Chicago theater is experiencing a leadership crisis

On Monday, Chicago’s theater and journalism communities were expected to come together to celebrate the life of former Tribune critic Richard Christiansen in the Biograph theater space that bears his name. But the event, timed for what would have been the famously supportive and gracious critic’s 91st birthday, has been postponed. No one involved wanted to be caught up in the mess that is Victory Gardens Theatre.

This crisis, if you haven’t kept pace, has made the Tony Award-winning theatre, a 48-year-old bedrock of the city’s famous off-Loop scene and guardian of one of the most important buildings in Chicago, the historic Biograph Theater, with no artistic director, no general manager, no announced season or feature of any kind. His staff, to the extent there are still any, are angry and disgruntled. The board has been accused on social media, without any credible evidence but with lots of likes, of looting the theater for their benefit. At one point I walked past the building and saw a red do not cross ribbon above the doors. I almost threw up out my car window.

Yet despite all the media coverage, what happened remains opaque, not least because neither the board nor the artistic director they fired speaks publicly, beyond mostly unnecessary and contentious statements. . Clearly there was disagreement over the council’s purchase of real estate attached to the building (which presumably could have generated revenue for the business, if done well), a sentiment among a rebellious staff that a dysfunctional council had the wrong priorities, and a research process went wrong. As far as I know, neither side talks about the audience at Victory Gardens. Both parties are clearly causing irreparable damage to the Victory Gardens brand.

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Worse, it doesn’t happen in isolation. In recent months, Chicago’s House Theater, long one of the city’s most exciting and dynamic companies, has gone bankrupt with hurt feelings on all sides, including from a newly hired artistic director who hadn’t had a chance to make her mark, just like a former art director had been kicked out of the gate, just like other talent elsewhere was kicked out of town. The Royal George Theatre, a vital venue for the off-loop theater scene, was cleared for condos, ruining the possibility of creating a concert entertainment district in concert with the Steppenwolf Theater across the street. Stage 773, a multi-story venue with a long and vital history as a theater building, has essentially become a bar.

And as if that weren’t enough, TimeLine Theater parted ways with one of its artistic associates in recent days after a series of women came forward alleging inappropriate behavior by an individual who had, before this scandal, been involved in allegations. against theater companies rather than being their victims. It was enough to make anyone’s head spin, especially as it became clear that TimeLine, which is raising money for a new building, had, at least to some degree, been warned.

Names aren’t included here and don’t matter for what I mean: Chicago theater needs to rally, unify, and stop eating its own. I consider the crisis, frankly, to be existential for a beat that I covered for about 30 years. If it were a more sensational newspaper, the title might well have been “Is the Chicago theater finished?”

Why this crisis? Some factors are, of course, external. The pandemic has been brutal for the sector. Part of the loyal public is afraid to go out, whether for the sake of crime or health. Most of them are out of the habit of going to the theater and are well aware that streaming shows, like Hulu’s “The Bear,” are high quality now and even of local interest. It’s a big problem. The audience decline exists outside of Chicago: In recent 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. These theaters were rarely as full as before the pandemic.

But many others are internal. Who in their right mind would buy a membership right now to Victory Gardens? Readers have asked me what’s going on at TimeLine (beats me). And there’s also plenty of evidence that the city’s theaters aren’t producing shows that audiences want to see. Of course, there are exceptions. But you can spend an entire morning reading what artists have to say on social media and never read the word “public” unless it’s accompanied by an insult. And, frankly, some of the posts from some of the biggest mouths are, to say the least, objectionable. Some young artists in town are probably wondering if there is anyone they can trust.

You could say that the history of Chicago theater, like the industry as a whole, is contested territory. You can find both nostalgics for the well-documented sense of community and mutual aid that has evaporated, and also those who want to destroy everything, using the reasoned argument that it was always built on the operation.

Again, however, the past is exactly that. What matters now is the future and if this community can rebuild and do so with less teardowns and more inclusion, less intramural bickering and finger pointing and more forgiveness and solidarity turned outwards. Above all, the personal hypocrisy and canard that you can only reform an organization by tearing it up, at least until it offers you a paycheck, must be ended. Stewardship must return in style.

What does it require? Leadership. Of all the stuff.

Chicago’s restaurant industry, which can be restless, has rallied to make its case to the city and state. The League of Chicago Theatres, mired in its long search for a new leader, has been awfully quiet lately. No one else intervened either. Or, at least, not in public.

Adults (of all ages) in theaters tend to keep their heads down, apparently in fear of being attacked. Time for a little courage and to start a new conversation with the people who come to the shows. The audience at the theater is a voluntary act: the city is filled with supporters, if only the industry knew how to talk to them. It is time to abandon the promotion of a theater where someone works: the sector must develop a much better collective voice.

Chicago is still teeming with struggling but hugely talented young theater artists reeling from an almost impossible crisis even as they overflow from major universities in the city and state. They are among the city’s most vital assets. They need to be protected, encouraged, allowed to take risks and fail, and most importantly, be seen.

Seen.

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

Chris Jones is a reviewer for the Tribune.

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