A street scene featuring the exterior and marquee of the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater
The future of Victory Gardens Theater remains murky as 2022 draws to a close. Credit: Courtesy the artist

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected since it was first published to reflect that Erica Daniels never served as executive artistic director for Victory Gardens. Chay Yew’s tenure was slated for the end of June 2020, and Daniels resigned before assuming the planned new role.

The biggest story of the year in Chicago theater was also one of the most confounding events in the community in decades: the complete upheaval in personnel and apparent change in mission at Victory Gardens Theater. As we head into 2023, we still don’t have a clear idea of what that means for the future of the company, a key player in the transformative off-Loop theater movement of the 1970s. 

What we do have, perhaps, is a cautionary tale rooted in Victory Gardens’s long history of conflicts between the leadership of the theater’s board of trustees and its artistic and administrative staff. As theaters continue to figure out how to contend with the lingering effects of the COVID shutdown on audiences, the role of boards in supporting the artistic mission of the organization comes into even sharper focus. What’s happened at Victory Gardens has inspired public response across the country by theater artists and by board members at other regional theaters.

The conflict seems to come down to addressing the gap between what boards can do legally and what they should do to build trust, transparency, and community, especially as theaters continue to proclaim their desire to create diverse artistic visions and attract new audiences. When a theater is dedicated to producing mostly new work and fostering playwrights over time—as Victory Gardens has been for most of its nearly 50-year history through various iterations of the playwrights ensemble—there is a higher risk that not all the plays produced will find audiences. That makes it even more crucial that boards be involved in supporting the mission (and the artists enacting that mission) for the long haul.

The beginning of the end

In June, Victory Gardens opened cullud wattah, Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s portrait of three generations of Black women in Flint, Michigan, struggling with the profound effects of that city’s water crisis and the underlying environmental racism that caused it. It was the third show in the company’s 2022 season and the first season programmed by artistic director Ken-Matt Martin, who was hired by the board (headed by president Charles E. Harris II) in March of 2021. (The company only presented digital plays throughout most of 2020 and 2021.)

Martin officially became the first artistic director for Victory Gardens after Chay Yew’s tenure. Yew announced at the end of 2019 his plans to depart from that role in June 2020. That announcement was followed in May 2020 by the brief and controversial announcement of Erica Daniels, formerly the executive director at Victory Gardens, to the role of executive artistic director, but Daniels resigned before assuming that position. Roxanna Conner, formerly director of education, had served as acting managing director after Daniels resigned—a role she continued once Martin joined the staff. Martin, Conner, and Harris are Black, making for a rare trifecta of Black leadership at what had been, for much of its history, a primarily white-led institution. (Yew, who succeeded longtime artistic director Dennis Začek in 2011, was born in Singapore.)

Four Black women dance in a kitchen. The woman on the left is in gray pants and sweater with a light blouse. The young woman to her right is in a bathrobe and slippers, her hair wrapped in a cloth. An older woman in a long housecoat with a cane stands behind the table. The only one not dancing is seated with a book at the kitchen table on the right, looking skeptically at the others.
From left: Brianna Buckley, Demetra Dee, Renée Lockett, and Sydney Charles in cullud wattah at Victory Gardens Theater Credit: Liz Lauren

By the end of June 2022, Martin had been dismissed by the board; in a statement on his website posted mid-July, he noted that he had never received any disciplinary notices and was given no cause by the board for the decision. After his dismissal, the resident artists and playwrights at Victory Gardens (including cullud wattah director Lili-Anne Brown) announced their resignation collectively via a Medium post on the page of resident artist (and former Victory Gardens literary manager) Isaac Gómez. Dickerson-Despenza pulled the rights for the remaining performances of her play.

As I reported in September, in the aftermath of Martin’s firing, the remaining staff attempted to unionize via the theater workers’ union IATSE. They were subsequently all fired via a letter from Robert M. Hingsbergen, who was identified as the “chief executive” of Victory Gardens.

According to Bo Frazier, the former marketing manager, none of the staff members had received any disciplinary warnings, nor did they have a clear idea of what exactly Hingsbergen had been brought on to do for the company. Conner resigned from her role at the end of July. The failure of the board to hire a permanent executive director—even though Marissa Lynn Ford (now the ED for the League of Chicago Theatres) had been considered a finalist for the role and was the clear favorite of Martin and the staff—was a point of contention between the staff and the board.

The letter sent to the staffers said in part, “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.” 

