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This season marks Dennis Zacek’s 30th anniversary at the helm of Victory Gardens Theater. That makes him, by a wide margin, the longest-tenured artistic director of any theater in town.
On Thursday, 6/19, the theater will honor Zacek with a discussion moderated by retired critic Richard Christiansen. It will start at 6 PM, before that night's 7:30 PM performance of the Zacek-directed comedy Relatively Close. (Reservations: 773-549-5788, ext. 2167 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Under the Pilsen-bred Zacek's stewardship, Victory Gardens has specialized in the development and production of scripts by its writers ensemble. “They’re very much a part of our identity,” Zacek says of the 14 writers in his stable—among them Pulitzer winner Nilo Cruz and Hollywood heavyweight John Logan. In 2001, the theater won a regional Tony Award for nurturing new plays.
Victory Gardens was founded in 1974 by an eight-person collective that included Grease coauthor Warren Casey and Organic Theater director Stuart Gordon. They hired Zacek--a graduate of DePaul and Northwestern universities and former Loyola faculty member--as artistic director in 1977. Zacek has shepherded the company from its early home atop the Northside Auditorium Building (now Cabaret Metro) to classy new digs in the former Biograph movie house.
His partner through all of this has been managing director Marcy McVay—Zacek’s wife since 1970. “She’s very, very influential and essential to the organization,” says Zacek. Because of that, some observers have characterized Victory Gardens as a “mom and pop” operation. “I don’t like it at all,” Zacek says of the description, “but what am I gonna do about it?”
Over the years, Victory Gardens has presented performances by some of America’s leading actors, from out-of-town notables such as Julie Harris and Jon Cryer to distinguished locals like this year's best actress Tony winner Deanna Dunagan. CSI star William Petersen got his Equity card at Victory Gardens in 1978, playing the title role in William Norris’s Dillinger. “I have no problems having a star in a world premiere," Zacek says, "provided the star has talent and isn’t crazy. On the other hand it’s hard to get people. I can call Joey Mantegna and he’ll call me right back, but he’s busy. The last play Billy Petersen did here was Jeffrey Sweet’s Flyovers, and that was 10 years ago.” (Petersen will return to Victory Gardens next July in a play to be announced.)
In his book A Theater of Our Own, Christiansen notes that some commentators have dismissed Zacek as “too conservative.” That makes the softspoken Zacek bristle. “In my opinion there’s nothing conservative about starting from scratch with every show that you do. If you want to say that most of the time people in our shows keep their clothes on, okay. But the choice of doing new plays is as radical as you can get.”
For more on Zacek, see the Reader's 2001 profile .