Woolly Mammoth asks other theaters to protect their artists

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This summer, a Chicago theater shocked the industry by firing its artistic director and entire staff, and apparently made plans to stop producing new plays. Now, in a highly unusual move, an influential Washington theater is asking other companies to publicly reaffirm their commitment to its artists.

The fact that the board of directors of DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theater Company felt the need to make such a call attests to the turbulent times for the nation’s theater companies. The pandemic shutdown weakened the financial fundamentals of many, and a less-than-robust return in audiences (some estimates put the drop at 20 to 25 percent of theatergoers) has flummoxed the industry.

But it was the actions over the summer by one company in particular, Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theatre, for half a century a mainstay in one of the country’s most vibrant theater cities, that raised the alarm. In response, the Woolly Mammoth board is seeking co-signers of a letter which outlines the scope, and limits, of what theater trustees are expected to do, to bolster the groups they had pledged to help.

“Without input from the professional artists associated with the theatre,” Woolly’s board wrote of Victory Gardens, “the theater’s mission was revised: from a theater dedicated to producing new plays, the remaining board members announced that Victory Gardens now function as a rental house for other production companies. …”

“As volunteers devoting our time to beloved cultural organizations in our respective cities, let us ensure that what happened in Chicago is an anomaly, not the norm,” Woolly’s board continued. “While we don’t speak for all theaters, we’ve seen how easy it is for boards of directors to isolate themselves from the needs of the artists, managers and technicians who work to create the theater they love and support. This is not serving us or our field.”

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

The Unraveling at Victory Gardens Theatre, a 2001 Tony Award-winning company that has hosted world premieres of major playwrights such as The Jacobs–Jenkins fire, Lucas Hnath Y Jackie Sibblies Drury – occurred over several bewildering months this year. In June, after just 14 months as artistic director, Ken-Matt Martin was relieved of his duties by the board. In protest, playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza withdrew her well-received play “Cullud Wattah,” about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, midway through her performance.

On his website, Martin pointed They did not give him a reason for his dismissal. “I have received no disciplinary notices, formal or informal warnings, and have received no complaints against me or any documented violations,” he wrote. Three months later, when the remaining eight members of the company’s staff tried to unionize, the board fired them as well.

Emails sent to the Victory Gardens communications office were returned as undeliverable. In July, the chairman of the board, Charles E. Harris II, told the chicago reader: “The Victory Gardens Theater board is grappling with the future of the theatre, as are many other not-for-profit theaters right now. We are committed to acting in the best interest of the theater in all matters.” He added that the board was taking steps to install interim management.

The Victory Gardens crisis was unsettling enough to spark conversations among board members at other nonprofit theaters concerned about the message sent to performers and staff members who might be wondering about the loyalty of their own companies. J. Chris Babb, Chairman of Woolly’s board of directors, was among those who thought the situation called for an organized response.

“This is just to send a statement to the people who work in the American theater, who make the art, that this is not how most of us function,” Babb said in an interview. “What we have conveyed is that we want them to stay in the non-profit theater and not be afraid of people who have this, clearly, in confidence.”

Barbara Strack, another Woolly board member, said the former Victory Gardens artistic director wowed her with a comment: “In particular, there was a phrase that Ken-Matt Martin repeated, that he tried every day to focus the needs of artists. and personal,” Strack said in an interview. “That resonated with me. As a board member, as a trustee, that’s the same lens that we should bring.”

The Woolly Mammoth letter echoes this philosophy: “We all have a vital role to play: keeping our theater’s mission, its primary reason for being, in confidence for the communities we represent,” the board wrote. “Holding a theater in trust in this way is very different from running its operations. It is a stewardship that requires focusing on the art and the artists and trusting in their talent and experience…”

María Goyanes, Woolly’s artistic director, said it was gratifying that board members took it upon themselves to circulate such a forceful statement. “What really took me was the idea that the board would not review the artistic mission of the theater without centering the artists, the staff and the professionals,” she said. “That made me say, ‘Oh great, no matter what, no matter how difficult things are, there really is a respect.’ ”

Scot Spencer, a longtime Baltimore Center Stage board member, said he immediately signed the letter. “For me, it really is about the way forward. We have been through a dangerous time both in the culture and in the way people approach the things they do in their spare time,” he said. “We also need to evolve with that. As board members, trustees, this is not some crazy, far-fetched set of demands. This is asking that people be treated with mutual respect.”

Center Stage is taking on a leading role: it has hired several former Victory Gardens staff members, and Martin has been recruited to direct one of its main shows this season, Nia Vardalos’s “Little beautiful things.”

“It’s important that people remember that these are real people, people with children in college,” Martin said in an interview, referring to his former colleagues. He expressed the hope that all those he worked with in Chicago would find work.

“Anything that is done to advocate for those people who have had the rug pulled,” he added, “is what matters to me.”

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