NEYT shakes up its organizational underpinnings

Staff concerns with a ‘top-down’ system precipitated the action, but former board members wish the group well

BRATTLEBORO — To the shock of many, all but the student representative to the New England Youth Theatre board of directors announced their en-masse resignation on May 2.

Board members say the split is amicable and they decided individually to step out of the way and let founder Stephen Stearns work out a new model with staff who want more say in the way things work at the nonprofit.

“As we begin our transition into full programming for the first time in over two years, it has become clear that the goals and vision of the board are out of alignment with long-term staff,” read a statement from the board shared with the announcement posted on the organization's Facebook page.

“In order to honor the past and find a way into the future, we are handing over the governance and management of NEYT to its founders to determine its future path out of the pandemic,” the now-former board members wrote.

“We are so grateful for all of the support our community has offered these past two years and to NEYT Executive Director Hallie Flower, who has guided the organization through these challenging times.”

The board members also thanked “the community members who provided feedback to support this restructuring.”

Resigned directors include board President Katey Everest, Treasurer David Dunn, Secretary Andrew Marchev, and members John Barrengos, Colin Grube, Scott Gordon Macey, and Moses Jaenson. Student representative Hazel Kinnersley remains and member emeritus Stephen Stearns, NEYT founder (with Peter Gould), has been made a voting board member.

“It has been a privilege to serve such a place for our community's young people,” they concluded. “We look forward to watching NEYT emerge into this new era. We are grateful for the dedication this board has shown to NEYT and its community.”

A later post clarified that the nonprofit was bidding “a fond farewell” to Flower.

“We wish Hallie all the best in her future endeavors and thank her for her tremendous contributions to our students and community,” the follow-up post concluded.

Getting to why

Programming continues at NEYT, but had been mostly virtual for almost two years during Covid+.

“The major thing we want is continuation of the program for the kids and that everything works for the kids - that's what was driving things,” Dunn told The Commons on Monday. “The board got the sense in looking how we would restructure coming out of the pandemic, if there would be any tension at all that would not be the best thing for the kids.”

“The feeling was that if the staff wanted to go in a direction the board wasn't completely comfortable with, it [would be] better for them to do so. It was a decision that each individual board member made. It's best to have the staff have that control going forward and moving forward."

Asked to explain what “goals and vision of the board are out of alignment with long-term staff” members' views, Dunn skirted specifics.

“I don't think the reasons advance the goal or missions of NEYT,” he said. “It makes sense for the staff to move forward and work through the process. That makes sense for the institution and for the kids.”

“What we felt was in addressing whatever concerns the staff would have that if the board was standing in the way of that, it was better to have the staff work those out going forward, with a board they felt more comfortable with,” noted Dunn, who said some resignations were actually effective last week and some Monday.

“Because to make sure we had continuity and ability to reconstruct the board, and that that can be done by Stephen as founder,” he said.

Under prior board bylaws, Stearns, as an emeritus member, could attend board meetings but not vote.

“We felt the best thing was to get him back involved and so we made him a voting member,” Dunn said. “Members who resigned have complete faith that the staff will do what's best for NEYT.”

NEYT Creative Director Sandy Klein said this about the issue: “We brought our concerns about management and management structure to the board and they were unable to resolve those concerns. They decided to step aside.”

It was 14-year faculty member and NEYT alum Doran Hamm, “speaking from his own view,” who was most frank in his answer, saying the issue came down to difference of opinion about the way things worked.

“It was the desire of the staff to move from a one-role top, if there's only one artistic director, to a multi-leader set up and try to have a more unilateral staff so they'll have more say,” he continued. “There are so many different facets to it and there had been problems systematically even when Stephen founded the theater.”

As for how to make it survive, Hamm observed that “it was always going to be a chase.”

“We'll see,” he said. “It may not be sustainable, but the old model was not sustainable.”

Amid the turnover, programming is continuing “in full swing,” Klein said.

“We currently have a show opening this weekend, our Town Schools theater program is in the heart of rehearsals, and our summer programs are nearly all full and right on track,” she reported.

“The dedication of our students and the continued support of our community make us hopeful and confident as we go forward,” Klein said.

Meanwhile, You're Welcome, a collection of short plays by David Ives that is the senior company's spring show, is directed by Rebecca Waxman with Jane Baker and opens this Friday at NEYT.