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Regional Spotlight: How Victory Gardens Theater is Working Through The Global Health Crisis

Regional Spotlight: How Victory Gardens Theater is Working Through The Global Health Crisis

Now more than ever it is important to support theater and do our part to keep the art form that we love so much alive and as thriving as it can be during these unprecedented times. While the global health crisis has temporarily put the theater world on hold, pausing all live performances and large gatherings to help stop the spread of COVID-19, theaters around the country have taken a hit. During this time of adjusting to our temporary new normal, theaters are figuring out how to take care of their team, and discovering the best ways to virtually bring theater to audiences.

Through our regional theater interview series, we are checking in with theaters all around the country, talking to them about how they are handling these difficult circumstances, learning what they are doing to move forward, and discovering the best way for people to help regional theaters during this time.

Today, we're checking in with Victory Gardens Theater, with Erica Daniels, Executive Director.

First, I want to check in on the health and wellbeing of everyone at Victory Gardens. How is everyone doing during this difficult time?

Thanks for asking. Everyone is well and I am so grateful for that.

We did have a young person we have as a contract employee catch it, but she is fine now. Everyone else has remained physically healthy and I haven't heard of anyone's family members being affected at this point. Of course, we all are mentally taxed and worried about all members in our community-including those we aren't in touch as regularly, like the front of house staff, teaching artists, vulnerable artists and community partners. We are trying to stay connected with everyone as best we can.

What do the days look like right now for those who work at Victory Gardens?

Well for a few of us, it's busier and the work is more pressing than ever. I am finding that the work has increased for Executive Directors around the country.

Staff members in every department and our board have been working tirelessly and the collaborations and innovations are commendable. For example, finance is working tirelessly on cash-flows, forecasts, budgets and the much-needed loan requests; our grant writer is working at twice her capacity, and the marketing director is busy with keeping our community engaged with online materials and the 2020-21 season announcement and planning. We are also all talking to ticketholders about their options for the two canceled productions and donors and funders about our needs and our future. Staff have been terrific about taking on new responsibilities as needed, sharing ideas and collaborating to manage current and future projects as plans shift with the circumstance. In the meantime, we are planning for the season to begin in September and for our Annual Gala in October.

At VG, we have continued our regular weekly staff meetings, now on Zoom, as we prepare for the future. We try to make these as transparent as possible. I am grateful to consultants at TDC, with whom we worked during a Wallace Foundation grant for building audiences for sustainability, as they're helping us take a look at our entire FY21 and to identify pressure points in order to prepare ourselves with the best plans and strategies. Beyond the regular workload here at the theater, I'm on the Board of the League of Chicago Theaters, so there are weekly calls and work on behalf of the entire theater community. I'm also keeping updated with webinars with Arts Alliance Illinois and Advisory Board for the Arts weekly, among others. Information is power! Victory Gardens is also a part of Enrich Chicago and so I try to maintain weekly calls with Executive and Artistic Directors in this group, as keeping a lens on Anti-Racism and Equity during this time is critical.

How much planning is going on both short term and long term for the theater?

We announced our 2020-21 Season on Tuesday, April 21. We want people to know we'll be back, that Art Will Survive, and that the stories we have planned about community, family, faith, survival and resilience are more important now than they ever were. We will stay true to our mission.

We pushed the first production later, so we won't open the season until late September. We suspect there may be government mandates about having smaller audiences in the space and we will follow recommendations, as well as any union conditions and artist requests during that time. The physical and mental safety of our staff, artists and audience will be our primary concern.

We cancelled the final two productions of the 2019-2020 season-Dhaba on Devon Avenue by Madhuri Shaker and Right to be Forgotten by Sharyn Rothstein. This was a devastating decision and affected so many artists. Like so many theaters, we had already made commitments to things in 2020-2021. Since Dhaba was only in week 2 of rehearsal and the set wasn't fully realized on the stage, we cannot just hit go with that. We need about 8 weeks at the very least to ramp up to a new production. We'll see if these might come back in a future season.

I think we know we have many unknowns still and we know we'll have to be nimble in 2020-2021 and pivot when necessary. We'll move through it and try to make decisions when we have the most information possible. Together with the board and staff, we are planning the best we can and considering models and contingency plans for a number of situations.

Do you have plans to bring any previously filmed productions/upcoming events/classes etc. online?

We are very excited about several on-line events coming up.

Firstly, we go on sale Thursday, April 23 with tickets for 12 online showings of our 2017 critically and audience-acclaimed production of Fun Home, directed by Gary Griffin. HMS Media is working on a beautiful edit right now for us and Jeanine Tesori has been incredibly supportive. She attended our 2017 production and has truly advocated for us. It will air the weeks of May 11 and 18 and links can be purchased for $20.

On May 20th at 1pm (CST), I'll be hosting a conversation with Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics and Drama League winner John Logan, a member of our national artistic advisory board after being in our original playwrights ensemble.

John has since gone one to Hollywood success with the films Gladiator, Rango, Alien: Covenant, Genius, Coriolanus, Sweeney Todd, The Last Samurai, Any Given Sunday and RKO 281. He created and produced the television series Penny Dreadful and Penny Dreadful: City of Angels for Showtime. And, most recently wrote the book for Moulin Rouge! on Broadway.

We are talking to another playwrights ensemble member, Luis Alfaro, about doing an online master class. At some point, we're hoping to have a series of on-line conversations between our directors and playwrights for our 2020-21 Season.

Finally, we are planning to produce our IGNITION Festival of New Work virtually. Our friends at The Playwrights Center in MPLS have been very helpful in guiding us. Rather than IGNITION being over one weekend, we'll host it over 4 weeks in June and July, with 4 weekly readings, and hope to engage audiences in a few ways. We're very excited about this experiment!

What is the best way for people to help Victory Gardens right now?

As a not-for-profit organization, we always rely heavily on charitable contributions, but this is an unprecedented time that requires extraordinary support. Without any shows running, we are unable to support any of our operations through ticket revenue, so right now donations are the most direct and immediate way to ensure that we will be able to get to the other side of this pandemic.

If you are in a position to make a donation of any kind, please do. No donation is too small. We are trying to keep PEOPLE employed as long as possible. Victory Gardens did not receive PPP funding in this first wave, and government loans are simply bridges during the closure to other bridges. They won't help us when we need to start-up to put our art back on the stage.

If you happen to be a ticket holder for our two cancelled shows, Dhaba on Devon Avenue and Right to be Forgotten, there is a very easy way to support us: if you are in a position to convert that ticket to a donation, that would help immensely. This is recognized as a fully tax deductible contribution. And, we have announced our 20-21 season so renewing or buying a flex pass or subscription of any kind is incredibly important.

We're looking towards our future. So, make plans with us and come see a play. We'll be here waiting.

Learn more about Victory Gardens Theater at Learn more about their streaming production of Fun Home, and purchase tickets, here!

Donate to the theater here!

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