Chicago theater is in a leadership crisis

On Monday, Chicago’s theater and journalism communities were scheduled to gather to celebrate the life of former Tribune critic Richard Christiansen in the Biograph’s theater room that bears his name. But the event, timed to coincide with the notoriously supportive and courtly critic’s 91st birthday, has been postponed. None of those involved wanted to be drawn into the chaos of the Victory Gardens Theater.

That crisis has, in case you haven’t been keeping up, toppled the Tony Award-winning theater, a 48-year-old foundation of the city’s famed off-loop scene, and the caretaker of one of Chicago’s most important buildings, the historic Biograph Theater , without an artistic director, an executive director, an announced season, or any kind of functionality. His staff, to the extent that there are any left, are angry and unhappy. The board of directors is accused of plundering the theater for its own benefit on social media without credible evidence, but with many likes. Once I drove by the building and saw a red cross tape over the doors. I almost threw up through my car window.

But despite all the media reporting, it remains unclear what happened, not least because neither the board nor the artistic director they fired speak on the record beyond mostly unhelpful and controversial statements. Apparently there was disagreement over the purchase of real estate associated with the building (which, if done correctly, presumably could have generated revenue for the company), a sense among rebellious employees that a dysfunctional board of directors had got their priorities wrong, and an important one Search failed. As far as I can tell, neither side talks about the Victory Gardens audience at all. Obviously, both sides are likely to do irreparable damage to the Victory Gardens brand.

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Worse still, this does not happen in isolation. In recent months, the House Theater of Chicago, long one of the city’s most exciting and dynamic companies, went out of business with hurt feelings on all sides, not least from a newly hired artistic director who hadn’t been given a chance to make marks the way a former artistic director was chased out the door, the way other talent was chased out of town elsewhere. The Royal George Theatre, a key venue on the off-loop theater scene, was allowed to disappear for condominiums, ruining the chance of creating an entertainment district along with the Steppenwolf Theater across the street. Stage 773, a multi-level venue with a long and vibrant history as a theater building, became essentially a bar.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the TimeLine Theater has parted ways with one of its artistic staff in recent days after a number of women came forward alleging inappropriate behavior by a person involved in allegations prior to this scandal against theater companies, instead of being on the receiving end of them. It was enough to turn everyone’s heads, especially since it became clear that TimeLine, which is raising money for a new building, was at least partially forewarned.

The names aren’t included here and don’t matter to the point I’m making: Chicago theater needs to rally, unite, and stop eating itself. I honestly consider the crisis existential for a beat I’ve been covering for about 30 years. If this were a more sensational newspaper, the headline might have read, “Is the Chicago Theater Over?”

Why this crisis? Some of the factors are external, of course. The pandemic has been brutal for the industry. A portion of the loyal audience is afraid of going out, whether for fear of crime or health. More of them have stopped going to the theater, aware that streaming shows like Hulu’s The Bear are now of high quality and even local interest. That is a big problem. The audience decline exists outside of Chicago: in the last few weeks I’ve been to the Williamstown Theater Festival and the Barrington Stage Company in Massachusetts, as well as theaters in Connecticut and of course Broadway. Rarely have these cinemas been as full as before the pandemic.

But many more are internal. Who in their right mind would buy a subscription to Victory Gardens right now? Readers have asked me what’s going on at TimeLine (smacks me). And there’s also plenty of evidence that theaters across the city aren’t 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 read the word “audience” unless it’s accompanied by an insult. And honestly, some of the posts from some of the biggest mouths are reprehensible to say the least. Some young artists in town are probably wondering if there’s anyone they can trust.

One could say that the history of theater in Chicago, as in the industry as a whole, is contentious territory. There are both nostalgic for the well-documented sense of community and caring that has evaporated, and those who want to tear it all down, with the reasonable argument that it’s always built on exploitation.

But again, the past is just that. What matters now is the future and whether this community can rebuild itself with less dismantling and more inclusion, less internal strife and blame, and more forgiveness and outward facing togetherness. Above all, end personal hypocrisy and the duck that the only way to reform an organization is to tear it apart, at least until they offer you a paycheck. Stewardship needs to come back in style.

What does that require? Guide. From all that stuff.

Chicago’s restaurant industry, which can be troubled, has banded together to hold its own with the city and state. The League of Chicago Theatres, mired in its own protracted search for a new director, has been woefully quiet of late. No one else has climbed either. Or at least not in public.

Adults (of all ages) in theater spaces tend to keep their heads down, seemingly for fear of being attacked. Time for some courage and a new conversation with the people who come to the shows. Theater audiences are a voluntary act: the city would be full of supporters if the industry only knew how to approach them. It’s time to stop promoting a theater where someone works: the sector needs to develop a much better collective voice.

Chicago is still teeming with struggling but tremendously talented young theater artists reeling from an almost impossible crisis, even as they pour out of the city’s and state’s major universities. They are among the most important assets of this city. They need to be protected, encouraged, risked and failed, and most importantly, seen.

Seen.

When these artists (and, yes, executives) are their own worst enemies, someone needs 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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