The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Woolly Mammoth calls for theaters nationwide to trust and protect artists

The board of the D.C. company circulates a letter in response to layoffs at a venerable Chicago theater company

Washington's Woolly Mammoth Theatre has spearheaded an effort to hold theater boards accountable to their artistic staffs. (Mike Morgan)

This summer, a Chicago theater stunned the industry by firing its artistic director and entire staff, and reportedly making plans to discontinue producing new work. Now, in a highly unusual act, an influential Washington theater is asking other companies to publicly reaffirm their commitment to their artists.

That the board of D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company felt the need to make such an appeal attests to the turbulent times for the nation’s theater companies. The pandemic shutdown weakened the financial underpinnings of many, and a less than robust return of audiences — some estimates put the drop at 20 to 25 percent of theatergoers — has unnerved the industry.

But it was the actions over the summer of one company in particular, Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater, for half a century a mainstay in one of the nation’s most vibrant theater cities, that has heightened the alarm. In response, Woolly Mammoth’s board is seeking co-signers for a letter that delineates the scope — and limits — of what theater trustees are expected to do, to bolster the groups that they had pledged to assist.

“Without input from the professional artists associated with the theater,” Woolly’s board wrote about Victory Gardens, “the mission of the theater was overhauled — from a theater devoted to producing new plays, it was announced by remaining board members that Victory Gardens will now be run as a rental house for other producing companies. …”

“As volunteers who dedicate our time to beloved cultural organizations in our respective cities, let us ensure that what happened in Chicago is an anomaly, not the norm,” the Woolly board continued. “While we do not speak for every theater, we have seen how easy it is for boards to silo themselves from the needs of the artists, administrators and technicians who work to create the theater they love and support. This is not serving us and our field.”

Several board members from Baltimore Center Stage, New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre, San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre and the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis have already attached their names to the letter, which asks signatories to donate to an online fundraiser on behalf of Victory Gardens’ former employees.

The unraveling at Victory Gardens Theater — a company recognized with a Tony Award in 2001 that has offered world premieres by such major playwrights as Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Lucas Hnath and Jackie Sibblies Drury — occurred over several mystifying months this year. In June, after just 14 months as artistic director, Ken-Matt Martin was relieved of his duties by the board. In protest, playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza withdrew in the middle of its run her well-received play “Cullud Wattah,” about the water crisis in Flint, Mich.

On his website, Martin noted that he was given no reason for his dismissal. “I have received no disciplinary notices, formal or informal warnings, and have had no complaints filed against me or any documented infractions,” he wrote. Three months later, as the company’s remaining staff of eight sought to unionize, the board fired them, too.

Emails to Victory Gardens’ communications office bounced back as undeliverable. In July, board president Charles E. Harris II told the Chicago Reader: “The Victory Gardens Theater board is grappling with the theater’s future, as are many other nonprofit theaters in this time. We are committed to acting in the theater’s best interests in all matters.” He added that the board was taking measures to install an interim management.

The Victory Gardens crisis was unsettling enough to spark conversations among board members at other nonprofit theaters, worried about the message sent to artists and staff members who might be wondering about their own companies’ loyalties. J. Chris Babb, chairman of the Woolly board of trustees, was among those who thought the situation called for an organized response.

“This is just to send a statement to the people who work in American theater, who do the art, that this is not how the majority of us function,” Babb said in an interview. “What we have conveyed is that we want you to stay in the nonprofit theater, and don’t be scared of the people who are holding this, clearly, in trust.”

Barbara Strack, another Woolly board member, said that she was taken with a comment by the former Victory Gardens artistic director: “In particular, there was a phrase Ken-Matt Martin repeated, that he tried every day to center the needs of the artists and staff,” Strack said in an interview. “That resonated with me. As a board member, as a trustee, that is the same lens that we should be bringing.”

Woolly Mammoth’s letter echoes this philosophy: “We all have one fundamental role: to hold our theater’s mission — its principal reason for being — in trust for the communities we represent,” the board wrote. “Holding a theater in trust this way is quite different than directing its operations. It is a stewardship that requires centering on the art and the artists and trusting their talent and expertise … ”

Maria Goyanes, Woolly’s artistic director, said it was gratifying that board members took it upon themselves to circulate such a forceful statement. “The thing I really took to was the idea that the board would not overhaul the artistic mission of the theater without centering the artists and staff and the professionals,” she said. “That made me go, ‘Oh, great, whatever happens, however rocky things are, there is really a respect.’ ”

Scot Spencer, a longtime board member at Baltimore Center Stage, said he immediately signed the letter. “For me, it really is about the way forward. We have been through a perilous time both in culture but also in how people approach the things they do in their leisure time,” he said. “We also need to evolve with that. As board members, trustees, this is not a crazy, far-off set of demands. This is asking to treat people with mutual respect.”

Center Stage is taking a lead role: It has hired several former Victory Gardens staffers, and Martin has been recruited to direct one of its main stage shows this season, Nia Vardalos’s “Tiny Beautiful Things.”

“It’s important for people to remember these are real people, people with children in college,” Martin said in an interview, referencing his former colleagues. He expressed the hope that all those he worked with in Chicago will find jobs.

“Anything that is done to advocate for those people who’ve had the rug pulled out from under them,” he added, “is what I care about.”