It’s been a dramatic year for Victory Gardens Theater, even though they haven’t produced a (live) show since Liliana Padilla‘s How to Defend Yourself last February. Artistic director Chay Yew, who had been with the company for nine seasons, announced in December 2019 his intention to step down at the end of the 2019-20 season.
That season (along with the 2020-21 season) was of course cut down by COVID-19. But the Victory Gardens board announced in late May that they were combining two positions by promoting then-executive director Erica Daniels to the newly created post of executive artistic director.
That announcement set off controversy, eventually leading to demonstrations outside Victory Gardens. Those were exacerbated by the company deciding not to follow other theaters in the “Open Your Lobby” support movement that sprang up around the Black Lives Matter protests after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
The playwrights ensemble—a bedrock of the 47-year-old company in various incarnations since 1996—resigned in protest of not having had more input into the hiring process. (This had echoes of Yew’s own ascendance at Victory Gardens in 2011, after longtime artistic director Dennis Začek departed and the playwrights ensemble he’d built over the years found themselves on “alumni” status.) In turn, Daniels resigned in early June.
Now several months later, on Wednesday, Victory Gardens named Ken-Matt Martin as the new artistic director. His appointment came about after a six-month search process that included the kind of community input that Victory Gardens promised after the controversy surrounding Daniels’s hiring.
Martin notes, “There was a big community town hall component to this interview so I’ve been in direct conversation already as a candidate with a lot of the artists in the community.”
Originally from Little Rock, Arkansas, Martin has a resume that includes working as a child actor on Nickelodeon’s All That. As an adult, he got his MFA in directing from Brown University/Trinity Rep and went on to cofound and serve as executive director for Pyramid Theatre Company in Des Moines. He’s also been the producing director for Williamstown Theatre Festival and most recently he’s been an associate producer for Goodman Theatre—a position he’ll continue to hold until his official start date of April 19 at Victory Gardens. With Goodman, he directed Olivia Ridley’s Ghost Gun as part of the online #Enough: Plays to End Gun Violence festival.
“I am still fairly new to Chicago,” says Martin. “I moved here and then about two and a half months later the shutdown hit. You know, my experience of Chicago, particularly in terms of the theater scene, has not necessarily been one that I’ve been able to enjoy, or take in the community, because during the majority of the time that I’ve been here there’s been a shutdown. So I was tangentially aware of what was going on over at Victory Gardens, but honestly was kind of woefully ignorant and didn’t really pay close attention to it in the headlines of what’s happening.”
But, he adds, “I’ll admit that I was always intrigued by the work, particularly under Chay’s leadership, that was being produced during the small period of time that I was aware of VG.” And despite the public tensions of the past year, Martin says, “I’m really excited about the opportunity to lead an institution with potentially this type of commitment to work that is meant to further civic change and that is meant to inspire more social activism and social justice.” However, he adds, reflecting on the news of the mass shootings of Asian women in Georgia on Tuesday, “While this is an exciting day for me personally, I have to acknowledge that this is a really nasty day for us when you think about what just happened in Atlanta yesterday. And so a theater like this one that in many ways has a mission geared toward speaking to those types of situations—I am almost even remiss, frankly, that my announcement is happening today with all of this madness.”
That sense of social conscience seems to inspire Martin’s goals for Victory Gardens moving forward. He also credits acting managing director Roxanna Conner, who had been director of education for the theater before assuming her current title after Daniels’s departure, with starting conversations with staff to “articulate a wish list.”
Some of the practices Martin mentions wishing to reexamine dovetail with the BIPOC Demands for White American Theatre from We See You W.A.T., such as eliminating “10 out of 12” tech rehearsals (wherein actors work ten hours in a 12-hour day and designers and technical staff can go as long as 14 hours), and six-day rehearsal weeks. (As the BIPOC Demands describes it, “These are long-standing practices that are seeped in capitalist and white supremacist culture. When these practices are in place, the growing and nurturing of the BIPOC family structure is imperiled. Many BIPOC artists have been forced to make a choice not to have families. For Indigenous artists and other peoples recovering from genocide, these practices are extremely detrimental.”)
