News & Features » Deanna Isaacs on Culture

At Victory Gardens, a bitter uprooting

The city's playwright-driven theater weeds out the old

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On Thanksgiving Day, the New York Times ran a lengthy story about some painful changes at Chicago's Victory Gardens, the playwright-centered theater built and headed by Dennis Zacek during a 34-year reign.

The story ran under the headline "Opening Doors Means Rattling Some Cages," and it rattled some cages of its own, inspiring an outburst of comments on Facebook, where it was more bluntly noted that artistic director Chay Yew, an out-of-towner hired 18 months ago after Zacek retired, had cut the heart out of Victory Gardens by dumping the 14 members of its playwrights' ensemble and axing its cherished associate artistic director, Sandy Shinner. Adding insult to injury, he called Equity auditions and then walked out on them.

Shinner, who'd been at Victory Gardens for 33 years and was Zacek's choice for the artistic director's job, was let go in June.

The fact that managing director Jan Kallish (who'd been there just three and a half years) quit for personal reasons shortly before the Times story appeared added fuel to the fire.

More than one commenter observed that no one who was at Victory Gardens when it won a regional Tony Award in 2001 is still around, and it isn't really the same theater.

Which may be exactly what its board wants.

And therein, says former playwrights' ensemble member Douglas Post, lies a "cautionary tale."

Victory Gardens is 37 years old, but its playwrights' ensemble, which formalized long-standing relationships, was established by Zacek in 1996 after he told his board that, while Goodman is director driven and Steppenwolf is actor driven, Victory Gardens is distinguished by being playwright driven and producing new work. "I wanted diversity," Zacek said in a phone interview last week, "and I wound up with 12 playwrights," all with a connection to Chicago. "Three were women, three were people of color, three were either gay or lesbian, and the eldest was in his 60s. There isn't any question in my mind that the establishment of that ensemble led, inexorably, to our receiving the Tony in 2001."

That's why Zacek took the playwrights with him to New York for the Tony presentation, and why, when he got ready to step down, he told the board he wanted "the eminently qualified" Shinner as his successor. "I was confident that she would uphold the mission," he says. And the mission was "to continue to be the playwrights' theater of Chicago, with the existing playwrights group," perhaps, in time, expanded.

The board, however, chose Yew.

It wasn't the first time they'd challenged Zacek, who wants to make it clear that he wishes Yew "the best." In 2000 he'd fought off a board push for Victory Gardens to buy a theater he was sure would be too large, and in 2008 he lost a battle that ended with the board selling the old space, two blocks south on Lincoln, to one of its members. That deal drove Marcelle McVay, the theater's popular managing director (and Zacek's wife), from the staff.

In fact, observers say, the financial struggles Victory Gardens is having now, with million-dollar deficits in fiscal 2010 and 2011, are traceable to "overreaching" decisions made a decade ago by a board that playwright and original ensemble member Jeffrey Sweet describes as suffering from "Steppenwolf envy."

"We have essentially been asked, 'How fast can you clear out your stuff?' All that remains of the theater I once knew is the board and the real estate." —Douglas Post, former playwrights ensemble member at Victory Gardens Theater

In 2006 Victory Gardens moved into the historic Biograph Theater, which it purchased and renovated at a cost of about $12 million. Post says that's been both a blessing and a curse. "Because what we could do in a 199-seat house, we couldn't get away with in a 299-seat house. Suddenly every play had to be a hit. And when you're doing new work, that doesn't happen."

"I was one of the proponents for the new building," Post adds. "Whenever the board needed playwrights to talk about the importance of moving, Jim Sherman and I would be called out and we would do this dog-and-pony act for funders. Now I believe that it might have done us in."

None of the original ensemble's work has been produced under Yew.

He held a meeting with the playwrights three months after he arrived, and "told us we'd always have a home at Victory Gardens," Post says. "But we have essentially been asked, 'How fast can you clear out your stuff?' All that remains of the theater I once knew is the board and the real estate."

"We fucked up," Yew says of his initial dealings with the alumni, which included "accidentally" surprising them with an "emeritus" designation in a printed program. "If I were on the other side of the fence, I would be livid too. It was just bad to learn it that way. But changes and transitions are always difficult."

Yew has appointed four new playwrights, two of them from out of town. (Tanya Saracho and Philip Dawkins, whose Failure: A Love Story is running now, are the Chicagoans.) He says the theater doesn't have the resources for a larger group. As for the alumni, "Some of them have given me plays to look at, and I'm still reading them and trying to figure out which plays we should be working on," he says.

And those auditions he walked out on? "I fell ill and we had to reschedule them, in which I did a full day of it," Yew says. "I apologized to Equity.

"Artistically, I feel that I'm just building on Dennis's mission of doing new plays, socially conscious work, and a nod in the direction of diversity. Who are the new writers? Do we challenge a little more with different styles? Can we talk about race in a more direct way, instead of the colonial way, from the white point of view? How do we converse honestly? How do we reflect Chicago? "

But original ensemble member Claudia Allen, whose work brought theater icon Julie Harris to the VG marquee, wonders if this is ageism dressed up in diversity's clothing.

Founding ensemble member Charles Smith says Victory Gardens has always been diverse. "The reason I went there as a young man in the 1980s was because of the diversity. Because they were doing plays by people like me. Out of all the theaters in Chicago I thought that's the place that I would fit in."

However, Smith adds, "I always knew that when Dennis left it would be the end of an era. And everything Yew has done is his prerogative; I wish him well. But it feels like instead of a transition, he wanted to make a clean break. And I don't know if that's the charge he received from the people who hired him, the board, or if that's his vision."

Board chair Steven N. Miller, who recently backed up his optimism for the theater's future with a six-figure gift, says Victory Gardens is "not the same place it was," but the board is "very happy with the team that's there."

Yew says he's starting to feel as ostracized as Hawthorne's Hester Prynne. But instead of the letter A on his chest, he says, he thinks it would be a B, for "bitch."

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