The remaining full- and part-time staff of Chicago's Victory Gardens Theatre has begun to process of unionizing through IATSE, the latest development in struggles between the Tony-winning theatre's board of directors and its staff and artists.
The theatre's entire cohort of resident artists resigned last month citing allegations of racism, financial malfeasance, and a lack of transparency regarding continued staffing issues, a move that was followed by playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza pulling the rights for her play cullud wattah due to "the white supremacist capitalist patriarchal values espoused by the board of directors at Victory Gardens Theater." Additionally, the theatre's board placed Artistic Director Ken-Matt Martin on leave and Executive Director Roxanna Conner resigned, leaving the company in further crisis.
"The power imbalance between board, staff, and artists is one of the pervasive problems facing the American theatre industry," says the Victory Gardens staff in a collective statement. "The entire Victory Gardens staff (full-time and part-time) is unionizing. We aim to build a more just and equitable theatre ecosystem. Now the board can no longer be silent—they must finally talk to us.
"Unionization gives us the power of collective bargaining and a stronger support system than we currently have access to as individual, at-will employees. The Board has refused repeated requests for direct conversation. Unionization guarantees us a seat at the table, as well as leverage to push for worker safety measures that will benefit all employees of Victory Gardens.
"We hope to build on the legacies of past leaders like Ken-Matt Martin, Roxanna Conner, and Chay Yew, with new structures that allow Victory Gardens to be a true home for the Chicago theatre community. This includes: bringing on a transitional Board of Directors composed of arts industry leaders already excited to enact change, evaluating what leadership means at Victory Gardens and how we can move towards a more collective model, having a job fair to hire amazing and passionate new staff who believe in this theatre’s mission, and above all, providing space for Chicago’s theatre community to voice grievances, ideas, and hopes to build an institution that supports them better than we’ve been able to in the past. All of this after we all take a long paid vacation, of course.
"In no other sector does a group of people have so much power yet so little expertise in the field. Our staff has people with decades of theatre experience and master’s degrees in theatre, yet a board made up of lawyers, oil executives, and real estate moguls is playing puppetry with our livelihoods as their volunteer hobby. This power imbalance is plaguing regional theatre across America. While we cannot tear down the broken 501(c)3 non-profit model at this time, perhaps this is a new way to rebalance power structures in the American theatre.”
The remaining staff of Victory Gardens Theater includes Individual Giving Manager William Barnard, Co-Head of Production Sammy Brown, Marketing Manager Bo Frazier, Front of House Manager Alexandria Jones, Graphic Designer Theresa Lammon, Audience Services Manager Scott Letscher, Co-Head of Production Dan Machalinksi, and New Play Development Manager Kat Zukaitis.
In a statement released July 6, Victory Gardens Board Chairman Charles E. Harris II fought back at the resident artists' claims, calling their criticism of a recent real estate transaction a misunderstanding and asserting that "certain decisions must happen at the board level." Harris, who is Black, does not address the allegations of racism in the response to the artists' joint statement.
These developments are the latest in a troubling period for the Chicago theatre's management that dates back to 2020. Then-Executive Director and Executive Artistic Director Erica Daniels and Board Chairman Steve Miller both stepped down in 2020 following criticism of the theatre's lack of response following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the resulting protests both in Chicago and around the nation. Miller is still listed as a Board Member Emeritus on Victory Gardens' website.