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Chicago theater has a crisis of leadership

On Monday, Chicago’s theater and journalism communities were set to gather in celebration of the life of former Tribune critic Richard Christiansen in the theater space at the biographer that bears his name. But the event, timed to what would have been the 91st birthday of the famously supportive and courtly critic, was postponed. Nobody involved wanted to get caught up in the mess that is Victory Gardens Theater.

That crisis, if you have not been keeping up, has rendered the Tony Award-winning theater, a 48-year-old bedrock of the city’s famous off-loop scene and the caretaker of one of Chicago’s most important buildings, the historic Biograph Theatre , without an artistic director, an executive director, an announced season or any kind of functionality whatsoever. Its staff, to the extent there still is a staff, is angry and unhappy. The board of directors has been accused on social media, without any credible evidence but with plenty of likes, of looting the theater for its own benefit. At one point, I drove past the building and saw a red, do-not-cross tape over the doors. I almost threw up through my car window.

Yet despite all of the media coverage, it remains opaque what happened, not least because neither the board of directors nor the artistic director they fired are talking on the record, beyond mostly unhelpful and litigated statements. Clearly, there was disagreement about the board’s purchase of real estate attached to the building (which presumably could have generated income for the company, if done right), a sense among a rebellious staff that a dysfunctional board had its priorities wrong, and a vital search process gone awry. Neither side, as far as I can tell, are talking at all about the Victory Gardens audience. Both sides, clearly, are doing likely irreparable damage to the Victory Gardens brand.

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Worse, this is not happening in isolation. In recent months, the House Theater of Chicago, long one of the city’s most exciting and vibrant companies, went out of business with hurt feelings on all sides, not least from a newly hired artistic director who had not been given any chance to make her mark, just as a former artistic director had been hounded out of the door, just as other talents elsewhere had been hounded out of the city. The Royal George Theatre, a vital venue in the off-Loop theater scene, was allowed to disappear for condos, ruining the chance to create an entertainment district in concert with Steppenwolf Theater across the street. Stage 773, a multistage venue with a long and vital history as the Theater Building, essentially became a bar.

And if that weren’t enough, TimeLine Theater parted company with one of its artistic associates in recent days after a series of women came forward alleging inappropriate behavior on the part of an individual who had, prior to this scandal, been involved in making allegations against theater companies rather than being on the receiving end of them. It was enough to make anyone’s head spin, especially since it became clear that TimeLine, which is raising funds for a new building, had been, at least to some extent, forewarned.

The names aren’t included here and don’t matter a jot for the point I am making: the Chicago theater has to rally, unify and stop eating its own. I see the crisis, frankly, as existential for a beat I’ve covered for some 30 years. Were this a more sensational newspaper, the headline might well have been “is the Chicago theater over?”

Why this crisis? Some of the factors are, of course, external. The pandemic was brutal for the sector. A portion of the loyal audience is fearful of going out, be it due to worries about crime or health. More of them are out of the theatergoing habit and well aware that streaming shows, like Hulu’s “The Bear,” are of high quality now and even of local interest. That’s a big problem. The decline in audiences exists outside of Chicago: In recent weeks, I’ve gone to the Williamstown Theater Festival and Barrington Stage Company in Massachusetts, as well as theaters in Connecticut and, of course, on Broadway. Rarely were these theaters as full as was routine prior to the pandemic.

But plenty more are internal. Who in their right mind would buy a subscription right now to Victory Gardens? Readers have been asking me what is going on at TimeLine (beats me). And there is also plenty of evidence that theaters throughout the city are not producing shows that audiences want to see. Sure, there are exceptions. But you can spend an entire morning reading what artists have to say on social media and never once read the word “audience,” unless accompanied by an insult. And, frankly, some of the posts from some of the biggest mouths are, to say the least, reprehensible. Some young artists in the city are likely wondering if there is anyone they can trust.

You might say the history of Chicago theater, as in the industry as a whole, is disputed territory. You can find both nostalgists for the well-documented sense of community and mutual caring that has evaporated, and also those who want to tear it all down, using the reasoned argument it was always built on exploitation.

Again, though, the past is exactly that. What matters now is the future and whether this community can rebuild itself and do so with fewer takedowns and more inclusion, less intramural wrangling and finger-pointing and more forgiveness and outward-facing togetherness. Above all, there must be an end to personal hypocrisy and to the canard that you can only reform an organization by ripping it apart, at least until it offers you a paycheck. Stewardship must come back in style.

What does that require? leadership. Of the whole shebang.

Chicago’s restaurant industry, which can be fractious, got its collective act together to make its case to the city and state. The League of Chicago Theatres, mired in its own lengthy search for a new head, has been woefully silent of late. No one else has stepped up, either. Or, at least, not in public.

Adults (of all ages) in theatrical rooms tend to keep their heads down, seemingly afeard of being attacked. Time for some courage and to begin a new conversation with the people who come to the shows. Theater audience-ship is a voluntary act: the city is filled with supporters, if only the industry knew how to talk to them. It’s time to abandon promoting one theater where someone works: the sector has to develop a much better collective voice.

Chicago is filled, still, with struggling but massively talented young theater artists, reeling from a near-impossible crisis even as they spill out from the city and state’s great universities. They are among this city’s most vital assets. They must be kept safe, encouraged, allowed to risk and fail and, above all, be seen.


When these artists (and, yes, boards of directors) are their own worst enemies, someone has to remind them of that word and another useful one, especially at Victory Gardens: Compromise.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

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