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Half of Baraboo theater board resigns to protest leadership practices

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Half of the board of directors for Baraboo’s historic Al. Ringling Theatre resigned en masse this summer in protest of what they said was a lack of communication, transparency and accountability by theater leadership.

“We do love that theater, and what’s going on right now embarrasses us and it frustrates us,” said Amber Giddings, one of the six members. “There’s a lot of love that walked out that door, and they just seemed to not care.”

In addition to Giddings, former Al artist in residence Carol Kratochwill, Jim Greenwood, Paul Wolter, Ben Bromley and Charlene Flygt resigned June 3. Flygt, chosen by the group to be their spokesperson, said the move was in response to ongoing “internal dissension” related to secrecy and the discarding of long-standing community relationships with partners like local dance studios and the Baraboo Theatre Guild.

“Over the past year and a half, a growing lack of communication, transparency, and accountability by the current board leadership and management has created a climate of partisanship and dysfunctionality that does not serve the mission of the theatre or the community,” their resignation letter said. The policies and actions of leadership — which, at the time, consisted of board president Aural Umhoefer and CEO Tom McEvilly — “have increasingly alienated, if not severed, long-standing community relationships,” the letter said. “Furthermore, being denied full access to financial records we cannot vouch for the financial responsibility of the theatre operation and its management.”

Rick Wolff, a Madison native who has served on the board for about a year, said Monday that he became president last week. The theater’s website still listed Umhoefer as president Monday afternoon. She did not return a phone call Monday.

“COVID was a difficult time because we were shuttered and had no activity. And there were some disagreements on the future of the theater, and regrettably it resulted in some members leaving,” Wolff said in a phone interview, “but we are poised to move forward in a positive and successful manner.”

Programming returns to Baraboo's Ringling Theatre with 'once-in-a-lifetime' operas

He declined to address the specific issues cited by former board members, but said Bromley and Greenwood’s terms on the board would have run out in July had they not resigned the month before.

Lack of transparency

Flygt said board members were treated as if they couldn’t be trusted with information about the nonprofit organization they were tasked with overseeing.

“If a question was asked, a standard line was ‘Oh, that’s a secret’ or ‘You don’t need to know,’” she said. “And from the perspective of the six of us who did resign, we felt that trying to know and understand the workings and what was happening and what was going on was a valuable part of being a good board member, being actively engaged in what was happening.”

She said the six members “felt that we had tried to do everything” before stepping down.

Giddings said the lack of transparency was the biggest issue leading to the mass resignation. She and other members never received answers — or received only partial answers — to their questions about the theater’s finances and taxes or requests to see documents, she said. In one instance, she asked to see a donation letter because “there was some question as to whether theater leadership had actively solicited it,” but the document was never produced, she said.

She said she later heard through theater staff that McEvilly and Umhoefer had directed them never to give the board members a full answer, “just enough.”

“And it’s sad that from the CEO/director and the board president, they’re directing people not to give us full answers,” Giddings said. “When you’re on a board like that, there needs to be full transparency.”

Youth camp at Al. Ringling Theatre (copy)

CEO Tom McEvilly serves snacks during a youth theater camp June 16 at Al. Ringling Theatre in downtown Baraboo.

Giddings said the problems started at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when one board member suggested limiting hours and reducing employee pay as a way to survive while the theater was closed. Leadership tried to remove that member but the motion failed on a tie vote, she said.

“From that moment on, it really felt like members of the board, including myself, were targeted,” she said.

As the pandemic wore on, operations became more and more secretive, according to Giddings. She said board members learned through La Musica Lirica’s social media — rather than the theater director — that the opera group would be coming to the Al.

“I do think the CEO tries to shut people out, and if you disagree with him, obviously you’re wrong and there is no conversation about it, you’re just wrong,” she said. “And it was ugly for a long time.”

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Flygt echoed Giddings, adding that the division on the board continued to grow. When McEvilly came into the job in August 2019, he wanted to “change a lot of things and fire a lot of people,” Flygt said, “and I know that’s standard procedure, but there was a lot of — I guess I would describe it as drama” and poor handling of the situation.

“A volunteer board should be thanked and appreciated, not accused of things and have their integrity questioned and have their intelligence questioned and have their commitment to what was going on questioned,” she said.

McEvilly did not respond to a phone call requesting comment Monday.

Alienating community partners

Flygt, who has been involved with the theater for more than two decades, said some long-term theater users were told earlier this year that they wouldn’t be able to reserve their normal range of dates because the theater was already booked or because “certain individuals were just not deemed to be appropriate to be in the theater.” She declined to say who was considered inappropriate.

She said she didn’t know for sure but believed the claims of the theater being booked for those dates was untrue.

“It was used, I think, as an excuse,” she said, adding that only a few dance recitals and special events were open to the public this spring.

Since then, the theater hosted La Musica Lirica for five weeks — a booking that was finalized in April, according to the group’s director — and announced late last month several new events from September through December. One musical, “The Christmas Gift,” was written by McEvilly and is scheduled for two weekends in mid-December.

Aural Umhoefer (copy)

Aural Umhoefer, former president of the Al. Ringling Theatre board of directors, speaks before the Baraboo Concerts on the Square kickoff performance July 1 in front of the Sauk County Courthouse. 

Baraboo Theatre Guild President Katie James said BTG traditionally holds shows at the Al on the first two full weekends of November, but this year was told something else was already scheduled. As of Monday, nothing appears to be on the theater’s online calendar for those dates.

The guild will be presenting its shows this year at the Palace Theater in Wisconsin Dells. Asked if the group would consider coming back to the Baraboo theater, James said “potentially.”

“This is currently a one-time thing and we’re going to kind of see how it goes and then we’ll decide again in the future what — if, that is — if we can make it work at the Ringling again,” she said.

Giddings said the alienation of community partners is hurting Baraboo businesses since the groups are moving their shows out of town.

“What I can say is I’m incredibly embarrassed and incredibly disappointed in how he’s treated almost every group that’s always had their shows at the Al. Ringling Theatre in Baraboo, Wisconsin,” she said.

She said there are solutions for all of them to use the theater that McEvilly didn’t pursue.

“That theater should be booked every weekend,” Giddings said. “There should be movies every weekend, there should be positive energy coming out of it, and he only wants to book and do what he wants to do.”

Follow Susan Endres on Twitter @EndresSusan or call her at 745-3506.


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Baraboo News Republic reporter

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