the theater community when Walsh’s sudden resignation was announced to Garden Theater supporters in a June 9 message from Chairman of the Board Allie L. Braswell, Jr. “We are grateful for Joe’s contributions to the Garden Theater during his successful three-year tenure,” reads the letter, which gives no reason for the unexpected move. “He has organized the upcoming season and will work closely with Rob and the theater to ensure a smooth transition. We thank Joe for his dedication and wish him success and happiness in his future endeavours.”

Many in the theater community learned of Walsh’s June 10 departure from a widely shared Facebook post by DaZaria Harris, the black actress who won acclaim for her portrayal of Belle in the recent production. Calling the news “heartbreaking and infuriating”, Harris credited Walsh for his “vision to make The Garden and theaters everywhere a place of safety, inclusion, support and love”, and directly pointed the finger at the “Administrators of the Garden and their need to dictate the artistic direction of Joe and the people he directed.”

Harris’ post prompted a flood of reactions online, with an outpouring of support for Walsh from artists and patrons, as well as current and former employees. At least one, performer Cherry Gonzalez, said she had an “uncomfortable” confrontation with an unnamed board member in a rehearsal space that she called “dehumanizing.” (Becky Roper, the founding board member who owns the adjacent Roper Building which was built to support the theater, has been contacted by email but is unavailable for comment before press time.)

Walsh himself refuses to discuss any conflict with the board, as do other staff members – including arts consultant Emerson, who supporters say should replace him – but he has publicly thanked the members of the community “for having the courage to speak up, to share your experiences at the Garden over the past seasons and to speak your truth.” And in an interview with the Orlando Sentinelby Matt Palm, Walsh highlighted the stress of working without the help of a permanent general manager – a position the Garden Theater has been unable to maintain since the revolving door departures of Nao Tsurumaki, Melissa Mason Braillard and Elisa Spencer -Kaplan – as a key factor.

The next blow came only a week later, when newly appointed acting artistic director Rob Winn Anderson – who ran the theater for a decade before retiring in 2019 – abruptly walked out, citing low staff morale. This loss was soon followed by the revelation that Chivaughn and the majority of his creative team for A Bronx Talescheduled to open in August, had ceased, causing production to be cancelled.

Additionally, Chivaughn and Meka King, co-executives of Central Florida Entertainment Advocacy (CFEA), stepped down from the seat they shared on the Garden Theater Board of Directors, stating in their resignation letter that “our presence alone does not denote change, amplification, decision-making power or even valuable input. We learned that even in our presence, the same culture and spirit continued to thrive on the board. … Grace to our engagement with the board, we realized that even though we were given a seat at the table, we weren’t really given a voice. Often we weren’t heard and were never consulted for input. advice and perspective We were overlooked and instead trusted in people outside of our industry and community It became increasingly clear that the mission to create and sustain safe, equitable spaces the inclusiveness that the staff worked so intentionally to build did not seem to be everyone’s mission.”

In its June 23 announcement of the resignations and cancellations, the Garden Theater board said its “goal is to continue working for a diverse and harmonious workplace” and promised to schedule a listening” between the staff and several members of the board of directors, facilitated by an “objective third-party expert.” They also said unspecified board members would be upgraded to non-voting “emeritus” status “as evidence of our good faith effort to find common ground.”

Although the board insists that they are “committed to resolving these differences and bringing together all those who love theater and more specifically the Garden Theatre”, each of their public statements seems to have only stoked the anger online. CFEA hit back, writing that they are “unhappy” with the board’s statement and accused them of “continuing[ing] to microaggress and lessen the urgency of the concerns of this community and garden staff.”

Without being an insider, it is impossible for me to say who is to blame here. But no matter what, it’s more than sad to see what was a shining beacon of progress on the Orlando art scene fall from favor so quickly. I can only advise council leadership to take a long hard look in the mirror and make the necessary changes before the Town of Winter Garden – which legally owns the building – takes an interest in their turmoil. They can ask the folks at the Mad Cow Theater in Orlando if this might work well for them.

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