A group of artistic directors from some of the country's most well-known regional theatres have partnered to commission a new autobiographical work from former Victory Gardens Theater Artistic Director Ken-Matt Martin, a public show of support following his recent ouster from the Chicago theatre's embattled board of directors, a move the cohort of regional theatre leaders describe as a "wrongful termination."
Martin was terminated from his position by the board of directors last month amid criticism of the board's alleged lack of transparency and dedication to diversity, equity, and inclusion, along with further allegations of financial malfeasance around a real estate transaction. Among the fall out from the situation so far has been the resignation of the theatre's entire cohort of resident artists, all of whom voiced support for Martin and frustration at the board's unwillingness to allow him to effectively lead the organization; playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza pulling the rights from the theatre's then-currently running production of cullud wattah due to "the white supremacist capitalist patriarchal values espoused by the board of directors"; and the unionization of the remaining full- and part-time staff.
Martin's $30,000 commission has been pledged by Melia Bensussen, artistic director of Hartford Stage; Robert Barry Fleming, executive artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville; Nataki Garrett, artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; Maria Manuela Goyanes, artistic director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company; Jamil Jude, artistic director of Kenny Leon's True Colors Theatre; Marya Sea Kaminski, artistic director of Pittsburgh Public Theater; Pam MacKinnon, artistic director of American Conservatory Theater; Jacob G. Padrón, artistic director of Long Wharf Theatre; Hana Sharif, artistic director of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis; and Stephanie Ybarra, artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage.
The group have been meeting weekly since March 2020—the beginning of the pandemic and shortly after each member was appointed to their current post—to support each other and work collectively towards better inclusion in non-profit theatre, an initiative led by author and advocate Todd London and, initially, The Dramatists Guild, and in consultation with Luis Castro, Cynthia Mayeda, and Shay Wafer.
"The unilateral actions of the Victory Gardens board of directors and the dismissal of our valued colleague Ken-Matt Martin hit us where we live. In response, we are collectively committed to support our fellow artistic leader where he lives–by providing financial incentive for him to expand his creative practice, use his voice to make sense of his lived experience, and share the power of that art with our cherished audiences—all across the country," said the group in a joint statement. "We are commissioning Ken-Matt to make theatre of his experience. We are creating national pathways for supporting that work alongside our larger artist communities. Furthermore, we are committed to support his directing and choreography career with opportunities in several of our upcoming seasons. We believe that theatre can bring change and healing, and we intend to put that belief into practice in concert with this fine artist."
"I’m truly humbled and grateful to receive this funding from these great leaders and theatres," added Martin. "This gift will make it possible for me to focus on making art and to reflect on my experiences in this industry in a meaningful and artistic way. The generosity shown by these leaders coupled with an outpour of love from many strangers has renewed my faith in this field. Thank you."
Victory Gardens' current struggles are the latest in a troubling period for the Chicago theatre's management that dates back to 2020. Then-Executive Director and Executive Artistic Director Erica Daniels and Board Chairman Steve Miller both stepped down in 2020 following criticism of the theatre's lack of response following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the resulting protests both in Chicago and around the nation.
Daniels fought back against this characterization in a recent email to Playbill, citing a newsletter sent to subscribers in May 2020 that voiced the theatre's solidarity with those "seeking justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the countless others we have lost to the pandemic that is racist violence" and provided a handful of links to social justice organizations. The newsletter did not include any pledge to changes within Victory Gardens management nor any steps that the theatre's leadership planned to take in response.
Miller is still listed as a Board Member Emeritus on Victory Gardens' website.