Founded in 1974, Victory Gardens Theater has earned an international reputation for its long-standing commitment to new plays, many of them written by the company’s resident playwrights. But the risky business of producing untested work has cost the company the kind of large-scale growth that turned Steppenwolf and the Goodman into local institutions. The theater’s board of directors and its president, Hud Englehart, think Victory Gardens could be a bigger player on the local and national scenes if it expanded its offerings, acquired a larger and more comfortable facility, and brought on additional management to oversee the anticipated growth. Late last month, in a closed session, Englehart and the board voted almost unanimously to launch a search for a chief executive officer who will have authority over all theater staff–including the theater’s founders, artistic director Dennis Zacek and managing director Marcelle McVay. Some staffers fear that a CEO would serve as a buffer between the board and anyone who might take exception to the specifics of the plan. “We also are interested in growth, but the way that growth would be manifested is the issue before us,” says McVay. “The devil is in the details.”
Sources on the board say that Englehart will be instrumental in the campaign to expand Victory Gardens. The president and chief operating officer of Kemper Lesnik Communications, Englehart had no previous experience on the board of a theater when he was recruited by longtime Victory Gardens board member Jan Grayson in 1996. “They wanted to add someone with marketing skills, and they knew I had an interest in the dramatic arts,” says Englehart. Adds another board member, “Hud had resources–both of a financial sort and business connections.” McVay says she was pleased to see someone with Englehart’s talents join the board, and by 1999, Englehart had sufficiently cemented his base of support to be named president. Last November he organized a board retreat during which the members arrived at a long-term strategy for growing Victory Gardens. McVay and Zacek (who’s also a member of the board) attended as well, and they agreed with the general principles of expanding the staff and either renovating the theater’s current home at 2257 N. Lincoln or finding a new facility. Since the retreat, says Englehart, all the board’s discussions and actions have been in keeping with those goals.
The cracks in the facade began to appear early this year, after this column reported that the Philadelphia-based Reading Entertainment Company hoped to sell the Royal George Theatre Center at North and Halsted. The Victory Gardens board explored the possibility of buying the complex, whose 440-seat main stage dwarfs all four performance spaces in the Lincoln building, but dropped out of the bidding when New York producer Mitchell Maxwell appeared to be closing in on the property. Now the Maxwell deal has fallen through, putting the Royal George back into play, and Victory Gardens must decide whether it really wants to abandon a building that was once home to the Body Politic Theatre, one of the oldest and most important companies in Chicago. “The kind of facility you are housed in will affect the kind of programming you do,” says McVay, who admits that she might not have done a good enough job explaining to the board how the growth plan might impact the theater’s artistic mission.
That mission has always centered on new plays, which would prove even more of a challenge to a company trying to fill 440 seats every night. Some board members have reportedly proposed that Victory Gardens commission world premieres from high-profile playwrights like David Hare or Tom Stoppard to focus more media attention on the company and boost ticket sales. In recent seasons Victory Gardens has brought in stars like Julie Harris, William Petersen, Jon Cryer, and Sharon Gless to sell new plays, and it’s scheduled more works by the company’s most popular resident playwrights. According to McVay, last season’s shows averaged 91 percent of capacity, an increase of 21 percent over the previous year. The company has paid off a small operating deficit and increased this season’s budget by $100,000, to $1.6 million; McVay plans to hire a development director and has already added an assistant in the marketing department. But some question the board’s aggressive growth plan, given the company’s moderate but significant progress over the past couple seasons. “If the joint were going down the tubes, perhaps there might be a case for intervention,” says resident playwright Jeffrey Sweet.
A handful of board members have resisted the Royal George purchase, and the conflict came to a head on August 28, during a regularly scheduled meeting. The agenda for the evening included nothing about the management of the theater, but according to one member the topic of the Royal George came up, as it had at several earlier meetings. This time Englehart called for an executive session, forcing all Victory Gardens staff (including Zacek) to absent themselves from the discussion (McVay says she can’t recall such a thing ever having happened before). The session lasted over three hours, and by the end the board had voted to install a chief executive over McVay and Zacek. Board member Alan Brody, a real estate developer who has talked to Reading Entertainment, says the board should know more about the Royal George by Thanksgiving. But if the board can’t find common ground with the theater’s founders, Victory Gardens could be in for some rough sledding. As one board member puts it, “A building is just a building without the right people.”
These were the most onerous talks I’ve ever been in at the CSO,” says attorney Mike Greenfield, who helped musicians negotiate a new contract with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “We came within a hairsbreadth of calling a strike.” The final bargaining session began the afternoon of Tuesday, September 12, and dragged on for 17 hours; sources say that management was pushing for a five-year contract while the musicians preferred the traditional three-year agreement, and the two sides were deadlocked until the last few hours. The players overwhelmingly ratified the resulting four-year contract, which raises their salaries about 4 percent annually and makes them the highest-paid orchestra in the country; by the time it expires in 2004, a CSO musician’s base salary will be $104,000. In addition to the raise the contract also provides complete benefits for all domestic partners. Musicians insisted on a clause that guarantees guest conductors the right to determine their own seating plan; music director Daniel Barenboim has reportedly butted heads with conductors over the issue. But the players failed to get anything in writing regarding the future of the symphony’s broadcasts on WFMT FM, an additional source of income for musicians. Longtime sponsor Amoco will bow out after the 2000-2001 season; one CSO spokesperson reportedly stated during the negotiations that the symphony was pursuing a three-year deal with a new sponsor.