Friday’s resignation of seven playwrights from Chicago’s Tony-winning, 46-year-old Victory Gardens Theater—announced by the playwrights in an open letter on Medium—isn’t precisely history repeating itself, but it does hearken back to 2011. That’s when the first playwrights ensemble—cultivated under longtime artistic director Dennis Začek—left shortly after Začek retired and playwright-director Chay Yew took the reins at the $3 million regional powerhouse.
In 2011, the original ensemble protested what they claimed was new leadership’s lack of transparency and respect for the theater’s mission.
Both charges are now being leveled again. Only this time, it’s Yew who has left and his ensemble that is making the claims as Erica Daniels, who served as Victory Gardens’ executive director under Yew, steps into the newly created position of executive artistic director. And while the original ensemble was ousted involuntarily, the latest departures were voluntary. As late as Thursday, Daniels stated that she was looking forward to working with the ensemble.
The residency terms of three of the playwrights who resigned Friday (Marcus Gardley, Samuel D. Hunter and former longtime Chicagoan Tanya Saracho, now the showrunner for Vida on Starz) had already expired before their resignation was tendered, the theater said in a written statement. Less than two years remained in the terms of the other resigning playwrights (Ike Holter, Naomi Iizuka, Luis Alfaro, and Laura Schellhardt). Iizuka and Schellhardt have never been produced at Victory Gardens, the theater’s statement added.
Holter has a show slated for the 2021 season. He declined comment on whether his resignation would mean he’d pull his show from being mounted at a theater that—per the letter he and the other playwrights signed—“purposely ignores the mission” and “abuses the very resources it claims to value and support.”
Friday’s resignees echoed the frustrations that their predecessors expressed: in hiring Yew, the Victory Gardens board acted in direct opposition to Začek’s wishes—supported by his playwrights ensemble—that Sandy Shinner be his successor. The New York Times detailed the ensuing outrage. Shinner is now artistic director for Shattered Globe Theatre.
Within weeks of Yew’s arrival, that original playwrights ensemble—including Pulitzer winner Nilo Cruz—was abruptly moved to emeritus (or “alumni”) status. Several of the newly minted “alumni” learned of the change when it was published in stagebills. Yew then brought in his own ensemble, the one that largely resigned this week.
Fast forward to December 2019, when after nearly a decade at the helm, Yew announced his departure. Almost six months after Yew’s announcement, the Victory Gardens board named Daniels as the theater’s executive artistic director, a post that joined two previously separate jobs: artistic and executive director.
As did the ensemble before them in 2011, the current playwrights ensemble blasted the theater on social media for excluding them from the process of deciding new leadership and ignoring the artistic community it purported to serve.
Alfaro, one of the departing playwrights, said that five months ago, the playwrights ensemble formally wrote the board to demand accountability and transparency in the hiring process for Yew’s replacement.
“I do not doubt she (Daniels) might be the most qualified person. Our biggest problem is that there was no process and no transparency. To not be in communication with your own community—that’s the violation,” Alfaro said.
“The board president [Steve Miller] responded and said ‘Absolutely, we’ll be in conversation. We’re going to have a process. We’re going to include everybody in that process. There will be transparency. And then there was silence. If someone tells you something and they do the opposite—that tells you something right? When you lose that trust—that’s when it feels like there’s no place for you there,” Alfaro said.
Late Friday night, the theater responded with a statement on behalf of board president Miller:
“Steve Miller spoke with an Ensemble Playwright following the open letter to the Board. Steve promised that the board would, as always, uphold the mission and vision of the theater. He did not promise to involve the Ensemble in the board’s process to determine the theater’s future leadership. It is true that Victory Gardens did not give the Playwrights Ensemble advance notice before the public announcement.”
Hiring practices at the theater have never involved the playwrights ensemble under either Začek or Yew, the theater added. The playwrights ensemble does not have a financial stake in the theater.
