Staff at Victory Gardens Theater have begun the unionization process, The Times learned. It’s the latest step in an ongoing standoff between staff and the board of directors at the legendary Chicago institution, which have come under criticism for recent decisions regarding its artistic leadership and financial investments.
The group of 16 employees – including 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 collective bargaining power and a stronger support system than we currently have as individual, discretionary employees,” the eight full-time workers say collectively in a statement to The Times. “The unionization guarantees us a seat at the table and an opportunity to advance health and safety policies that benefit all Victory Gardens employees.”
The decision to unionize comes amid a litany of turbulent events at the Tony-winning regional nonprofit theater, known both as a fertile platform for new work — including world premieres of plays by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Lauren Yee, Kristoffer Diaz and Lucas Hnath – and a place of protest. After noted artistic director Chay Yew announced his retirement in 2019, the board decided not to conduct a national search to fill the key position, instead offering it to then-executive director Erica Daniels, who combined artistic and executive directorships in a single role.
The May 2020 announcement sparked outrage in the community over the lack of transparency and inclusion in internal hiring, particularly after industry-wide reckoning in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Daniels resigned from the combined position in June 2020, and the board “promised to implement a more transparent and inclusive process to identify and fill both senior positions in the near future.” Ken-Matt Martin, previously Associate Producer at Chicago’s Goodman Theater, was appointed Artistic Director of Victory Gardens in March 2021.
Since then, employees say the board has been slow to give the green light to hiring a new CEO to replace Daniels, as well as filling the vacancies of its ever-declining full-time staff or attending to much-needed repairs at all facilities — yet leadership has been the organization was quick to match the theater’s funds to purchase the building adjacent to the Biograph Theater earlier this summer. Martin and Deputy General Manager Roxanna Conner had communicated their objections to the property purchase to the board in June; Shortly thereafter, the Board of Management put Martin on leave. He held the role for a little over a year.
“[We will] Continue our search for the right CEO to move the theater forward,” said Chairman Charles Harris II in an opinion who also described the real estate transaction as a “small investment” that “saves money in the long run”. “We stand by the difficult and significant decisions we made as a board that have kept this theater financially solvent for so many decades, even during the unprecedented COVID shutdown.”
According to Martin, the board informed him on June 30 that he was being released from his contract for “good cause,” even though he said in a statement that he “has not received any disciplinary action, formal or informal warnings and no complaints have been filed against me or documented violations.” He says he was offered a severance package and asked to sign non-disclosure agreements about the current 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 is afraid to fully embrace the transition and change that Victory Gardens needs,” Martin said in a statement. “Whether they intend it as individuals or not, this board is enforcing a culture of top-down hierarchy and secrecy that is at odds with the culture of transparency and accountability to stakeholders that we as employees are trying to build.”
Conner and a group of resident writers and directors, who joined VG in mid-2020 to serve as an anti-racist institution, resigned in July in protest at Martin’s transfer to “furlough”. Likewise, playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza revoked the rights to “Cullud Wattah” mid-run and immediately canceled all remaining performances “as a result of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchal values espoused by the board.” she said in a statement.
Several remaining full-time employees – including William Barnard, Individual Giving Manager; Sammy Brown, co-director of production; Bo Frazier, Director of Marketing; Alexandria Jones, front of house manager; Theresa Lammon, graphic designer; Scott Letscher, audience service manager; Dan Machalinski, co-production manager; and Kat Zukaitis, new game development manager – tell the Times that the board has “declined repeated requests for a direct discussion”.
“In no other sector does a group have so much power but so little expertise in this area,” the VG official told The Times of the board. “Our staff has people with decades of theater experience and masters degrees in theater, yet a panel of lawyers, oil executives and real estate moguls play puppet shows with our livelihoods as a volunteer hobby. This power imbalance is plaguing regional theater across America. While we can’t tear down the broken 501(c)3 nonprofit model right now, perhaps this is a new way to rebalance the power structures in the American theater.”
VG staff told The Times that they have called for the resignation of all current board members and their replacement, albeit temporarily, with “arts industry executives who are already excited to initiate change.” The Times has reached out to the Victory Gardens board for comment and has yet to receive a response.
“We hope to build on the legacy 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 told The Times. “This includes…above all, giving the Chicago theater community space to voice grievances, ideas and hopes in order to build an institution that will support them better than we have been able to in the past.”
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-08-09/victory-gardens-theater-unionizes-board-directors A Chicago theater staff unionizes amid protests of its board