Woolly Mammoth asks other theaters to protect its artists

Explanation

This summer, a Chicago theater shocked the industry when it announced plans to lay off its artistic director and entire staff and stop producing new productions. Now, in a highly unusual move, an influential Washington theater is asking other companies to publicly affirm their commitment to their artists.

That the board of DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theater Company felt the need to make such an appeal reflects a tumultuous period for national theater companies. Pandemic shutdowns have weakened many people’s financial foundations, and the less-than-reliable return of audiences — by some estimates, a 20-25 percent drop in theater attendance — has worried the industry.

But the summer activities of one company that has been a mainstay in one of the nation’s most vibrant theater towns for exactly half a century, namely Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater, are raising alarm bells. In response, Woolly Mammoth’s board is looking for signatories to a letter outlining what theater trustees can do and what limits they will have to bolster the groups they’ve pledged to help.

“Without input from professional artists associated with the theater,” Woolley’s board wrote of Victory Gardens, “the mission of the theater underwent a major overhaul — starting with a theater for new plays, and the rest of the board announced that Victory Gardens would no longer exist.” managed as a rental house for other manufacturing companies. …”

“As volunteers who dedicate our time to our favorite cultural organizations in our respective cities, let’s make sure that what happened in Chicago is an anomaly, not the norm,” Woolley’s board continued. “While we don’t speak for every theater, we’ve seen how easy it is for boards to become defensive about the needs of artists, administrators, and technical staff working to create a theater they love and support. It doesn’t serve us and our field.”

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Several board members from Baltimore Center Stage, New Haven Long Wharf Theatre, San Francisco American Conservatory Theater and St. Louis Repertory Theater have signed their names to the letter, which asks signatories to donate to an online fundraiser on behalf of Victory Gardens. ‘ former employees.

The 2001 Tony Award-winning company, which has presented world premieres by major playwrights such as Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Lucas Hnath and Jackie Siblings Drury, opened at Victory Gardens Theater in a mysterious few months this year. In June, after just 14 months as artistic director, Ken-Matt Martin was fired by the board. In protest, playwright Erica Dickerson-Despenza withdrew her well-received play, Kullud Watta, about the water crisis in Flint.

Martin noted on his website that no reason was given for his firing. “I have not received any disciplinary warnings, formal or informal warnings, and there have been no complaints or documented violations against me,” he wrote. Three months later, when the company’s remaining eight employees sought to form a union, the board fired them as well.

Letters sent to the Victory Gardens communications office were returned as undeliverable. In July, the president of the board of directors, Charles E. Harris II told the Chicago Reader: “The Victory Gardens Theater board, like many non-profit theaters these days, is struggling with the future of the theater. We are committed to acting in the interests of the theater in all matters.” He said that the board is taking steps to install an interim management.

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The Victory Gardens crisis has caused enough unease to spark conversation among board members at other nonprofit theaters, who are concerned about the message being sent to artists and staff who may question their company’s integrity. Among those who felt the situation called for organized action was J. Woolley, chairman of the board of trustees. It was Chris Babb.

“It’s just to let people who work in American theater, who work in the arts, know that most of us don’t work that way,” Babb said in an interview. “What we’re conveying is that we want you to stay in nonprofit theater, and don’t be afraid of the people who keep it safe.”

Another Woolley board member, Barbara Strack, said she was taken with the former Victory Gardens artistic director: “In particular, Ken-Matt Martin reiterated that every day he tries to center the needs of the artists. and staff,” Strack said in an interview. “It resonated with me. That’s the lens we have to bring as a board member, as a trustee.”

Woolley Mammoth’s letter reiterates this philosophy: “We all have one fundamental role: to keep our theater’s mission—its primary reason for being—in the faith of the communities we represent,” the board wrote. “Holding the theater with such trust is completely different from managing its work. It is a stewardship that requires attention to art and artists and trust in their talent and experience…”

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Woolley artistic director Maria Goianes said it was heartening that board members took it upon themselves to spread such a powerful statement. “I really had the idea that the board was not going to overhaul the artistic mission of the theater without putting the artists and staff and professionals in the center,” he said. “It made me go, ‘Oh, great, no matter what the situation is, no matter how hard it is, there’s really respect.’ »

Scot Spencer, a longtime board member at Baltimore Center Stage, said he immediately signed the letter. “For me, it’s really about the future. “We’ve gone through a dangerous period, both in culture and in terms of how people view what they do in their free time,” he said. “At the same time, we also need to develop. As board members, as trustees, these are not crazy, far-fetched demands. It asks people to treat each other with mutual respect.”

Center Stage takes the lead: Several former Victory Gardens employees have been hired, and Martin has been tapped to direct Nia Vardalos’ Little Beautiful Things, one of her main stage shows this season.

“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 his hope that everyone he worked with in Chicago would find work.

“Anything that can be done to protect people who have had the rug pulled out from under them,” he added, “is something I’m interested in.”

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