For months, the board didn’t respond to requests for interviews from the Reader for explanations on why they felt it was necessary to make these major changes in staff and what the future mission might look like. As reported by Chris Jones on September 10 in the Tribune, a spokesperson did tell him that “the board had no intention of closing the historic Biograph or retiring the Victory Gardens name” and also told Jones that they might switch focus to fostering other groups, which could include “renting out the space at cost or offering other forms of support.” The spokesperson also said that the company is not insolvent and hopes to return to producing its own work “eventually.”

Late last week, after reaching out one more time to board president Harris, I received a statement from the board through the outside strategy firm now working with Victory Gardens. In the statement, they claim, “Victory Gardens Theater was placed in a very unfavorable and disheartening position in late July 2022. The organization had no show budget and had not secured or signed a single theatrical agreement for a season slated to begin in the fall. These were the responsibility of the Artistic Director. The lack of any planned season, amplified by the challenges the theater industry faced throughout the pandemic, forced the Board to consider an operational change.”

But according to both Conner and Kat Zukaitis, who served as the new play development manager until she was let go in the September staff purge, the board statement is inaccurate.

In an email, Zukaitis noted that as of June this year, the season for 2022/23 had been planned, with four full productions, a festival of new work, and some other developmental readings and workshops coming together. She added, “All projects had agreements in place with the lead artists and their agents, some formal and some informal. A season calendar was laid out, title art had been commissioned for each of the four productions, and we were on schedule to announce the coming season in July.” 

Another former staffer sent preliminary versions of the aforementioned season artwork; among the planned productions were the Chicago premiere of Martyna Majok’s 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Cost of Living and Mexodus by Brian Quijada and Nygel D. Robinson.

Conner, while acknowledging that the theater was coming back from both COVID and the 2020 controversies around the Daniels appointment, said, “The theater was not in a bad place financially. There was not a huge deficit that the theater was facing coming out of the season.” As for the claim that show budgets had not been set, Conner pointed out, “The job of the artistic director was not to do the show budget, nor to complete agreements. That would have been the job of the executive director, which we did not have.” Conner also noted that the job duties that would have been under the executive director fell to her. “At the time, I was making up the shortfalls for losing six crucial staff members between April and June.” Those staff positions, according to Conner, included director of development, director of finance, and the business manager; several people left to take jobs at larger institutions.

The board has not publicly disputed Martin’s assertion that he never received any disciplinary warnings about his job performance, which presumably would have included concerns about lack of progress on programming the next season. And though the most recent board statement mentions end of July as a turning point, Martin had been dismissed a month earlier.

Further, the board itself at Victory Gardens went through quite a bit of change in recent months, so it’s not clear how much support there was on the board as a whole for the actions taken by board leadership against Martin and for the profound shift in organizational mission. Company letterhead in April 2022 showed a four-member leadership team, including Harris, and 14 other directors. July’s letterhead listed the same four names at the top, but only six other directors.

Attempts to reach former board members for public comment were not successful.

What’s the plan?

The board’s statement from last week said, “While more information will unfold regarding our future, we will focus to support our mission on two areas moving forward.” The first is “Inspiring new plays and playwrights to nurture the diverse stories of our world: We are identifying new ways to support emerging playwrights, with a focus on playwrights of color, as well as to increase the exposure to new plays.”

The second area identified by the board is “Maintaining the legacy of the Biograph Theater to contribute to the vitality of American theater: We are exploring options to subsidize other theater companies to use the Biograph Theater for their productions. We are also considering allowing some private rentals to offset the costs inherent in operating a theater.” 

Both initiatives were already happening under the previous mission. But several questions remain about the new direction proposed by the board leadership, moving Victory Gardens away from being a producing regional theater.

For example, what feasibility studies, if any, were undertaken before taking the drastic step of dismissing the staff and essentially shuttering the Biograph space? Did they have input from consultants about how they can make this new model (whatever it might end up being) work? 

Ken-Matt Martin, former artistic director at Victory Gardens Theater Credit: Lowell Thomas

In a recent interview, when I asked Martin if he had been presented with plans for potentially shifting the theater’s mission, he said, “The most truthful and easiest thing to say on the record is that was never anything that was ever discussed with me. I found out about it in the press just like everyone else.” That raises the question of how long this shift had been in the works. Was it a reaction to the public outcry over the firing of Martin, or something that the board had been considering for some time?

If the board plans to make the space available even with subsidies or “at cost,” as they told the Tribune, what does that mean for renting companies, in hard dollars and cents? Which current companies in Chicago do they think might be able to afford that “cost,” and would be able to fill the nearly 300-seat downstairs auditorium at the Biograph? After all, several companies are moving ahead with plans for their own spaces, including TimeLine, American Blues, and Steep. It’s hard to see what companies without the built-in history and prestige of Victory Gardens (the company won the regional Tony Award in 2001) would be able to take it over long-term.

