The tangled recent history of Victory Gardens Theater became even more complicated this week with the mass dismissal of the remaining staff members in the wake of an attempt to unionize. It’s the latest development in a series of moves that has thrown the survival of the venerable Tony Award-winning regional theater—long a beacon for new work through various iterations of its playwrights ensemble—into sharp question.
The newest chapter in the long history of disputes between Victory Gardens’s artistic staff and the board (a longer article on this history and the lessons it holds for nonprofit arts organizations is in the works) began in June when the board placed then-artistic director Ken-Matt Martin, who was named to the post in March 2021, on administrative leave. Martin’s hiring itself came in the wake of the controversial appointment of Erica Daniels to the new role of executive artistic director in May 2020 to replace outgoing artistic director Chay Yew. Martin became the first Black artistic director in Victory Gardens history, and one of only a few at a major regional theater in the country.
Daniels had previously been executive director at VG. The then-playwrights ensemble resigned en masse, in part to protest what they saw as the board failing to provide promised input from the artists into the selection process of Yew’s successor. Daniels departed from Victory Gardens, and then-board president Steven Miller stepped down from that leadership position, though he remained on the board. (At the time of Martin’s appointment, he was listed as an emeritus board member.)
Victory Gardens had been running under Martin with Roxanna Conner as acting managing director and Charles E. Harris II as board president, but the plan had always been to hire a permanent executive director to work alongside Martin, and the board had begun a search process. The company returned to full productions after the COVID-19 shutdown this past winter with travis tate’s Queen of the Night, followed by Ali Viterbi’s In Every Generation and an astonishing production of Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s cullud wattah.
The latter was still running when Martin was placed on leave in early June. On June 30, Martin was released from his position at Victory Gardens. In a statement on his website, Martin noted, “I asked twice in the meeting what was the cause and was not given any. Instead, I was offered a minimum amount of severance and was asked to sign an NDA and give up all claims on future lawsuits. After I cited the lack of cause, the board offered more severance, but still with an NDA. I requested the inclusion of language allowing me to make ‘truthful statements’ and was refused. I have received no disciplinary notices, formal or informal warnings, and have had no complaints filed against me or any documented infractions.” Since Martin received no severance, ten artistic directors at theaters around the country (though none from Chicago) announced on August 16 that they were sponsoring a $30,000 commission for him to write an autobiographical play.
Prior to Martin’s dismissal, there were two board decisions that appear to have sparked the conflict. First was the refusal to hire a permanent executive director to replace Conner (who had been director of education at VG before assuming the acting managing director position), though Marissa Lynn Ford, associate managing director at the Goodman, was a top choice for Martin and the staff. The other point of dispute was the board’s decision to purchase the property adjacent to Victory Gardens’s home at the historic Biograph Theater, despite what staff members have described as ongoing maintenance and infrastructure problems in the existing venue, including plumbing problems and roof leaks.
Conner stepped down at the end of July. The cohort of artists who made up the Victory Gardens playwrights ensemble and resident directors (including cullud wattah director Lili-Anne Brown) had earlier resigned on July 6 in protest of Martin’s firing via Medium post. Dickerson-Despenza pulled the rights for the remaining performances of cullud wattah (which had been slated to run through July 17) that same week.
In response to the artists’ statement and a Reader request for an interview at that time, Harris sent the following on July 14: “The Victory Gardens Theater board is grappling with the theater’s future, as are many other non-profit theaters in this time. We are committed to acting in the theater’s best interests in all matters. We regret the playwrights ensemble’s resignation, and the withdrawal of production rights to cullud wattah by its playwright, Erika Dickerson-Despenza, requiring cancellation of the remainder of its run. We have heard the staff and others’ perspectives. We are a 48-year-old theater company with a rich history of bold and diverse productions. Collectively, our board members have more than 100 years of experience with Victory Gardens, and we know well the delicate balance of managing the artistic well-being of the theater with our fiduciary responsibility. We believe wholeheartedly in the powerful work of Victory Gardens Theater and are committed to finding a way to enable it to continue. We have placed an interim director at Victory Gardens to stabilize the organization while the board considers its path forward. We have no further statement at this time, while we consider ways to fulfill the theater’s mission.”