Martin also mentions a desire to expand the playwrights ensemble to include “Native and Indigenous writers. I think right now we talk so much—the acronym BIPOC is thrown around so much—about what it means to further anti-racism work and equity. Sadly, it so often feels like we’ve figured out how to do land acknowledgments but nobody’s producing the work.”
Under Conner’s leadership of the past several months, Victory Gardens has kept community engagement programming going online. Conner says, “In this moment when we haven’t been able to be live, we have continued some of that work with some of our panel discussions that we have had that we started in the fall, centering various communities and talking about how we as an organization can amplify either their work or their needs. We just recently had a conversation about accessibility in theater, and we’ve had one about the needs of BIPOC artists in theater. And so we will continue that kind of work.” (In 1995, Victory Gardens took over the Access Project, geared toward providing adaptive equipment for audiences with disabilities, from the defunct Remains Theatre.)
Victory Gardens board president Charles E. Harris II has been on the board for seven years and assumed leadership after former board president Steven Miller resigned from his role, about the same time that Daniels left. (Miller is currently listed as an “emeritus” board member.)
“We put out a fairly detailed job description and within that job description we had the whole gamut of things that artistic directors do, but it was important to us to make sure that we incorporated the diversity and the equity movement and everything that’s going on with that and what we’re hearing from BIPOC,” says Harris. “So all of that was actually included in our job description. And all of those things were critically important for us. And of course Ken-Matt checks all those boxes. Not only is he diverse, but from just his background, diversity has been critical in what he’s done. Just touch on what he did in Iowa with [Pyramid], a tough environment to produce diverse work.”
“Understatement of the century,” Martin wryly interjects.
Harris also notes, “One of the things that was important to me was sort of ceding the decision about who was the best candidate to our search committee. And that search committee was not only made up of people from the board, but it was also made up of many people from the artistic community, including Roxanna. And that was directly in response to what we were hearing from the community about the prior process.” Neither he nor Conner will confirm if she will stay in the managing director’s position permanently. Conner only says, “I’m excited to partner with Ken-Matt no matter my position at the organization once that’s determined. We want to get him in the door and allow him to figure some things out, see how things are working, and then we’ll make some decisions.”
Among those decisions will be what kinds of shows Victory Gardens will produce once it’s possible to return to live performances. Though Martin notes that the company is “in really good financial shape,” one reality seems to be that smaller-cast productions will be on board for at least a couple of years post-shutdown.
Still, Martin and Harris both express hope that one of the shows cancelled last year, Erika Dickerson-Despenza‘s Cullud Wattah (an Afro-surrealist take on the Flint water crisis) will be back on the roster. “I love that play and our commitment to that play and to Erika still stands as soon as we are able to get back into the space,” says Martin. Conner notes that they want to honor commitments to the playwrights and directors whose productions were lost to COVID-19.
“Right now, there’s so much that remains so uncertain about what we will be able to do,” Conner says. “And what we’re most concerned about is giving them as full an experience as possible. We don’t want to do a play just for the sake of doing a play and only have 25 people who get to see it every other night or whatever the rules may become. We want it to be a full experience. That playwright, that director, deserves that moment with as many people seeing their plays as possible.”
Martin adds, “There’s a lot of plays that I’m excited by and interested in. Certainly writers more so that I’m more excited and interested in. One thing to say about me is that I’m more interested in the writer than I am the play sometimes.”
Martin and Conner also promise that Victory Gardens’s long-standing commitment to hosting resident companies in the Biograph Theater, such as Sideshow Theatre, will remain intact. (Resident companies have mostly used the smaller upstairs Richard Christiansen Theater, with Victory Gardens producing in the downstairs main stage Začek McVay Theater, named for the former artistic director and his wife and longtime Victory Gardens managing director, Marcelle McVay.) They also both promise that some form of digital content will continue to be produced even after the shutdown ends.
Most important for Martin immediately, though, is taking this time away from live productions to hear the voices of a community that felt shut out from the decisions at the theater in 2020.
“One of the things that I promised is that it’s really important that I spend my first 100 days or so in particular doing a really intense and ambitious listening tour, where I genuinely want to have one-on-one conversations with various stakeholders, inclusive of the board, the staff, and the artists,” he says. “So that’s just as a starting point. I have to do some intense listening to get a deeper understanding of what all the complexity of issues are so we can figure out what that then means for the future.” v