Who does the board think will be able to draw audiences even on a show-by-show basis? Touring commercial productions already have the option of renting the 549-seat Broadway Playhouse in Water Tower Place, and the Studebaker in the Fine Arts Building, which houses NPR’s Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!, is bigger than most Chicago companies would want. (The Carriage Hall, under construction in the Fine Arts Building and slated to open in 2024, might be a better fit for smaller companies looking for a downtown foothold.) 

Victory Gardens had routinely made the smaller 109-seat upstairs Richard Christiansen Theater available for rent, especially to resident companies such as Sideshow. The last show I saw there was now-defunct Underscore Theatre’s Notes & Letters. Sideshow’s artistic director Regina Victor resigned in July, and the company pulled their residency after Martin’s dismissal; currently, the Sideshow website notes that they are on hiatus.

There’s also the question of who might want to work at Victory Gardens; rental facilities need technical and front-of-house staff, at a minimum, and given the highly public dismissal of Martin and the other staff, it’s fair to ask if the board can build enough trust to find people worth hiring to join the organization in that capacity, let alone as a permanent artistic director or executive director. 

Real estate ruckuses

One of the points of disagreement between Martin and the board, in addition to the failure to hire a permanent executive director, was the board’s decision to acquire the adjacent storefront just north of the theater (and part of the Biograph building) for around $250,000. Staff members and the resident artists (including the playwrights ensemble) had questioned the outlay, given that, according to a few former staffers, the Christiansen space needs repairs in HVAC (some performances from renting companies reportedly had to be canceled due to insufficient air conditioning, causing VG to pay back renters for lost revenue), and the entire building has plumbing issues.

The Biograph, which famously was where gangster John Dillinger saw his last movie before being shot down by G-men in an adjacent alley, is both an official Chicago Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places. Many social media posts speculated that the board would sell the building and turn it into condos. But according to a 2020 piece by WTTW’s Geoffrey Baer, though the Commission on Chicago Landmarks and City Council can un-landmark buildings that can then be demolished, such a step is “quite rare.” There are also legal restrictions against nonprofits selling property for the personal profit of board members or otherwise distributing nonprofit assets (in the event of shutting down completely) to anything but other nonprofits.

According to a statement released by board president Harris on July 14 after Martin was fired, “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.” 

Some former staffers told me that they had been told the newly acquired space would provide an office for VG staff—and they noted that, when the theater had over 20 employees (though as Conner pointed out, it had been operating with far less than that since the return from the COVID shutdown), the office space was indeed cramped. But it seems unlikely that there will be an immediate need for offices since there is no staff right now.

Arguments over real estate have been part of the Victory Gardens story for over two decades and through various boards. Victory Gardens acquired the Biograph in 2004. But even before that move, the board had been pushing the company, then under the leadership of Začek and his wife, Marcelle McVay, who was managing director, to move out of their longtime home at 2257 North Lincoln (which was also the home of the legendary and long-defunct Body Politic Theatre). As reported by Reader columnist Lewis Lazare in September 2000, the board was pushing for a move to the now-shuttered Royal George Theatre, and they were willing to assert their authority over the artistic leadership. 

“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,” wrote Lazare. “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 Začek, and managing director Marcelle McVay.”

That move to the Royal George obviously didn’t happen. But I spoke to several members of the original playwrights ensemble assembled by Začek who told me that they had long felt there were members of the Victory Gardens board who wanted the company to move closer to being another Steppenwolf.

“The idea of moving to the Royal George was just nuts,” said former ensemble member Charles Smith. “There was a distinct feeling that there was a kind of push to be like Steppenwolf going on. Steppenwolf had their new building [on North Halsted]. I assumed—we all had the understanding that one of the reasons they wanted Royal George was because it was across the street from Steppenwolf.”

Former ensemble member Jeff Sweet told me that he believes there were board members during his tenure at Victory Gardens who had “a basic misunderstanding of what this company is supposed to be about. If Steppenwolf was supposed to be the house of the actor, and Goodman was more or less the house of the director, Victory Gardens was the house of the playwright.” And though Sweet also acknowledged that doing new work can be a crapshoot in terms of critical and audience response, he noted, “There was one season where all five slots were shows that were written by the resident writers. And it was our most successful season. Everybody got nominated for stuff, we won awards like crazy. We did good box office.”

Even the move to the Biograph wasn’t a popular one with all the then-playwrights ensemble members; both Sweet and Smith told me that they had qualms about the size of the Biograph and the ability to keep the seats filled. (The former Victory Gardens space seats just under 200.)

