Circus Arts’ center founders fired by board

  • Melissa Knowles, a former coach at the New England Center for Circus Arts, holds her resignation letter in front of the new trapezium building, in Brattleboro, Vt., Wednesday. Brattleboro Reformer/Kristopher Radder

Brattleboro Reformer
Published: 7/12/2017 9:59:48 PM

BRATTLEBORO — In a move that is bound to send shock waves around the international circus world, the board of directors of the New England Center for Circus Arts has removed founders Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion as artistic directors.

The news was announced during public comments at the Brattleboro Selectboard meeting Tuesday night by Sam Payne, who moved to Brattleboro with his wife, Sandra Feusi, for the express purpose of coaching at NECCA.

“NECCA is in a state of crisis,” said Payne. “The board of directors has focused its efforts on removing Elsie and Serenity and they did so yesterday.”

Payne also accused the board of meeting secretly and with less than a full complement of board members.

Pat Howell, who is on NECCA’s public relations and development committee confirmed that the sisters “were separated from employment with NECCA for reasons I cannot disclose legally at this point in time. However,” said Howell, “the board did offer an option that would allow for their continued involvement with NECCA but we haven’t received a response yet.”

Two calls to board members were not returned by early Tuesday evening. Michael C. Helmstadter, the current executive director of NECCA, whose wife, Tracy Prentiss, is also a member of the board, declined to comment at this time. Helmstadter and Prentiss live in Montague, Mass.

“NECCA is one of the jewels in the Brattleboro crown,” Payne told the Selectboard. “We are asking if you care about the circus, please get involved.”

Serenity Smith, who spoke for herself and her sister, said they were very disappointed by the board’s actions.

“We feel let down by the leadership of the board of directors and the executive director,” she said. “We put our blood, sweat and tears into this organization.”

NECCA recently conducted a fundraising campaign to construct its new facility on Putney Road. On June 19, it began its summer classes in the new building, after 10 years at Cotton Mill.

Smith said that over the past few weeks, a number of board members have resigned their positions.

And Jamie Hodgson, NECCA’s ProTrack Program Director, said that five coaches have also tendered their resignations.

“I turned in my resignation today,” she said, adding that the turmoil has been boiling below the surface for a while.

“This is such a shocking thing. We have been trying to handle this in-house and to maintain a respectful discourse in all of our efforts. It seemed to not have worked.”

Hodgson said she and the other coaches understood the board was trying to make some changes to NECCA’s programming and its mission.

“We had been growing in size, with the new building ... definitely a lot changes needed to come with that. But my opinion, and that of the rest of the coaching staff — I am speaking for them — the board became fixated on terminating the founders and at the same time let organizational matters slide.”

Hodgson also mentioned “allegations” the board had leveled against the two founders, but declined to go into detail.

“They have believed a few different things,” she said. “They have a lot of allegations but the staff are pretty confident the allegations are inherently false. We believe the board is not doing its due diligence in researching or asking about the allegations.”

Hodgson said one of the reasons the board gave for terminating the founders was the circus world is changing and Elsie and Serenity were not changing with the times.

“They see a new artistic direction for NECCA, against the advice of the NECCA coaching staff, who, one might argue are more aware of the current trends than they are.”

Hodgson said she and the other coaches are also concerned about the safety of the NECCA’s new facility.

“We fear it’s not a safe place to work in or teach our students in right now. We have concerns about safety that have gone unaddressed. We don’t feel our concerns are being heard.”

Hodgson said she also believes the current board has “abandoned our mission statement. This is not what it used to be, an amazing collaborative space.”

Howell admitted the news has gotten a lot of people “up in arms, as you would expect. They are the founders, they are excellent spokespeople and excellent coaches. But the board felt they needed to take this action to protect NECCA’s nonprofit status.”


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