Rebounding from a revolt, victory gardens is again mired in turmoil

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Rebounding from a revolt, victory gardens is again mired in turmoil
Ken-Matt Martin in front of Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater, shortly after he became its first Black artistic director, in Chicago, on April 9, 2021. The esteemed Chicago theater’s artistic director is out, and artists and his supporters are upset with the company’s board of directors. Nolis Anderson/The New York Times.

by Mark Caro

CHICAGO, IL.- Victory Gardens Theater, a vibrant fixture here since 1974, had long prided itself on being a champion of diversity while also bringing new works to its audiences. In 2001, it received the Tony Award for outstanding regional theater for its role in “contributing to the growth of theater nationally.”

The theater was jolted in the wake of the social-justice movement of 2020, when its board set off protests and the mass resignation of its affiliated playwrights by appointing its white executive director to become the artistic director as well — a decision not communicated with the theater’s artists. After an upheaval, the executive director resigned, along with the board president, and by the spring of 2021, Black leaders had been appointed to three key positions: Ken-Matt Martin was named artistic director, Roxanna Conner acting managing director and Charles E. Harris II president of the board.

But now, a little more than two years after that rebellion, Victory Gardens Theater is in turmoil again. Last month the Victory Gardens board told the staff that Martin had been placed “on leave” — he said in a recent interview that he had been dismissed — and Conner said she would depart at the end of July.

That has led to a new uproar. Playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza denounced what she described as the board’s “white supremacist capitalist patriarchal values” in a statement announcing that she had rescinded the rights to her play “Cullud Wattah,” about the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, with nine days left in its run. Actors’ Equity intervened to ensure that the performers were paid for the canceled shows, saying in a statement: “It is deeply disheartening to see an organization that has very publicly wrestled with institutional racism in recent memory again be perceived as unable to support workers of color without whom Victory Gardens Theater could neither exist nor thrive.”

Three resident theater companies that present work at Victory Gardens have pledged not to work there until the artists’ complaints are addressed. And the company’s resident directors and playwrights — a new ensemble brought in by Martin — have signed a petition announcing their departures from the organization and calling for “the immediate resignation of the Victory Gardens’ board of directors.”

The theater’s remaining staff members took control of the theater’s Facebook and Twitter accounts in early July to post a statement: “We, the nine remaining full-time staffers of Victory Gardens, in solidarity with the resident artists, demand the immediate resignation of the board of directors and the reinstatement of Ken-Matt Martin as artistic director.”

Harris, the board president, has declined to comment on any of these matters, referring to Martin’s situation as a personnel issue and releasing a statement on the board’s behalf.

“The Victory Gardens Theater board is grappling with the theater’s future, as are many other nonprofit theaters,” said the statement, which expressed regret over the resignation of the playwrights and the withdrawal of “Cullud Wattah,” and pledged that the perspectives of staff members had been heard. “We are committed to acting in the theater’s best interests in all matters.”

During a recent video interview, Martin said he did not know why he was dismissed. “The board informed me that I was being released from my artistic director contract at Victory Gardens with cause,” he said, reading from a statement he later posted on his personal website. “I asked twice in the meeting what was the cause and was not given any.”

He said he was asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement and give up all claims on future lawsuits. “I am declining the offer,” he said. “It is vitally important that I be able to speak truthfully about the needs of the artists and staff.”

His removal was seen by his supporters as a betrayal, following what some saw as a lack of support for Martin and Conner. Victory Gardens has been without an executive director, the top job at the theater, since 2020, and though a search committee eventually interviewed candidates, the post remains vacant.

“As somebody who has worked in the nonprofit sector for a long time and had a pretty close-up view of the relationships between boards and leadership and staffing structures, it seemed like operationally there were a lot of holes, and Ken-Matt and Roxanna were being relied on to plug all of them,” said Marisa Carr, whom Martin invited to join the playwrights’ ensemble in June 2021 and who resigned a year later. She cited creating the operating budget (a task an executive director would likely be involved in) and even cleaning the theater as duties that fell on their shoulders.

Martin took the reins at Victory Gardens during the pandemic, and at a time when newly formed groups like “We See You, White American Theater,” a national coalition of theater artists, were demanding that antiracism and significant hiring of people of color become the industry standard. Martin supported such efforts, pushing for a pay equity plan at Victory Gardens.

Just over a year later he has now joined a group of Black artistic leaders recently separated from the institutions they had been hired to lead. Elsewhere in Chicago, the House Theatre closed its doors this summer after its new artistic director, Lanise Antoine Shelley, had presented just two shows; Jon Carr, the Second City executive producer, left his position in February after 14 months; and Regina Victor, artistic director of Sideshow Theatre, resigned July 20.

Circumstances differ from case to case, and it remains unclear why Martin was let go, but some see a pattern, including Lili-Anne Brown, who directed the Victory Gardens production of “Cullud Wattah.” “Put a woman or person of color in charge but don’t support them at all and thereby push them off the glass cliff,” she said.

Finances appear to be a flashpoint in this conflict, especially a proposed real estate deal. Victory Gardens occupies the Biograph Theater in Lincoln Park and owns office space in an adjacent building. The board has been considering selling its office space so it can buy a former restaurant space within the Biograph building with the aim of consolidating the theater’s real estate and possibly saving money over the long term. But Martin and others objected, saying that the purchase wasn’t supported by a broader plan or capital campaign, and that the money would be better used to repair the theater’s long-faulty heating and air conditioning system, among other needs.

These disputes have alarmed theater professionals beyond the immediate Victory Gardens family. David Cromer, a theater director and Chicago native who is now based in New York, said he sent a concerned email to the board expressing his confusion and urging its members to resign “if you no longer wish to facilitate the creation of theater.”

“Does a board owe legally an explanation for any of this?” Cromer said in a phone interview. “Probably not. But they have the stewardship of one of the foundational documents of Chicago theater, so what the hell? What answers have they presented?”

Playwright Isaac Gomez, who posted the “We Resign” letter from the Victory Gardens playwrights’ ensemble and resident directors on his Medium page, said he has recruited 11 potential new board members while sending emails urging those currently serving to step down. One current member responded that the board intends to “stay the course,” Gomez said. Board members approached for this article referred all questions to Harris and the board’s statement.

The board has maintained it is making decisions for the good of the theater, explaining in the statement that its 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.” It added: “We believe wholeheartedly in the powerful work of Victory Gardens Theater and are committed to finding a way to enable it to continue.”

Could Victory Gardens survive if the board stays and Martin does not? “No,” Brown said. “I believe almost 2,000 people have signed that petition saying they won’t work there unless the board steps down and Ken-Matt is reinstated. So continue with what? Where are they even going to get the plays?”

Dennis Zacek, who served as Victory Gardens’ first artistic director for 34 years, said he also is unsure about the theater’s future. “As far as I can tell, either the theater is going to be dissolved, or they’re going to have someone come to the negotiation table and find a way for these people to communicate with each other,” he said, endorsing the idea of Harris stepping down as board chairman. “It may not be enough, but come on, there must be some good people on that board. He may be a good person, too, but it’s on his watch.”

David Kolen, an Actors’ Equity senior business representative who oversees contracts with Chicago theaters, said the union would support its members working in a reopened Victory Gardens Theater as long as it is “a safe and functional workplace.”

As for Martin, he said that although he appreciates the unsolicited calls for him to be reinstated, he has decided “that I need to take a break from nonprofit theater administration and would not immediately return if asked.”

The issue, he stressed, isn’t about him but the treatment of those who do creative work. “I am not a martyr,” Martin said. “I am not a victim. I am an artist and deserve to treated with respect.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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