Nevertheless, the move happened and the Biograph’s outstanding mortgage was paid off some years ago by then-board president Steven Miller (who stepped down in 2020 at the same time that Daniels resigned). The board then decided in 2008 to sell Victory Gardens’s former theater to then-board members William and Wendy Spatz for a reported $2.5 million. That venue is now the Greenhouse Theater Center; the sale stipulated it must remain a theater for 25 years, and the money from the sale reportedly helped meet capital improvement costs at the Biograph. However, Začek and McVay publicly opposed that sale; as Deanna Isaacs reported for the Reader, “The deal—cooked up in the company’s executive committee and whisked to approval on April 21, after a single, emotional board meeting—left dissenters, including Začek, in shock.” McVay departed Victory Gardens later that year. 

Other boards speak out

Boards have a lot of power in the nonprofit realm, and hiring and firing artistic leaders and making fiscal decisions are indisputably part of their responsibilities. As I reported for the Reader’s 2021 nonprofit issue, many theater boards are also wrestling with how to be more accountable to racial and social justice issues in how their organizations operate. 

There are solid legal reasons for why all board business is not made public. But in the wake of the Martin firing and the decision of Victory Gardens’s board to change its model, several trustees at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C., took the unprecedented step of circulating a public letter of support for the fired Victory Gardens staff, asking other theaters to sign on and commit “to improving relations between the boards of the theatres we sit on and the professional artists and culture workers who give our theatres life.” (As of this writing, no board members of Chicago theaters are among the over 70 signatories.)

J. Chris Babb Credit Naim Hasan

J. Chris Babb, president of the Woolly Mammoth board, told me, “The decisions on what happens to an organization should not happen and be dictated down. They should be driven from the ground up, from the community, through the workers to a group of trustees that are there to help the organization support whatever those efforts are. I like to think being on a board of a nonprofit organization is obviously something of a passion. Usually, it has some kind of emotional connection beyond just the fiduciary.”

Martin (whose resume prior to Victory Gardens included working as an associate producer at the Goodman, as a producing director for Williamstown Theatre Festival, and founding and serving as executive director for Pyramid Theatre Company in Des Moines), told me about the lack of respect for his administrative expertise he felt was present during his time at VG. But he also noted it’s a systemic issue in American theater.

“Forget me and forget VG for a second. I’ve watched this happen to other colleagues where all of a sudden people [on the board] treat them as if it’s their first time at the rodeo,” Martin said. “It might be [the board’s] first time having a leader that looks like that at that particular organization, or maybe they hold some other kind of marginalized identity of some sort that makes them new to leadership at that organization. I’ve watched, and I’ve even over the last few days talked to other artistic director colleagues around the country who are reflecting these same kind of stories to me, where people are treating them as if they have no idea how to deal with the board.”

When Martin was hired, Harris (who became board president when Miller resigned in 2020) told me, “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. . . . And of course Ken-Matt checks all those boxes.”

Sweet and Smith, who were placed on emeritus status by Chay Yew in 2012 along with the rest of the original playwrights ensemble (leading to some public controversy), both praised Martin’s capacity to reach out to the past members after that rift. Martin told me when he was hired, “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.” One of the projects Martin had been working on was a festival for Victory Gardens’s 50th anniversary in 2024, bringing together original playwrights ensemble members with younger directors.

It’s still not clear exactly where the most recent breakdown began between the staff and board leadership, and as noted, it’s not the first time it’s happened in Victory Gardens history. But it’s feeling a lot as if it will be the last time.

Martin says, “I recognize the loss of this institution, and I still feel a great deal of responsibility. You know, I was very close to Marcie and to Dennis. It’s not like I wasn’t in deep conversation with them and Chay. I met individually with 246 people as a part of my listening tour during my first six months who were stakeholders, former employees, current employees, former board members, to make sure that I had an understanding of how to build for the future. And we were poised to do that.”

There’s a painful irony that the last production under the old model for Victory Gardens, cullud wattah, was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen at the theater. And like the Flint water crisis, it feels like this latest (last?) chapter in the theater’s history didn’t have to happen the way it did.

But whatever happens with Victory Gardens, Martin is moving on with new creative endeavors. He’ll be directing Nia Vardalos’s Tiny Beautiful Things (which was presented at Victory Gardens in fall 2019) at Baltimore’s Center Stage, opening in March. “I’m also developing this big old huge musical that I’m directing and choreographing for the Apollo [in New York],” he noted.

“I’m very grateful for the work, and I’m grateful to get to make great art that I care about with amazing artists,” Martin said. “Between what I’ve personally gone through and what I know my colleagues are going through at various other institutions and everything that’s happening in both the commercial and nonprofit sectors, it’s a very dire, dark time for our industry. And yet the optimist in me is still sheepishly optimistic that there is another side.”