A Chicago theater’s staff unionizes amid protests of its board of directors
The staff at Victory Gardens Theater have begun the process to unionize, The Times has learned. It’s the latest move in an ongoing standoff between the storied Chicago institution’s employees and board of directors, the latter of whom have drawn criticism for recent decisions regarding its artistic leadership and financial investments.
The group of 16 employees — which includes front-of-house staff, stagehands and arts administrators — filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board last week. They are represented by three IATSE locals: Stagehands Local 2, Treasurers and Ticket Sellers Local 750, and Wardrobe Local 769.
“Unionization gives us the power of collective bargaining and a stronger support system than we currently have access to as individual, at-will employees,” the eight full-time employees collectively tell The Times in a statement. “Unionization guarantees us a seat at the table, as well as leverage to push for worker safety measures that will benefit all employees of Victory Gardens.”
The decision to unionize takes place amid a litany of tumultuous events at the Tony-winning regional nonprofit theater, known as both a fruitful platform for new work — including the world-premiere productions of plays from Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Lauren Yee, Kristoffer Diaz and Lucas Hnath — and a site of protest. After noted artistic director Chay Yew announced his departure in 2019, the board opted not to hold a national search to fill the key position and instead offered it to then-executive director Erica Daniels, combining artistic and executive directorships into a single role.
The May 2020 announcement sparked community outrage about the internal hiring’s lack of transparency and inclusion, especially in the wake of industrywide reckonings following the murder of George Floyd. Daniels resigned from the combined position in June 2020, and the board “pledged to conduct a more transparent and inclusive process to identify and fill both leadership positions in the near future.” Ken-Matt Martin, previously the associate producer of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, was announced as Victory Gardens’ artistic director in March 2021.
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Since then, staff say that the board has been slow to greenlight the hiring of a new executive director to replace Daniels, as well as filling the positions of its steadily diminishing full-time staff or tending to the much-needed repairs throughout their facilities — yet the organization’s leadership has been swift to allocate the theater’s funds to purchase the building adjacent to its Biograph Theater earlier this summer. Martin and acting managing director Roxanna Conner told the board of their objections to the real estate purchase in June; the board then placed Martin on leave shortly afterward. He had been in the role a little more than a year.
“[We will] continue our search for the right executive director to help lead the theatre forward,” said board Chairman Charles Harris II in a statement that also described the real estate transaction as a “minor investment” that “saves money in the long run.” “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.”
According to Martin, the board informed him on June 30 that he was being released from his contract with “cause,” though he said in a statement that he “received no disciplinary notices, formal or informal warnings, and have had no complaints filed against me or any documented infractions.” He says he was offered severance and asked to sign nondisclosure agreements about the ongoing situation — an offer he has declined. He tells The Times that he is currently exploring all legal options.
“I believe these actions were taken because the board of directors is afraid of fully embracing the transition and change that Victory Gardens needs,” reads Martin’s statement. “Whether or not they intend it as individuals, this board is enforcing a culture of top-down hierarchy and secrecy that is deeply at odds with the culture of transparency and accountability to stakeholders that we are trying to build as a staff.”
Conner and a group of resident writers and directors, who joined VG amid its mid-2020 commitment to operate as an antiracist institution, resigned in July in protest of Martin’s placement on “leave.” Likewise, playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza rescinded the rights to “Cullud Wattah” in the middle of its run, immediately canceling all remaining performances “as a result of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchal values espoused by the board of directors,” she said in a statement.
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Several remaining full-time staffers — including William Barnard, individual giving manager; Sammy Brown, co-head of production; Bo Frazier, marketing manager; Alexandria Jones, front-of-house manager; Theresa Lammon, graphic designer; Scott Letscher, audience services manager; Dan Machalinski, co-head of production; and Kat Zukaitis, new play development manager — tell The Times that the board “has refused repeated requests for direct conversation.”
“In no other sector does a group have so much power yet so little expertise in the field,” the VG staff tells The Times of the board. “Our staff has people with decades of theater experience and master’s degrees in theater, yet a board made up of lawyers, oil executives and real estate moguls is playing puppetry with our livelihoods as their volunteer hobby. This power imbalance is plaguing regional theater across America. While we cannot tear down the broken 501(c)3 non-profit model at this time, perhaps this is a new way to rebalance power structures in the American theater.”
The VG staff tells The Times that they have called for all current board members to resign and be replaced, even if only transitionally, by “arts industry leaders already excited to enact change.” The Times has reached out to the Victory Gardens board of directors for a statement and has not yet received a response.
“We hope to build on the legacies of past leaders like Ken-Matt Martin, Roxanna Conner, and Chay Yew, with new structures that allow Victory Gardens to be a true home for the Chicago theater community,” the group states to The Times. “This includes … above all, providing space for Chicago’s theater community to voice grievances, ideas, and hopes to build an institution that supports them better than we’ve been able to in the past.”
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