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Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons

Elizabeth Wohl, the newly installed president of the NECCA Board of Directors, stands in front of the circus school’s coaching staff during a July 20 news conference in Brattleboro.


For NECCA, an end to an expensive stalemate — and a new beginning

After a two-week protest that threatened the circus arts school, its founders are back at work, and a new board and management team begin the process of healing

With additional reporting by Jeff Potter.

BRATTLEBORO—Months of turmoil that led to two weeks of crisis at the New England Center for Circus Arts was resolved last week with a new leadership team and the reinstatement of the nonprofit’s founders, whose firing precipitated a public outcry and a stalemate that brought NECCA’s operations to a standstill.

The selection of the new leadership team was one of the key demands of a group of coaches that resigned shortly after the July 10 decision to terminate cofounders Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion.

The twin sisters have returned to their jobs as the school’s artistic directors.

On the night of July 19, the circus school’s three remaining members of its Board of Directors — Mel Martin, Tracy Prentiss, and Linda Shrier Schiffer — resigned from the board.

Before they did so, they selected seven new members to replace them, including its new president, Elizabeth Wohl, a local attorney.

Interim Executive Director Michael Helmstadter also stepped down. The new board appointed in his place another interim executive director, Jeffrey Lewis, and an operations director, Jamie Hodgson.

The leadership changes were announced at a news conference on July 20.

The coaches and staff who resigned in protest over the firing of the twin sisters were all reinstated.

Days of discussions with members of the previous NECCA board and volunteer mediator Larry Cassidy culminated in the restructuring.

On Sunday, longtime coach Aimée Hancock, the leader of the school’s Foundation Program, said that the group of 11 coaches who had been organizing the “Save NECCA” movement would likewise continue an organized effort to work with the new leadership to effect change and stabilize the nonprofit.

“We are continuing to work as a group as we get things back up and running and are looking into how we can best serve the future of the organization as well,” Hancock said via text message.

As details of the transition of power were negotiated, coaches began to return to work, and coaches began returning in good faith to staff the school’s Camp Dimitri, a circus arts summer program for children and youth.

A desire to help

Lewis and Wohl both said after the July 20 news conference that their respective decisions to get involved in the new leadership of NECCA were weeks in the making.

Wohl, who has been a student at the school for the past four years and has children attending classes there, said she saw that things were going awry weeks before the termination of the founders.

She and Lewis both acknowledged that they worked together behind the scenes, and she said that work accelerated after the founders were ousted.

“When Jeff came to me and said he needed help,” Wohl said “it was easy to say ‘yes.’”

Helping NECCA, Lewis said, was “a job that needed to be done.”

While offering praise for the service of previous board members, Wohl said the members who comprised that group had no idea what would happen if Smith and Forchion, the collective public face of NECCA, were dismissed.

Wohl cited the courage of the coaches who put their professional careers on the line and the community support they received for that act.

“A lot of people stepped in here and there to push this thing along,” she said. “But it was the outpouring of support for the twins and the coaches from around this area and around the world that made the difference.

“Now the twins are back in the role they were in as coaches and as artistic directors,” she said.

It’s the role they are best suited for, she added.

“The skills to be a good executive director are very different than skills you need to be a good aerialist or coach,” she said.

Moving forward

With the return of the founders and coaches, NECCA’s new leadership team says it expects that all previously scheduled classes and activities will proceed.

At the news conference, when Wohl was asked the best way for the community to help, she was ready with an answer.

“Sign up for our classes and come to our events,” she said. “Show your support with your feet and your pocketbooks.”

That support will be key to whether the crisis will turn out to be just a blip in the long-term evolution of NECCA or something that will cause lasting damage, she said.

Smith, who called herself someone who likes to see the water glass as half-full rather than half-empty, said that the ordeal “gave all of us a clear idea of the strength of the organization.”

“This has been a very critical couple of weeks for us,” she said. “But the community came together behind this organization, and all the support they gave us, plus getting Jeff and Elizabeth, gives us strength.”

The short-term goal, she said “was to get students back in the door.” Once that happened, she said, the focus could return to the long-term goals of keeping NECCA in the forefront of circus arts training.

In the realm of management, Lewis said the key goal is “to build sound practices to make our business performance as great as our artistic performance.”

And even though there appears to be a happy ending, Lewis was clear about what was ahead.

“The challenges that face NECCA have not gone away,” Lewis noted in a press release announcing the changes. “However, we believe that we have a team in place that can tackle those challenges methodically. This has always been an organization that depends upon community support, and we need that support now more than ever.”

New board named

Lewis, the new interim executive director, is former executive director of Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation. He is the chief executive officer of Apetrop USA, an insurance consulting company based in Brattleboro, and has held senior management positions with Massachusetts Mutual, Phoenix Life, and Monster.com.

Hodgson, the new operations director, has been with NECCA for 10 years, serving as program director of its Intensive Program and, more recently, its ProTrack program. She is also artistic director of the group Girls on Trapeze, which performs and offers workshops throughout the United States.

Other members of the new board include Martin Langeveld, former publisher of the Brattleboro Reformer and its sister newspapers; Lisa Sullivan, owner of Bartleby’s Books of Wilmington; Solveig Gannon-Kurowski, partner and project manager at LogicBranch Productions; Eileen Marie Sheppard, local artist and entrepreneur; Kathleen McGraw M.D., chief medical officer at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital; and Kate Law, circus professional and co-artistic director at Bow & Sparrow, a performing arts company.

Law and Wohl both have formerly served on the NECCA board.

The task ahead

On Monday, Lewis said that NECCA staff have begun the process of assessing the financial damage.

“We have ballpark figures — guesses — and we are working right now to size [the funding needed] as clearly as possible,” Lewis said. “Right behind that come strategies we can employ.”

Lewis said that the new team is looking “equally” at “revenue generating and expense avoidance.”

And are there overarching lessons that the nonprofit and its constituencies can learn from the recent ordeal?

“That is a very good question,” said Lewis, who added that he is still asking a lot of questions in an attempt to understand the place from which the organization has come and how to heal it.

Stabilizing an organization amid a capital campaign for its new facility is paramount, he said.

“I want to understand people’s intentions and motivations, and I have an interest in history and symptomology. But when people ask me that question, I say, ‘We’ve just got steel and concrete right now.’”

The process for NECCA’s rebirth is far from ideal, and “it’s a tad awkward,” Lewis said. “But here we are.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #418 (Wednesday, July 26, 2017). This story appeared on page 0.

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