It’s been a tumultuous couple of months for Victory Gardens Theater, set off by the board naming executive director Erica Daniels to the dual role of executive artistic director in early May (replacing departing AD Chay Yew). This decision eventually led to the mass resignation of the playwrights ensemble as well as the writers in the theater’s planned Ignition Festival of New Plays. Finally Daniels herself resigned June 8 after a weekend of demonstrations outside the company’s historic Biograph Theater, which had been boarded up in the wake of citywide protests around the Black Lives Matter movement; demonstrators wrote the names of victims of police violence on the window boards and urged Victory Gardens to join other theaters in solidarity with the “Open Your Lobbies” movement for sanctuary spaces for protesters.
On June 22, Victory Gardens announced that Roxanna Conner has been named acting managing director. Conner had been previously promoted to director of education and human resources at the same time as the controversial Daniels appointment. The company says that Conner, who joined VG as director of education two years ago and has decades of experience in arts education and administration (including stints with Chicago Shakespeare and Congo Square) “will be supported by an outside senior advisor to be named, who will assist her with the management of day-to-day theater operations during this transition period.” They have also named board members E. Patrick Johnson and Sidney Lee as the leaders of the search committee for the next permanent artistic head of Victory Gardens, with the promise of using “an inclusive and equitable approach.”
Also on June 22, Edgewater’s Raven Theatre announced the appointment of Markie Gray as managing director, to work alongside artistic director Cody Estle. Gray has an MFA in theater management from Yale, and also served as the associate director of marketing and communications at Yale Repertory Theater. But her roots are in Chicago storefront, and it was her experiences working at the now-defunct American Theater Company that prompted her to go to grad school in the first place.
Gray came aboard ATC as production manager in 2014 under artistic director PJ Paparelli. When Paparelli died in a traffic accident in Scotland in 2015, Gray says, “I sort of watched this theater that I loved go through this enormous crisis and sort of all of these management problems and all of these things that I didn’t understand started bubbling up and I could see this theater sort of struggling to keep its feet underneath it.” She left ATC in 2016; the company brought in Will Davis as artistic director that same year to replace Paparelli, but despite Davis’s critically acclaimed productions of William Inge’s Picnic and Jaclyn Backhaus’s Men in Boats, the ATC board said the company was unable to overcome financial difficulties and closed it down in 2018.
Gray and Estle previously worked together on Bess Wohl’s comedy American Hero at First Floor Theater (where Gray is still a company member) in 2017. Estle has been AD at Raven since November of that year.
Asked what her job at the company (whose annual operating budget for their two-venue space on North Clark comes in at just under $1 million) might entail during the COVID shutdown, Gray says, “I think that there is definitely an incredibly interesting discussion that a lot of theaters can be having about what is theater right now? How can we be making something that resembles what we used to make in a small room with people gathered close together? I think that is something that Cody is still thinking about and I am looking to him and his artistic producer Cole [Von Glahn] to see what they think that can look like.”
She adds, “To me, what I find actually really exciting about having this opportunity is that organizations like this very rarely have the chance to pause and think about the actual organization. And think about the things that are the foundation of all of the art that we make. And that is how we are treating our staff, how we are managing our boards, how we’re thinking about EDI, how we’re looking at ourselves as an organization. It so often gets pushed to the bottom of the list, especially in smaller companies.”
The writers’ room
One of the casualties of the truncated 2020 theater season was J. Nicole Brooks’s world premiere, Her Honor Jane Byrne, which opened at Lookingglass Theatre under Brooks’s direction in March—and then closed less than a week later. But that blow has been somewhat softened by the announcement on June 24 that Brooks has been awarded a prestigious Andrew W. Mellon Foundation National Playwright Residency Program grant to support her as she continues work on her planned quartet of plays about Chicago mayors. The grant provides three years of salary and benefits for playwrights, along with access to funds for research and development.
Brooks, who is an ensemble member of Lookingglass, found the premature closing of Her Honor shattering. “The hardest part was watching 20 people lose their jobs. All at the same time,” she says. “We’re all in the same boat. So I went home and I laid in the bed for a good two or three weeks. I couldn’t answer the phone, I couldn’t do anything, people were lovingly reaching out to me like somebody had died.” In the months since, Brooks says she’s made peace and given the show “a Viking funeral. I put that girl on a raft and I was like ‘I love you.’ I lit a match and I had to shove her out. I had to do that very early. Because I kept getting the question ‘Are you guys gonna be able to put it back up?’ For me psychologically, I could not think about when that would be. Because I knew on every level that producing is not going to be the same. We’re lucky if we can keep our doors open.”
Whether or not Her Honor Jane Byrne is resurrected in the future remains unclear, but Brooks is looking forward to diving into her next play in the quartet: Harold Washington and the City Council Wars.
Asked if the worldwide protests after the killing of George Floyd had influenced her perspectives on mayoral power, Brooks notes, “I have always tended to write about police brutality and communities. All of this shit that’s happening, I feel like, ‘Yup, I know what this is.’ Unfortunately, ain’t nothing new under the sun.” She notes that with Washington in particular, “There’s this image that people want me to uphold.” But, she adds, “What I have learned about this moment in which Black Lives Matter has really sort of grown as a movement is that now the movement is also saying ALL Black Lives Matter. So you have a fight for our Black trans sisters and all queer humans. The fight is real. So as it relates to these mayors? Some of these mayors was not able to be who the fuck they was and that includes Harold Washington.” v