In the statement, Harris also disputed the staff and artistic associates’ view of the purchase of the property as fiscally unsound: “The real estate transaction mentioned by the playwrights’ ensemble appears to be misunderstood. The transaction concerns the ownership of the theater property and will have no adverse impact on the financial stability of the theater or its artistic direction. In fact, this minor investment preserves the fabric of the Biograph theater, gets us out from under a challenging co-owner situation and ultimately, saves money in the long run.” The board hasn’t provided further public details on what the plans are for the new addition.
With the dismissal of Martin and the departure of Conner, that left a staff of nine (now eight) full-time employees. (Prior to the pandemic, the theater had operated with a full-time staff of around 22 employees.) And earlier this month, those employees, along with the part-time staff of eight, signaled their intent to unionize via the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). (A statement of solidarity that the staff had placed on the Victory Gardens website after Martin’s dismissal was removed by the board; a petition asking for the removal and replacement of the board by July 18 and asking artists to refuse to work at the theater unless that happened was also posted on change.org.)
On September 7, the remaining staff members were each called individually into a meeting with Robert M. Hingsbergen, the newly named “chief executive” of Victory Gardens, and handed letters informing them that they had been let go. Staff members shared the content of the letter with me. It reads in part: “Victory Gardens Theater (‘Victory Gardens’ or ‘VGT’) terminates your employment effective September 7, 2022. The termination is part of a general reduction in workforce due to the lack of business and operational needs, and a change in VGT’s business model such that your current position has been eliminated.”
Reached for comment, Bo Frazier, the marketing manager at Victory Gardens (speaking on behalf of the entire staff) says they and the rest of the staff view VGT’s actions as part of “a union-busting tactic, given that the staff was pursuing wall-to-wall unionization through IATSE.” According to Frazier, nobody on the remaining staff had received any disciplinary warnings prior to their dismissal. When asked about Hingsbergen’s role at VG, they noted, “He signed the letter as chief executive, and I’ve never heard the title, ever. They hired an interim managing director from CR3, which is a transition management consulting firm. He did a report on the financial and operational standings. And at the end of that 30 days, we were told that this person, who we know as Bob, is coming on. We were never given his official title. We assumed that he was again another interim managing director.”
Frazier notes that the staff members were emailed at midnight the night before requesting that they all come individually the next day for meetings. “[Hingsbergen] delivered this letter to me personally at the meeting,” Frazier says, and adds, “They gave no specifics [about the reasons for the firing]. All he did was read-quote from the letter. I did ask him what the board was going to do with the theater and I said, ‘Are they going to close the theater?’ And Bob said, ‘It’s unsure, but it’s looking very likely.ʼ” According to Frazier, Hingsbergen did not ask anyone to sign NDAs.
Frazier adds, “This whole thing is avoidable because we have a transition board assembled of 11 people who were willing to step in and take over. And now this board would rather see the theater shutter than see it go on under different management.” They also noted that the company had received “major six-figure grants” prior to the dismissal of Martin. “We were not in bad financial standing.” Frazier notes that the proposed slate of board members from the staff “came alongside a total of six figures in personal donations as well.”
Reached for comment, Martin sent the following statement: “I have always believed in putting people before institutions. My focus remains on caring for the staff and artists impacted by these decisions. The theatre community is already rallying to find these brilliant humans new jobs and engaging in mutual aid to support their transition. That is the only thing that matters.”
Attempts to reach Harris for clarification on the current situation were unsuccessful. There is a GoFundMe for the fired VG staffers. Under the “Upcoming Events” section of the Victory Gardens website, there’s only the following: “No events to show.”