The board of directors at Victory Gardens Theater has voted to transition the long-lived Chicago theater away from producing its own shows and will instead be a presenting organization, a move that included the dismissal of its staff. It promises to use its space and other resources to support other Chicago theaters with a compatible mission.
The change was decided this week and may not be permanent and has not yet been full fleshed out. It was outlined to the Tribune by a spokesperson for the board of directors and follows weeks of turmoil at the 47-year-old, Tony Award-winning theater following the suspension and then dismissal earlier this summer of artistic director Ken-Matt Martin.
The spokesperson acknowledged that the exit from producing meant that the theater this week dismissed its remaining nine full-time staffers and nine part-timers, a decision it said was made due to “operational realities.”
That staff had been at war with the racially diverse board in recent weeks, taking over the theater’s social media channels, calling for its employer to step down, accusing board members of “toxic behavior” and advocating for the reinstatement of Martin and the hiring of a new executive director.
The group, composed of front-of-house staff, stagehands and administrative staff, also filed papers on Aug. 3 with the National Labor Relations Board to unionize, seeking representation by the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 2. In statements, they have charged that their dismissal was due to “union-busting” and they have been given widespread support from the leadership of other theaters across the country, many of whom have repeated the charges in their own published reports.
“The Victory Gardens Board of Directors’ patterns of toxic behavior have made it impossible for this Black-led, mission-centric organization to succeed, leading to the loss of its leadership, the resignation of all resident artists, and a joint plea from staff and artists for the Board’s resignation and the reinstatement of Ken-Matt Martin as artistic director,” the group said in statements online.
In its own statement, the theater’s board of directors said that the theater was dealing with “the reality of two challenging years amid the pandemic with canceled or abbreviated seasons, low audience turnout and staffing gaps as more and more workers have left the nonprofit theater.”
During the 2021-22 season, some of the performances at the theater played to just a handful of patrons. A 2022-23 season was never announced by Martin.
One of the theater’s biggest donors, Steve Miller, a supporter who had retired the theater’s outstanding mortgage on the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., left the board after the exit of former executive director Erica Daniels, an administrator known among other things for her fundraising prowess and audience cultivation.
The board spokesperson said that the board had no intention of closing the historic Biograph or retiring the Victory Gardens name and that details of what “support” for other groups meant would be forthcoming, but that it could include renting out the space at cost or offering other forms of support. Eventually, the spokesman said, the theater, which is not insolvent, hoped to return to producing its own work.
Much of the media coverage on the controversy has focused on the board’s intent to acquire what has often been described as an “adjacent building” — a vacant storefront that is part of the Biograph building but was carved out as a commercial condominium during the restoration financing in 2004. The current board had hoped that the outlay of about $250,000 could result in an income stream for the theater, and also prevent the arrival of a new ground-floor tenant with a use incompatible with live theater. The staff and many in the protesting artistic ensemble have described the purchase as unwise, given the maintenance needs of the building, although such decisions generally are the province of boards of directors.
Under this new plan, the board spokesman acknowledged, new operational employees will need to be hired at some point, likely a challenging task given weeks of high-profile conflict. It was also unclear, prior to the release of a detailed plan, what would happen to the theater’s education programs, many of which have attracted individual and foundation funding.
The historic marquee still contains no shows, although it was illuminated Friday night for the first time in weeks.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.