BRATTLEBORO — The New England Youth Theatre's been through some significant changes recently. It's been stressful and, no doubt, turbulent at times, but the drama has settled with a new board in place and a new artistic director, Malia'Kekia Nicolini.
An actor, director/choreographer, and teaching artist, Nicolini has been working with NEYT for the last four years exercising their focus on the power of play as a developmental tool for young people.
With a bachelor of fine arts degree in music theater from New World School of the Arts and an Inner MBA from MindfulNYU in conscious leadership and mindful sustainability in business practices, she's co-founder of B4 The Other Creations, specializing in teaching pedagogy of play.
Young area performers have worked with them most recently in the NEYT music theater summer intensive which she directed and choreographed.
A native Hawaiian, Nicolini - now of North Adams, Massachusetts - is trying the role on for size through December as the board discerns, too, if the fit is right. An engagement of sorts, with a promise of marriage.
“I want to be sure all is aligned, until December,” Nicolini said. “Is this a place I want to grow into? Is it a community I can evolve in and with? Do all the pieces fit?”
Nicolini brings the benefit of a holistic approach to NEYT.
“I feel like my responsibility is to mindfully approach how to heal from the pandemic, how to be community together, to reintegrate into this space,” they say.
With their focus on play exploration, they aim for “work-life balance - for inspiration and joy” among young people and through the theater arts.
“The big challenge,” they continue, “is shifting a culture from valuing the product to one that looks at finding worthiness in process” - process that yields empowerment, to boot, and with an eye toward social change.
“My intention is not necessarily to put on the best show, but to influence as many lives as we can toward growth and discovery,” they note.
While there's much Nicolini will be doing in weeks ahead to help ensure stability, to clarify vision, and to hone priorities, planning the fall season has been a big push.
In the queue is Shakespeare, the Darkroom Experience, a haunted house built through the lens of Shakespeare's work. The well-loved holiday musical slot will be filled this year by Shrek, the Musical, sprung from the children's book of the same name by William Steig.
In addition, the NEYT fall lineup includes six workshop series, including a selection centered on LGBTQ discovery. Visit neyt.org for more information.
Enrollment has been steady, Nicolini reports, and the support from the community through the leadership transition has been great. The organization is solvent and able to move forward with the fall season, says NEYT Board Vice President Stuart Duke.
Of Nicolini, Duke says, “I can't think of anybody with a better outlook.”
Duke praised Nicolini's grounding in business training and described them as a visionary and “a breath of fresh air.”
“Rarely have I met someone who has such youthful passion, energy, vision,” he says. When NEYT Board President Bo Foard and I met with Nicolini for the first time, he called the experience “jaw dropping.”
The board's current arrangement with Nicolini is best defined by his assuring that “we are not engaged in a search.”
Looking forward, not backward
On May 2, NEYT made a post on its Facebook page announcing that a majority of members of its board of directors of New England Youth Theatre had stepped down.
“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,” the organization said in the post.
The statement said that the outgoing board members were handing the governance and management of the nonprofit to NEYT founder Stephen Stearns and longtime collaborator Jerry Stockman, “in order to honor the past and find a way into the future.”
As part of the shakeup, Executive Director Hallie Flower stepped aside as well.
“It's been a roll-up-many-sleeves endeavor to get a grip on the company's finances,” he said. “The board considers it job one to make sure the organization is on solid footing, that it can meet obligations and move forward in a sustainable way.”
Duke, known locally for his 17-year leadership and design role with Weston Playhouse, is still active in lighting design. He brings vast theater experience - technical to managerial - to the board, not only from his prolific days of leading Weston with Malcolm Ewen, Tim Fort, and Steve Stettler, but also from experiences ranging from Broadway to the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut to his current gig with Maryland Lyric Opera.
Having been in Vermont for 25 years, Duke was first introduced to NEYT through friendships formed years ago with Stearns and more recently with Stockman. Duke has done some lighting design and consulting for NEYT and was asked by Stockman several months ago to join the nonprofit's board.
Of his board role, Duke says: “I felt like NEYT was an opportunity - a unique and challenging opportunity - to help an organization reinvent itself. It's a chance to give back, to share what I've learned over the years.”
“I don't really know what happened with the past board,” he adds. “The new board has torn all rearview mirrors off the car and stepped on the gas to get things going forward.”
There's a lot on the table now, Duke said. Among other considerations is “what do we do as a company with the weight of the feelings about the things that went on before? We need to let people celebrate NEYT's history and to have the vision and tenacity to move ahead.”
Stability and reassurance
Ultimately, Duke notes, “The board is focused in two areas: we're striving for stability and all that means, starting with finances, and we're striving for reassurance in all segments of the NEYT community - staff, faculty, kids, parents.”
“The end line is that NEYT will continue to provide a safe place for kids to explore, grow, learn, and to express themselves,” he says.
“We're just getting leadership in place and engaging in exhaustive discovery about the business status of the organization: that's consumed our time,” Duke recounts.
“The new board came in the summer, when the staff needed to roll out a fall season and get classes and workshops imagined. At the time, we had very little understanding of what the company's ability to sustain operations was,” he continues.
“Early on, we determined that, based on what we knew of the company and its current state, we needed to split the executive director leadership model that'd been in place into a more traditional arts organization model and put in place both a managing leader and an artistic leader who'd work together,” Duke says. “The wheels have been spinning quickly.”
While Nicolini takes artistic direction in hand, the board has asked long-time NEYT administrator, Michelle Meima, to serve as NEYT's interim managing director while a nationwide search ensues for a professional to fill that position.
According to Duke, “Michelle has been invaluable in getting us back on our feet. Part of the restructuring at NEYT is to create more shared roles.”
“I'm a community builder,” Nicolini adds. “I'm working to reshape leadership from a less vertical model here to a more horizontal one.”
That process involves sticking their neck out a bit.
“I have a high tolerance for being uncomfortable,” they say. “Play lives in the unknown; I try to walk into the unknown with joy and availability.”
The community response has been a sense of relief. In addition to the trials of the last several months, NEYT has lost anchor alumni with the retirement of Stearns and Stockman, as well as Sandy Klein, the organization's former creative director and costumer.
“We did find that the staff who remains came through the transition demonstrating a remarkable degree of dedication and passion for what they do - keeping the organization alive and vital. It's such a great group, but they've been through the wringer,” Duke continues. “Stressing high-quality production has taken its toll.”
The new board's philosophy echoes Nicolini's - rebuilding an organization that cultivates work/life balance, examines what it means to play, and values process over product.
Duke and Foard are joined on the board by Deb Hicks, treasurer; Sarah Sanchez, secretary; Tucker Hessel, student representative; Kate Purdie; and Bethany Ranquist.
In a recent news release, Foard acknowledges “the impassioned efforts of the NEYT faculty and staff along with a newly energized board.”
Foard says that the new team at the theater is “looking at a bright future for NEYT and the youth of our community who will benefit from this remarkable place where 'the play' is indeed the thing!”