Victory Gardens Boards Windows Against Black Lives, Arts Community Protests Leadership

If you have not been following the ball of confusion that is Victory Gardens Theater’s leadership transition, let me catch you up:

1) On March 2nd, 2020 over 60 artists sent an open letter to the board asking for a transparent and equitable leadership search which you can read here.

2) On May 5th, 2020 Erica Daniels was appointed Executive Artistic Director of Victory Gardens Theater internally after serving as the Executive Director.  There was no transparent search, which caused the community to speak up in opposition of her appointment.

3) The Playwrights Ensemble of Victory Gardens Theater resigned in protest in an open letter originally published on Medium that you can read here.

“How can we do our best work when the basic tenets of trust and leadership are not guaranteed? We are calling on artists, audiences and donors to examine closely what happens when an institution like Victory Gardens Theater purposely ignores the mission it made for itself and abuses the very resources it claims to value and support.” – Playwrights Ensemble of Victory Gardens

4) The playwrights of the Ignition New Play Festival resigned in an open letter originally published on Medium you can read here:

“As the 2020 Ignition Festival of New Plays at Victory Gardens approaches, we four emerging playwrights have decided to pull our respective plays from this development opportunity. We demand that leadership in Chicago theaters dispense with hollow gestures of solidarity, hold themselves accountable for past mistakes, and listen to the needs of their community and artists.” – The playwrights of the Ignition Festival.

5) The opposition to her appointment revolves around many factors but that are exacerbated by the following professional concerns: Rumors persist that Daniels facilitates unsafe work spaces in the theater per her tenure teaching classes for Profiles and managing Second City. You can read about her involvement with Profiles in the Chicago Reader, and the exodus of Artists of color at Second City was widely reported on, including by CBS Chicago.

“The classes were held at the theater on Mondays or Tuesdays when there were no performances or rehearsals. But Cox knew that studying at Profiles alone wouldn’t be enough of a draw. So he asked his friend Erica Daniels, then the casting director at Steppenwolf and, therefore, a powerful person in Chicago theater, to help out. Daniels, now president of Second City Theatricals, also occasionally cast shows for Profiles, including the production ofThe Glory of Living directed by the fictitious “Carla Russell.” – Aimee Levitt, “At Profiles Theatre the drama—and abuse—is real” June 8, 2016. 

Currently there is a movement happening called #OpenYourLobby asking theatres to open their doors to protestors, and several Chicago theatres have found their lane in helping aid the current resistance movement. Steppenwolf is doing supply runs, the Goodman is opening its doors to protestors, and there are more efforts underway or in the works by our community.

The #OpenYourLobby initiative is especially relevant for Victory Gardens, outside of which protesters were arrested (photo below, Trigger Warning Police Violence). They could have provided a sanctuary space and facilitated a peaceful interaction with police, but the building was empty. As you can see, their marquis says “art will survive,” not “Black Lives Matter” which it was changed to after the incident.

On June 6, 2020,  upon learning that the institution was boarded up, scenic artists decided to lead an impromptu gathering to write messages on the boards that supported #BlackLivesMatter and the artistic community at large.

Below are original images from the protest, taken by me:

“The air is charged with an indescribable emotion. It is something that this world has not seen for centuries. It’s a combination of pride, fire, fatigue, tenacity, and righteous indignation. It is oozing from our pores, onto the streets, and into the hearts of all. This is for Emmitt. For Sandra. For Rekia. For Martin and Malcolm. Get on board little children. There’s room for many a more.”
– Sydney Charles, Actor / Director / Activist.

“VG was an institution I trusted to care about their community. It was one of the first spaces I worked at and one of the first spaces that thought me about the intersections of art and activism. Their recent actions have demonstrated a shift to the VG that I admired. Their recent decisions around their change in leadership sets a dangerous precedent in the American Theatre. I joined the artists and organizers to show solidarity and to demand that VG show us they care about their artists and they care about black lives. Theatre is and has to be a civic institution.”
– Abhi Shrestha, Steppenwolf Education Associate.

