Woolly Mammoth asks other theaters to protect its artists

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This summer, a Chicago theater shocked the industry by firing its artistic director and entire staff, and reportedly plans to halt production of new work. Now, in an unusual move, an influential Washington theater is asking other companies to publicly reaffirm their commitment to artists.

The fact that the board of directors of the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in DC felt the need to make such a call is a testament to the difficult times for theater companies in the country. Pandemic shutdowns have reduced many funds, and weak audience returns — some estimates put theater attendance down 20 to 25 percent — are disrupted the industry.

But the summer activities of one particular company, Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater, for the past half-decade in one of the nation’s most vibrant theater towns, have heightened alarm. In response, Woolly Mammoth’s board of directors is looking for co-signatories to a document outlining the scope — and limits — of what the theater’s trustees must do to strengthen the groups they promise to help.

“Without the participation of the professional artists associated with the theater,” Woolly’s office wrote of Victory Gardens, “the theater’s mission—from a theater dedicated to producing plays—has been transformed. news, the remaining board members announced that Victory Gardens is coming. used as a rental facility for other manufacturing companies. …”

“As volunteers who are dedicated to our beloved cultural organizations in our respective cities, let’s ensure that what happened in Chicago is rare, not unusual. -law,” continued the Woolly board. “While we don’t speak for all theaters, we find it easy for boards to distance themselves from the needs of artists, managers and technicians. who work to create the theater they love and support. It does us and our field no service.”

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Several board members from Baltimore Center Stage, New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre, San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater and the Repertory Theater of St. Louis has added their names to the letter, which asks signatories to donate to an online fundraiser on behalf of Victory Gardens. ‘ ex-employee.

The destruction at Victory Gardens Theater – a company recognized by the Tony Award in 2001 that presented world premieres by great playwrights such as Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Lucas Hnath and Jackie Sibblies Drury – happened over several months this year. In June, after just 14 months as artistic director, Ken-Matt Martin was relieved of his duties. In protest, playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza pulled mid-run her well-received play “Cullud Wattah,” about the water crisis in Flint, Mich.

On his website, Martin noted that he was not given a reason for his dismissal. “I have received no disciplinary notices, formal or informal warnings, and no complaints have been filed against me or any violations recorded,” he wrote. Three months later, when the company’s eighteen workers tried to unionize, the board also fired them.

Emails to the Victory Gardens communications office bounced back but were undeliverable. In July, board chairman Charles E. Harris II told the Chicago Reader: “The Victory Gardens Theater board is fighting over the future of the theater, like many other theaters. currently non-profit. We are committed to doing something for the benefit of the theater in every way.” He added that the board has taken measures to install interim management.

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The Victory Gardens crisis has been so disturbing that it has sparked conversations among board members at other nonprofit theaters, worried about the message being sent to artists and staff who may be wondering about the loyalty of his own company. J. Chris Babb, chairman of Woolly’s board of directors, was among those who believed the situation demanded an organized response.

“This is just going to send a message to the people who work in American theater, who make art, that that’s not how most of us work,” Babb said in an interview. “What we’re conveying is that we want you to stay in nonprofit theater, and don’t be afraid of the people who hold it, of course, in confidence.”

Barbara Strack, a member of Woolly’s board of directors, said she was taken aback by the former Victory Gardens artistic director’s comments: “In particular, there was a phrase repeated by Ken-Matt Martin, that he tried every day to focus the needs of artists. and workers,” Strack said in an interview. “It resonated with me. As a member of the board of directors, in being an accountant, this is the only fault we should bear.”

Woolly Mammoth’s letter reiterates this philosophy: “We all have one fundamental responsibility: to carry out our theater’s mission — its most important cause — in trust for the communities we represent,” the office wrote. “Holding a theater in trust in this way is not the same as directing their work. Management that requires a focus on art and artists and confidence in their talent and skills…”

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Maria Goyanes, Woolly’s artistic director, said that the members of the board of directors were happy to participate in spreading such a powerful statement. “What I really took away was the idea that the board wouldn’t change the artistic mission of the theater if it didn’t focus on the artists, the staff, and the professionals,” he said. “That’s why I said, ‘Oh, it’s great, no matter what happens, no matter how amazing it is, there’s definitely respect.’ “

Scot Spencer, a longtime board member at Baltimore Center Stage, said he immediately signed the letter. “For me, it’s really about the way forward. We have gone through a difficult time both in culture but also in the way people approach what they do during the holidays,” he said. “We need to improve on that too. As a board member, a trustee, this is not a crazy and far-fetched claim. This requires treating people with respect.

Center Stage plays a big role: He previously recruited several staff members from Victory Gardens, and Martin has been hired to direct one of the biggest shows of the season, “Tiny Beautiful Things” Nia Vardalos.

“It’s important for people to remember that they are real people, people who have kids in college,” Martin said in an interview with his former colleagues. He said that all those who worked with him in Chicago will find work.

“Anything that is done to protect the people who have had the rug pulled out from under them,” he added, “that’s what I want.”

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