The Board of Directors is all that's left at the embattled Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago, following the firing of the entire existing staff after their attempt to unionize with IATSE. The development is the latest outcome of ongoing struggles between the Tony-winning theatre's board of directors and its staff and artists. With this latest round of firings, the entire staff has either been fired or resigned.
The 18 fired staff members have created a GoFundMe campaign seeking financial assistance.
"On Wednesday, September 7, 2022, two days after Labor Day, all remaining employees of Victory Gardens Theater were terminated," says the campaign page. "We are reaching out to our community for financial support as we begin the process of finding new jobs while mourning the loss of an institution we fought tooth and nail for. Money raised here will support people who live paycheck to paycheck, have children to support (including one pregnant staff member), and who do not have strong financial safety nets for this situation. We are also losing our health insurance coverage, which will inevitably lead to additional expenses as new plans are explored."
The theatre's entire cohort of resident artists resigned in July 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 fired Artistic Director Ken-Matt Martin, and Executive Director Roxanna Conner resigned, leaving the company in further crisis.
Last month, a group of artistic directors of major regional theatres—including Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's Maria Manuela Goyanes and American Conservatory Theater's Pam MacKinnon, among others—banded together to create a $30,000 commission for a new autobiographical work from Martin. In announcing the commission, the cohort described Martin's ouster as a "wrongful termination."
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.
The firings cap off 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.
Daniels fought back against this characterization in a recent email to Playbill, citing a newsletter sent to subscribers in May 2020 that voiced the theatre's solidarity with those "seeking justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the countless others we have lost to the pandemic that is racist violence" and provided a handful of links to social justice organizations. The newsletter did not include any pledge to changes within Victory Gardens management nor any steps that the theatre's leadership planned to take in response.
Miller is still listed as a Board Member Emeritus on Victory Gardens' website.