“Someone told me that they wanted to ensure my legacy at Victory Gardens would be honored.

I said that legacy does not live inside of buildings. They live in the people, artists, workers, audiences and communities. And wherever they go, the legacy of stories we told and shared will live on in these wonderful people.

That legacy was alive and well on Lincoln Avenue today.

And that legacy now belongs to these incredible citizen artists who will find another home or homes in Chicago to create and to lead where their voices, their skins, their communities are valued, and are treated equitably.

I stand with them.”
– Chay Yew, former artistic director of Victory Gardens Theater in a public Facebook post.

Victory Gardens Theater Playwrights Withdraw From Ignition Festival of New Plays

All four playwrights have pulled their plays from the 2020 Ignition Festival at Victory Gardens’ Theatre. Read the full letter below, originally published on Medium.

As the 2020 Ignition Festival of New Plays at Victory Gardens approaches, we four emerging playwrights have decided to pull our respective plays from this development opportunity. We demand that leadership in Chicago theaters dispense with hollow gestures of solidarity, hold themselves accountable for past mistakes, and listen to the needs of their community and artists. Continue reading “Victory Gardens Theater Playwrights Withdraw From Ignition Festival of New Plays”

What Have You Done to Help Black People Stay Alive Today? or, Why I’m Not at TCG

Last year I had the privilege of attending TCG and writing almost 3000 words that ruminated on the topic: What is a Theatre Review(er) Good for? 

I didn’t re-read it, because I’m busy, doing whatever the fuck I can to help Black people stay alive. I’m neurotic, immuno-compromised, and generally traumatized but my Black ass is out here keeping supply lines tight and sending bodies where they need to be.  The far more urgent question I have for you today is: What have you done to help Black people stay alive today? Continue reading “What Have You Done to Help Black People Stay Alive Today? or, Why I’m Not at TCG”

To All The Black People Killed Before Me

A Note from the Editor: Bear Bellinger’s voice in the community is critical to me. In a moment where I didn’t know if I had the strength to speak up, I read this essay, initially published on Medium. Bear has given us permission to re-publish it here, and I hope it gives you courage to use your voice, even when you’re scared, like it did for me. Thank you for the reminder that Black Lives, our lives, and what we do with them, matter. In an effort to prevent Bear from doing additional emotional labor, please refrain from reaching out directly to the artist. If you’d like to support, please consider giving directly. Venmo: @BearBellinger

I never expected to still be here.

Some mornings, I shoot up from bed confused, breathless, lost between the dream world I just escaped and the realization that I am still here. My body is whole, my mind is intact, my spirit…struggling.

You see, I occasionally have nightmares of being shot by the police, remixing past interactions with deadly consequences. I dream of KKK rallies and unprovoked bar fights. I dream of danger. I dream of our history. I dream of our present. And, those dreams inevitably end in my death.

You get it.

To be clear: I don’t want to die. But, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t expect to. Continue reading “To All The Black People Killed Before Me”

Aaron’s Top 10 Nostalgic Recorded Performances of All Time

Theatre isn’t dead! And it never will be, as long as I have anything to say about it! It is safe to say, however, that theatre is taking a nap right now, as a result of a little worldwide pandemic you might have heard of. I won’t lie, I miss going to the theatre a great deal — in many ways it’s the last distraction-free form of entertainment there is. The thrill of being in a dark room, forced to turn off your phone and focus completely on a gripping story which unfolds right before your eyes. . . well, there’s nothing quite like it. Continue reading “Aaron’s Top 10 Nostalgic Recorded Performances of All Time”

Two-Month-Old Letter Reveals Artists Called for Transparent Leadership Search at Victory Gardens Theater in March

Below is the unedited text of a letter sent by over sixty artists who had previously worked at or are currently affiliated with Victory Gardens’ Theater. This letter was sent on March 2nd, 2020. Erica Daniels was appointed on May 5th, 2020.  Several of the signatories of the original letter have permitted us to publish their names. 

