We wanted to respond to the open letter and petition circulated by Woolly Mammoth asking boards to commit to deeper, more sincere dialogue with artists and staff. In the open letter and petition, Woolly Mammoth leverages the situation that happened at our theater as a cautionary tale to encourage theaters to sign on to the position. It is common knowledge that Victory Gardens Theater has been navigating significant challenges and changes, and significant change does not happen overnight.
First, we want to say that we fully share in this commitment Woolly Mammoth is advocating for and are happy to sign on to this petition to signify our continued commitment to deeper, more sincere dialogue with artists and staff. However, while we applaud Woolly Mammoth’s vigilance and passion to protect and improve the theater industry, we want to share our disappointment that Woolly Mammoth issued this letter and request without knowing the details of what happened – or even asking for these details.
For those who know Victory Gardens more intimately, it was apparent that the criticisms cast by Woolly Mammoth reflected meaningfully uninformed judgments regarding the Victory Gardens’ Board priorities and plans. At its core, this letter should have been a dialogue between two organizations with mutual values on how to deliver diverse and vital theater to the community. Since Woolly Mammoth does not have the full details on what happened at Victory Gardens Theater, we’d like to share more information of the events in the letter and correct the misinformation. The details are complex and track back to 2020, but below is a summary of events.
- Victory Gardens was faced with leadership staffing challenges. Our artistic director, the revered Chay Yew, ended his tenure with us after nine years. Based on thorough research, the experience of other theaters, and her qualifications, our very talented and qualified executive director since 2017 stepped into a dual role of executive artistic director.
- Unfortunately, attacks were launched against this decision leading to her resignation and setting us back at square one to fill the most important positions needed to operate a theater: an executive director and an artistic director.
- In communication with artists and staff, we contracted a nationally recognized diverse search firm and established a representative search committee to find a new artistic director.
- After a thorough search, we again hired an artistic director with a lot of hope and enthusiasm and began the difficult task of trying to show plays with the pandemic still raging.
- We then conducted a second national search for an executive director. We used a diverse search firm and created a diverse search committee of Victory Gardens Board members, staff, and playwrights to recommend candidates.
- The board accepted the search committee’s recommendations and made an offer to one of the recommended candidates who declined the role. We then negotiated and finalized an employment agreement with the second recommended choice only to have the candidate delay acceptance for months, causing a second significant delay in the search and hiring process.
- In June, we learned the reason behind the delay. The second candidate and our artistic director jointly hired a lawyer to rewrite their contracts to leverage our dire need to fill the executive director role to their benefit. The revised contracts were redrafted in a way that both contracts would be tied together and force Victory Gardens to offer both of them financial incentives that were clearly detrimental to the organization. Any theater board who prioritizes the well-being of its theater would have rejected these redrafted contracts. In our board’s collective tenure, and our theater’s 50 year history, we have never seen nor heard of a situation like this and we were disappointed by these actions.
- In July, Victory Gardens was placed in a very unfavorable and disheartening position. There were no 2022-2023 show budgets and there were no secured or signed theatrical agreements, core, critical responsibilities of an artistic director and other senior leadership.
- More than a month before dismissing staff, we notified hourly staff that their seasonal jobs would end. The impending dismissal was also evident by the fact there was no budget and no upcoming season planned. This was not an easy decision nor was it a sudden decision.
Victory Gardens has and always will be committed to fostering an inclusive theater community and delivering theater to underserved communities (this has been core to our mission for decades). As a board, we were faced with the difficult reality that, in order to serve our mission, we needed to transition operations. Our mission has not changed; only the activities that achieve that mission are shifting. While more information will unfold regarding our future, we will focus to support our mission on two areas:
- Inspiring new plays and playwrights to nurture the diverse stories of our world: We are identifying new ways to support playwrights, with a focus on playwrights of color, as well as to increase the exposure to new plays. This may include direct support via grant programs or collaborative efforts with other organizations.
- Maintaining the legacy of the Biograph Theater to contribute to the vitality of American theater: We are exploring options to subsidize other theater companies to use the Biograph Theater for their productions. While we are considering allowing some private rentals to offset the costs inherent in operating a theater, it will not be our primary focus. Any rental and subsidy decisions will receive the same scrutiny to ensure these works remain true to the Victory Gardens mission to provide opportunities and support new and emerging playwrights with a focus on theater professionals of color.
Part of the Victory Gardens mission calls for “dialogue toward meaningful civic change” and “an inclusive theater experience that belongs to everyone.” Dialogue must happen off stage as well as on stage. Constructive dialogue must happen between board members and artists – a street that goes both ways. What happened at Victory Gardens could happen at any theater, and, as we continue to traverse the challenges from this situation, we certainly hope it does not happen to another theater. So, there does indeed lie a cautionary tale here. One that not only cautions theaters to continue to foster open and constructive dialogue between boards and artists and staff but to also be mindful that an individual’s actions can corrupt a theater’s direction and trajectory.
We are happy to sign the Woolly Mammoth petition with the misinformation corrected. It is our hope that we can all move forward with a shared goal of having a vibrant and inclusive theater community for all.
The Victory Gardens Theater Board of Directors