Update, 7:30 PM ET: A statement in response from Victory Gardens Theater Board Chairman Charles E. Harris II has been added below.
The entire cohort of resident artists at Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater has resigned citing grievances against its board of directors, specifically involving recent staffing and financial decisions and the theatre's commitment to diversity and inclusion.
Former Ensemble Playwright isaac gómez posted a statement announcing the mass resignation on Medium July 6. The resignation follows a letter submitted to the board June 8 by the cohort of artists that, according to the group, never received a substantive response.
"We are writing to express our deepest worry and convey our strongest pleas of urgency to put Marissa Lynn Ford in place as Executive Director immediately," writes the cohort in the June 8 letter, referencing frustration at a hiring process that had reportedly been ongoing since at least February. "We are unable to move forward with the long-term hiring, contracting, and strategic planning that we can only undertake responsively with a full leadership team in place, and in the meantime, we are struggling to manage a workload designed for a full staff with the employees who remain."
The letter goes on to share additional concerns involving the board's commitment to diversity and inclusion, a continuing issue that led to the 2020 resignation of Executive Director and Executive Artistic Director Erica Daniels. Then-Board-Chairman Steve Miller also stepped down, though he remains listed as a Board Member Emeritus on Victory Gardens' website.
Though the criticism in 2020 centered on the theatre's response—or lack thereof—in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the resulting protests both in Chicago and around the nation, the 2022 letter raises allegations about the treatment of cohort members gómez, Stacey Rose, Jess McLeod, and Lili-Anne Brown at a board meeting discussing the ongoing search for a new executive director.
"Although we were initially under the impression that we were invited to the meeting as artistic stakeholders in the theatre, we were repeatedly dismissed, interrupted, and talked over by [a redacted member of the theatre's Executive Committee] when we asked questions about the role of anti-racist values and bias awareness and training in the search process." The letter goes on to criticize the board's continued undermining of Artistic Director Ken-Matt Martin, "one of only three Black men to hold an artistic leadership position in a major American theatre."
The July 6 post also includes a letter sent June 16 to the theatre's board by the entire full-time staff expressing further frustration at the continued delay in naming a new executive director. According to the cohort, the group learned that final candidate Ford had ended contract negotiations with the board shortly after this second letter was submitted.
Since then, Artistic Director Ken-Matt Martin has been placed on leave and Acting Managing Director Roxanna Conner submitted her resignation effective July 29. The board has also moved to purchase the building next to Victory Gardens' Biograph Theater, a decision the cohort alleges was made against the objections of both Martin and Conner. The cohort learned of these developments July 5, leading to their resignation, which follows the mass resignation of the 2020 cohort following similar allegations regarding a lack of transparency in the search for a new artistic director.
In a response statement, Victory Gardens Theater Board Chairman Charles Harris II pledges that the board is "focused on the work needed to carry the theatre well into the future" and "will put interim administrative leadership in place ... and continue [their] search for the right executive director to help lead the theatre forward." Of the board making decisions against the guidance of Martin, Conner, and the cohort of resident artists, Harris shares that "certain decisions must happen at the board level."
According to Harris, the recent real estate transaction mentioned in the cohort's statement is misstated. "The transaction concerns the ownership of the theatre property and will have no adverse impact on the financial stability of the theatre or its artistic direction. In fact, this minor investment preserves the fabric of the Biograph Theater, gets us out from under a challenging co-owner situation, and ultimate saves money in the long run."
Harris' statement has been included in full below.
The 2022 cohort of resident artists formerly included Resident Director Lili-Anne Brown, Ensemble Playwright Marisa Carr, Ensemble Playwright Keelay Gipson, Ensemble Playwright isaac gómez, Resident Director Jess McLeod, and Ensemble Playwright Stacey Rose.
Victory Gardens Theater won the Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre in 2001, and is currently presenting the Chicago premiere of Erika Dickerson-Despenza's cullud wattah, directed by Brown, through July 17.
Victory Gardens Theater Board Chairman Charles Harris II's full response:
"As we grapple with the broader issues facing small theatres everywhere with the slow recovery from the pandemic shutdown, the Board of Directors of Victory Gardens Theater is focused on the work needed to carry the theatre well into the future. We will put interim administrative leadership in place while we develop those strategies and continue our search for the right executive director to help lead the theatre forward.
"We are a 48-year-old theatre company with a rich history of bold and diverse productions. Collectively, our board members have more than 100 years of experience with Victory Gardens, and we know well the delicate balance of managing the artistic well-being of the theatre with our fiduciary responsibility. We have invited our playwrights and resident directors to board meetings to weigh in on various issues but ultimately, certain decisions must happen at the board level. We regret the resignation of our playwrights’ ensemble, which was shared today, but we stand by the difficult and significant decisions we have made as a board that have kept this theatre financially solvent for so many decades, including through the unprecedented COVID shutdown.
"The real estate transaction mentioned by the playwrights’ ensemble appears to be misunderstood. The transaction concerns the ownership of the theatre property and will have no adverse impact on the financial stability of the theatre or its artistic direction. In fact, this minor investment preserves the fabric of the Biograph Theater, gets us out from under a challenging co-owner situation and ultimately, saves money in the long run.
"We believe wholeheartedly in the powerful work of Victory Gardens Theater and are confident that we will weather this storm and come back stronger for it."