Woolly Mammoth asks other theaters to protect its artists

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This summer, a Chicago theater shocked the industry by firing its artistic director and entire staff, who reportedly made plans to stop producing new work. Now, in a highly unusual move, an influential theater in Washington is asking other companies to publicly reaffirm their commitment to their artists.

That the Woolly Mammoth DC Theater Company board felt the need to make such an appeal testifies to the turbulent times for the nation’s theater companies. The pandemic closure weakened the financial foundations of many, and a less-than-solid return of audiences – some estimates put the drop of 20 to 25 percent of theatergoers – has caused concern for the industry.

But the actions of one company in particular over the summer, at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theatre, for half a century one of the mainstays of one of the nation’s most vibrant theater cities, has raised the alarm. In response, the Woolly Mammoth board is seeking co-signatories for a letter outlining the scope—and limitations—of what theater trustees are expected to do, in order to promote the groups they had promised to help.

“Without input from the professional artists associated with the theater,” Woolly’s board wrote of Victory Gardens, “the mission of the theater was overhauled — from a theater dedicated to producing new plays, the rest of the board announced that Victory Gardens will now be. being run as a rental house for other production companies. …”

“As volunteers who dedicate our time to beloved cultural institutions in our respective cities, let us ensure that what happened in Chicago is an anomaly, not the norm,” Woolly’s board continued. “While we don’t speak for all theatres, we have seen how easy it is for boards to silo themselves from the needs of the artists, administrators and technicians who work to create the theater they love and supports her. This does not serve us and our field.”

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There are several board members from Baltimore Center Stage, New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre, San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater and Repertory Theater of St. Louis have already attached their names to the letter, which asks the signatories to contribute to an online fundraiser on behalf of Victory Gardens’ former employees.

The decay happened at the Victory Gardens Theater – a company recognized with a Tony Award in 2001 which has offered world premiere performances by such great playwrights as Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Lucas Hnath and Jackie Sibblies Drury – over several mysterious months this year. In June, after just 14 months as artistic director, Ken-Matt Martin was relieved of his duties by the board. In protest, playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza withdrew her play “Cullud Wattah,” about the water crisis in Flint, Mich. in the middle of its run.

On his website, Martin stated that he was given no reason for his dismissal. “I have not received any disciplinary notices, formal or informal warnings, nor have I had any complaints filed against me or any infractions documented,” he wrote. Three months later, as the rest of the company’s eight staff tried to unionise, the board fired them too.

Emails to the Victory Gardens communications office bounced back as undeliverable. In July, board president Charles E. Harris II told the Chicago Reader: “The Victory Gardens Theater board is grappling with the future of the theater, as are many other nonprofit theaters at this time. We are committed to acting in the best interests of the theater in all matters.” He added that the board was taking steps to install temporary management.

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The Victory Gardens crisis was troubling enough to spark conversations among board members at other nonprofit theaters, worried about the message being sent to artists and staff members who might be wondering about their own companies’ loyalties. J. Chris Babb, chairman of Woolly’s board of trustees, was among those who thought the situation called for an organized response.

“This is just to send a statement to the people who work in American theater, who make the art, that this is not how most of us operate,” Babb said in an interview. “What we’ve communicated is that we want you to stay in the non-profit theatre, and don’t be afraid of the people who hold this, obviously, in trust.”

Barbara Strack, another member of Woolly’s board, said that she had received attention from the former artistic director of Victory Gardens: “In particular, Ken-Matt Martin’s phrase was repeated, that he tries to focus every day on the needs of the artists. and staff,” Strack said in an interview. “That resonated with me. As a board member, as a trustee, that’s the same lens we should be presenting.”

Woolly Mammoth’s letter echoes this philosophy: “Each of us has one basic role: to uphold the mission of our theater—its primary reason for being—in trust for the communities we represent,” the board wrote. “Holding a theater in trust like this is quite different than directing its operations. It is a stewardship that requires focusing on the art and the artists and trusting their talent and expertise …”

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Maria Goyanes, Woolly’s artistic director, said it was nice to see board members taking it upon themselves to circulate such a powerful statement. “The thing I really took away was the idea that the board would not overhaul the artistic mission of the theater without centralizing the artists and the staff and the professionals,” he said. “That made me go, ‘Oh, great, no matter what happens, no matter how rocky things are, there really is respect.’ “

Scot Spencer, a longtime board member at Baltimore Center Stage, said he immediately signed the letter. “For me, it’s really about the way forward. We’ve been through a dangerous time in terms of culture but also in terms of how people approach the things they do in their spare time,” he said. “We also need to evolve with that. As board members, trustees, this is not a crazy, far-fetched series of requirements. This requires treating people with mutual respect.”

Center Stage is taking the lead: It has hired several former Victory Gardens staff members, and Martin has been recruited to direct one of its main stage shows this season, Nia Vardalos’ “Tiny Beautiful Things.”

“It’s important for people to remember that these are real people, people with kids in college,” Martin said in an interview, referring to his former colleagues. He expressed the hope that everyone he worked with in Chicago will find jobs.

“Anything that is done to advocate for those people who have had the rug pulled from under them,” he added, “is important to me.”

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