Victory Gardens’ Fresh Start

Last year’s misguided mutiny by the Victory Gardens Theater board has culminated in a new hire for the 27-year-old company. Robert Alpaugh, who left his job as executive director of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago after just 20 months, will join Victory Gardens in the new position of director of institutional advancement. In a reversal of the board’s intentions, Alpaugh will report to Victory Gardens managing director Marcelle McVay.

It was just last fall that the board attempted to install a chief executive officer above McVay and artistic director Dennis Zacek. Led by president Hud Englehart, the board wanted to push ahead with an agenda that might have had Victory Gardens purchasing the larger, more commercial Royal George Theatre and commissioning work from nationally known playwrights. That could have knocked the theater from its long-term niche as the region’s major producer of new work by local playwrights–apparently not a concern to board members casting envious eyes on the growth of Chicago Shakespeare and the Goodman. The husband and wife team of McVay and Zacek, booted from a board meeting that went into “executive session,” were shocked to find the company they’d built was about to be snatched from their control. A rush of support from equally shocked subscribers, donors, and playwrights forced the board to back off, and eight of its members resigned.

Amazingly, public relations executive Englehart is still at the board’s helm, saying he’ll stay “as long as they’ll have me.” The crisis was settled with a compromise: the creation of Alpaugh’s job, which includes fund-raising, strategic planning, creating an afterlife for plays premiered by Victory Gardens, and managing the search for a new facility. “We are definitely going to look for new space, but we’re going to go through a very significant process,” says Englehart. McVay says they may keep their Lincoln Avenue complex (originally home of Body Politic, and shared by the two companies for ten years before Body Politic went out of business in 1996) while acquiring an additional 300-seat main stage elsewhere. Anything larger (like the 450-seat Royal George) would be difficult to fill while maintaining their commitment to new work.

Alpaugh says he left the Joffrey after helping them “get settled” in Chicago because he’s “a theater person.” For the last two and a half years he’s been working as a consultant for clients like Chicago Opera Theater, Kurtis Conservation Foundation, and the Chicago Manufacturing Center. He’ll wind that down in the next two months and will start full-time with Victory Gardens in June. One of his first duties: filling those empty board slots. “That will be a challenge,” he says. “Victory Gardens is developing the hits of the future. But R and D isn’t everyone’s bag.”

The New Yorker Sings!

At Wit’s End is the play Cheri Coons has had on her mind ever since learning about the Algonquin Round Table as a student at Wheaton College. Coons, who aspired to be a Second City performer but morphed into a lyricist (Sylvia’s Real Good Advice, Female Problems), recruited composer Michael Duff for the project six years ago, after they worked together on Phantom of the Country Opera at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. Coons had been looking for a Round Table narrative, and she found it in Jane Grant’s 1968 account of the birth of the New Yorker (Ross, the New Yorker and Me), which tells how the magazine was simultaneously financed and undermined by Grant’s admirer, notorious eccentric and New York Times theater critic Alexander Woollcott. Undeterred by Grant’s marriage to New Yorker founder Harold Ross, Woollcott offered to arrange funding for the magazine on condition that they let him move in with them.

The finished work–book and lyrics by Coons, music by Duff–has a cast of 12 and eight original songs (“Wretched excess is my cup of tea,” croons Woollcott). After the show’s first reading, January 8 at the Marriott, Northlight Theatre artistic director B.J. Jones called to say he might be interested in producing it in a year or two. Coons and Duff were elated, but six weeks later something even more unexpected happened: Florida Stage, a regional theater in West Palm Beach that had heard about Wit’s End from Jones, rang them up to announce they’d like to produce it this season. They had just canceled a new show by Charles Strouse (Annie, Bye Bye Birdie) and needed a replacement. It’ll open at Florida Stage June 22 and run through September 3, with former Chicago actors Sean Grennan, Kathy Santen, and Blake Hammond as Ross, Grant, and Woollcott.

Coons and Duff are also helping launch Chicago Musical Theater Works, a new organization of writers, producers, directors, composers, and performers promoting homegrown musicals in a less-than-robust market. “My Kind of Tune: Chicago Writers Sing Out,” a showcase of 15 songs by Chicago writing teams, will play May 14 at the Royal George. The group is also working to bring in the ASCAP New Musicals Workshop, which would excerpt and critique four Chicago shows at a time, perhaps next fall. Coons says they need to raise $10,000 to do it.

Money Talk

When we first started this, nobody else was doing it,” says Chicago Artists’ Coalition executive director Arlene Rakoncay about CAC’s 18th annual Business of Art Conference this Saturday, April 21, at Roosevelt University. “We had hundreds of people showing up. Now [that everyone’s getting in on the act] we get 50 to 75. We continue because there are always new artists and something new to learn.” The conference will cover everything from the arcane Illinois sales tax to the art of shipping, including advice on self-promotion from former Beret International Gallery proprietor Ned Schwartz, who’s been collecting artists’ statements for years. In spite of memorably hilarious promotions, Beret International closed last summer after a decade, a victim of the really tough stuff: money and time constraints. The conference is $25 at the door, $20 for members; call 312-670-2060 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.