“To The Board of Directors and Executive Leadership at Victory Gardens Theater,

We are writing as artists and artistic affiliates who have had the pleasure of working at and with Victory Gardens Theater at one point or another in its forty-six year history, witnessing first-hand its great strides as a leader and cultural change-agent in our field. Continue reading “Two-Month-Old Letter Reveals Artists Called for Transparent Leadership Search at Victory Gardens Theater in March”

Mass Resignation: A Letter from the Victory Gardens Playwrights Ensemble

On Friday May, 22nd, 2020, the Playwrights Ensemble of Victory Gardens resigned en masse via a public letter on Medium. See the full letter below.

Victory Gardens Theater Playwrights Ensemble:

Luis Alfaro, Marcus Gardley, Ike Holter, Samuel D. Hunter, Naomi Iizuka, Tanya Saracho, Laura Schellhardt

________________________________________________________________

We, as an ensemble of resident artists at this venerable institution, are deeply
disturbed by the notion that our creative home aspires to be a truth-telling temple on its stage, but not in its administration.

This is unacceptable.

The Board of Directors, who are of service to our community, took it upon themselves to eliminate communication with the ensemble, artistic staff, stakeholders and artists who have labored for a decade to build up this theater and its new audience.

For over five months, and after receiving a letter signed by over 60 of its biggest supporters asking for accountability, the board sat on a plan to reorganize the institution.

It ignored the limitless possibility of what the field might have presented in terms of viable local and national leadership.
Continue reading “Mass Resignation: A Letter from the Victory Gardens Playwrights Ensemble”

Columbia College Student Questions A Professor’s Potentially Offensive Language, Columbia Professors Villify Student in the Press

There are two types of education for the undergraduate theatre professional of color in America.

Option 1: An invigorating education where teachers can help you place your lived experiences in an academic canon and define your place in the world. This empowering approach allows you to fully step into yourself as an artist.

Option 2: An oppressive education that requires you to become an EDI expert before the age of 22, sharpen your ability to articulate yourself, and learn to facilitate your own safety and growth. This creates a very fierce, visionary, albeit traumatized artist. 

A student at Columbia College recently got a steaming portion of number two when her white professor Paul Amandes decided to use the phrase “magical negro” to explain a character death in his student’s work. Look left, look right. You guessed it, not a Black person in sight. The only person who could even challenge the professor was the student of color whose work he was also critiquing: Estefania Unzueta. When she brought up that the language was inappropriate in class on May 4th, Unzeuta describes his response:. Continue reading “Columbia College Student Questions A Professor’s Potentially Offensive Language, Columbia Professors Villify Student in the Press”

Where is the Vision? A Future Without Artistic Directors

In the future, art is not created it is produced.

In the future, there are no questions, only answers.

In the future, diversity is a statistic and not an ethic.

In the future, budgeting decisions rule out artistic ones.

In the future, our audiences remain predominantly white, and privileged.

In the future, theatre is solely a product for entertainment.

In the future, every Story You See will be the Story You Just Saw Only Better and More Diverse.

In the future, judgement replaces empathy.

In the future, artistic vision is a business plan.

This future is not so distant.

“We are at the precipice. Everything in our society could change tomorrow, simply because it cannot sustain its way of being any longer. How are we envisioning that future, in the arts and beyond? At Rescripted we are envisioning an empathetic future, driven by advocacy and dialogue, rather than this present cycle of trauma and fear.”Regina Victor, Letter From the Editor: Artistic Visions for 2020. December 31, 2019.

We are experiencing a vital shift in the landscape of American Theatre that requires our attention. We cannot afford to look away for another moment. Do you know who determines your future?  Continue reading “Where is the Vision? A Future Without Artistic Directors”

Institutions Do Not Define Our Artistic Practice

Institutions do not define our art.

Like many of us, I am an artist who has defined my artistic career by the institutions that granted me entry. This quarantine is causing them to suffer, which is causing my colleagues and mentors and teachers to suffer. In this moment of tremendous uncertainty, where the future of these institutions is unstable, it feels like our future is too. Continue reading “Institutions Do Not Define Our Artistic Practice”