Why Victory Gardens playwrights are letting it all hang out now

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Jeffrey Sweet
  • Don Corathers
  • Jeffrey Sweet
Last spring, after Victory Gardens Theater let it be known that its entire 14-member playwrights' ensemble would be shifted to "alumni" status, I attempted, without success, to talk with some of them about the abrupt change. During interviews for last week's culture column, original ensemble member Jeffrey Sweet explained why they were elusive then, and why they're talking now. Here's more of what he had to say:

"When [new artistic director] Chay Yew first came in, we pretty much had a consensus: we were going to wait and see how it would work out. Also we weren't about to shoot our mouths off as long as Sandy [Shinner, former associate artistic director], whom we all loved, was working there. And she's been treated shabbily, so now that's over with." [Shinner's job was eliminated in June.]

Sweet continued:

Sandy's too classy to talk about it, but she put something like three decades into that place, sometimes not drawing any salary, and she was the last vestige of the soul of the place.

John Logan [another former ensemble member] was quoted at the end of the Times article, and John, for all his talents, got the mission of the place wrong. It became the playwrights' theater, but it wasn't just abstractly playwrights, and it wasn't new and emerging playwrights. It was these playwrights. Chay came in and apparently made all sorts of assurances of his loyalty to the ensemble, but his loyalty was to a playwrights ensemble, not to the playwrights ensemble that had defined the theater. The upshot is, you have essentially a new theater being put on the foundation of the old one.

To claim that this is continuing the mission of Victory Gardens is not true. This is a new mission. And the new mission is the people that Chay wants to work with. He had a meeting with us and told us that VG would always be our home and then proceeded to make us want to leave home. None of the people who were there when the Tony was awarded are there anymore. They've basically been forced out.

So when they claim that it's a Tony-award-winning theater—it isn't. It's a new theater.

After we were awarded the Tony, members of the board thought we should step up to the plate like Steppenwolf and expand. A lot of us thought this was a terrible idea. We said, "Look, we're mostly doing original plays, and 50 percent of original plays aren't exactly big hits. When we're in a 200-seat theater, if it's in the middle of the week, and we've got a hundred people in the theater, the old space feels pretty cozy. A hundred people in the Biograph, that's 100 people out of 300 and you can hear the wind whistling through the pines." So a lot of us said, "Please, let's not move." It was going to incur a big debt. And as soon as you move—as soon as you have the cost of that real estate, building it, and keeping it up—your decisions become monetary decisions: How do we keep this place going? So the mission changes. . . .

It seemed to me that this was taking away the most valuable aspect of Victory Gardens, which was a diverse group of writers—stylistically all over the map—who had learned something. Of course you want to bring in new writers, and that was part of what Sandy was doing with the Ignition Festival. You want a mixture to replenish the stream. But when they discover new people at the National [Theatre], they don't say "Mr. Stoppard, it's been real nice, we'll give you a watch."

Chay could have done a proper mix of stuff by the old guard and some new people. He could have done a transitional thing and at the end of four or five years he might have gently eased out the rest of us and we might not even have noticed.

I think in his desire to be his own man, in the desire to create something new, he has frittered away some of the capital of the theater. The capital of the theater is the loyalty that, yes, an aging audience had to some aging playwrights. You have to replenish, but you don't do it by throwing everybody out."

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