There was widespread support for the ensemble in social media amid earlier reports that 60 artists signed an e-mail petition to the Victory Gardens board in early March, requesting “an open, inclusive, equitable and transparent search for its new Artistic Director.” However, Black Lives/Black Words managing curator Reginald Edmund, in a public Facebook post last week, drew parallels between Yew’s arrival and Daniels’ appointment.
“When the board forced the founder (Začek) out to pasture, where was your collective outrage? When they kicked out the entire original playwrights collective and treated them like pariahs in their own artistic home when it was their work that oftentimes kept that company afloat, where was your outrage?” he said.
“I’m not against what they’re doing. I’m questioning their motives, “ Edmund added. “You resign, but your residency has already ended? You resign, but you’re letting your own play stay in their season? You’re resigning but you actually haven’t written a play in years? I think if you’re going to protest, protest. Don’t half-ass it. I find it difficult to take these arguments seriously when they are among the few marginalized artists with access to a system they have historically profited from, and haven’t used that to boost the voices of their peers,” he said.
At the time he was hired, Yew was one of the few artistic directors of color in the country heading up a theater that isn’t geared toward race- or ethnic-specific work. Those numbers have increased in recent years, with high-profile theaters such as Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Long Wharf Theater in in New Haven, Woolly Mammoth in Washington, D.C., Baltimore Center Stage, and Repertory Theater of St. Louis all hiring new artistic directors who are either Black or Latinx.
Daniels comes to the executive artistic director position after some 30 years in the Chicago theater community, including stints in leadership positions with Second City and Steppenwolf Theatre. Her hiring marks a departure of sorts in the local theatrosphere, where venerable, well-funded theaters have long had directors at their helm: Goodman artistic director Robert Falls, Northlight’s B.J. Jones, Chicago Shakespeare’s Barbara Gaines, and Lookingglass’s Heidi Stillman all put in long careers directing and/or acting before taking the reins of their respective institutions.
Daniels has never been a director; she has a degree in performance studies from Northwestern. After a brief foray as an FBI agent, she went to work as a casting agent after college but quickly settled back into theater.
Before Victory Gardens, Daniels was president of Second City Theatricals, where she oversaw the comedy institution’s shuttering and comeback after a fire destroyed much of their Old Town structure. Before Second City, she was at Steppenwolf as a casting director, as the head of the School at Steppenwolf, and as associate artistic director under the late artistic director Martha Lavey.
In an interview shortly before the Medium letter was posted, Daniels addressed the duality of a new position that demands both the artistic vision to keep the theater’s persona intact and the business acumen to ensure its survival in the midst of a pandemic. The shutdown has caused massive financial losses in the performing arts sector and will require outsize efforts to keep artists and audiences safe in a world where COVID-19 complicates everything from costume fittings to concessions.
“We always want to achieve the visions of our artists. That’s the priority. It always will be. You recognize when something needs more than you anticipated, and you work to make it happen,” she said. Daniels pointed to Lee Edward Colston II’s epic The First Deep Breath, which premiered at Victory Gardens in November, where she made the decision to cancel revenue-generating previews because the script was still evolving and to this past winter’s How to Defend Yourself by Liliana Padilla, where a character was added late in the game.
“Come hell or high water, you want to achieve the artistic vision. I don’t think I’ve ever sacrificed that,” she continued. “I think if you speak to the directors and writers and actors and producers I’ve worked with over the years they will tell you—I’m not a ‘no’ person. I’m a ‘yes, let’s figure it out,’ person,” she said.
Whether Victory Gardens will put a new ensemble in place remains an open question. Daniels says her immediate goal is seeing the theater through the pandemic. The company will host a virtual version of its annual Ignition Festival of New Plays beginning in June. There is no timeline for reopening to the public, but Daniels said that by early June, there probably will be.
“The mission of Victory Gardens has always been to bring a wealth of different voices to the table. I have no intention of stepping back from that. We hope to continue our relationships. And there are new generations and voices that need to be heard. That’s the goal. That’s always the goal,” Daniels said. v