The 2001 Tony Award for regional theatre, to Chicago-based Victory Gardens Theatre, recognizes a rare thing in nonprofit American resident theatre: a troupe devoted exclusively to new or world premiere work.
That's been the mandate since Victory Gardens was founded in 1974, said artistic director Dennis Zacek, 60, whose once-humble, playwright-based company now has a $1.6 million annual budget, four venues in one Lincoln Avenue complex and an "ensemble" of 12 house scribes penning as many as five mainstage show per season.
"The fact that there are three Tony Award-winning theatres in the city of Chicago, with the Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre [and Victory Gardens], makes Chicago a pretty special place," Zacek observed.
In the 1970s, when Chicago resident theatre was solidifying, the Goodman was founded as a director-oriented theatre, Steppenwolf as an actor oriented theatre and Victory Gardens as a playwright-driven theatre. After scores of new works had been staged by Victory Gardens, the idea of a writing "ensemble" — with playwrights working separately — took hold in the 1990s, Zacek said. With few exceptions, ensemble the theatre has been devoted to producing the plays of its house writers season after season. Resident writer Claudia Allen's Fossils, starring Julie Harris, continues to July 1, for example but next season Victory Gardens will stage an outsider's work, S.M. Shepard-Massat's Waiting to be Invited, among the plays of other ensemble writers.
While Steppenwolf and Goodman productions have been seen on Broadway — including the Tony Award-winning revival staging of Death of a Salesman (from the Goodman) and the current Tony-nominated One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (from Steppenwolf) — works from Victory Gardens have been less high-profile, despite hundreds of subsequent stagings of VG-originated works around the world. James Sherman's Beau Jest and its sequel, Jest a Second, have been hits in regional theatres, and John Logan's Never the Sinner is a title seen in university, professional and amateur theatres, to say nothing of the work of the prolific Jeffrey Sweet (Porch, Flyovers). The 2001 Tony Award for regional theatre was based on a recommendation from the American Theatre Critics Association. The honor brings an unprecedented national and international spotlight to Victory Gardens. "One never knows what the Tony is going to bring," Zacek said, adding that he hopes the cachet will help increase his subscription base, boost financial support and encourage more stars to participate in world premieres.
How does the process for choosing plays happen at Victory Gardens?
"Each individual is different," Zacek said. "They are expected to recognize that Victory Gardens is their home theatre. As a result of that they are expected to present their new work to Victory Gardens first. It doesn't guarantee that when they present that work it will be produced."
The writers are not on salary, but Victory Gardens will award commissions for works, which are initially presented to Zacek as informal pitches.
Writers have different work habits and Zacek may deal with ensemble members in different ways. "James Sherman is usually someone who writes a show every two years," Zacek explained. "I'm quite aware of that and somewhere along the line he gets a call from me asking, 'How is the new play coming?' It gives him incentive to get a draft of Act One to me."
Zacek said he may ask what a writer is interested in writing about and they will bat script ideas around. "We might discuss three or four ideas, and what are the particular roads [the writer] might travel," Zacek said. When a script reaches an early draft, a workshop phase of several weeks is followed by rewrites and a planned production. Rarely does a workshop not lead to a full staging, he said.
As in commercial theatre, there are previews, but usually only nine performances. "We do that do we can continue to refine right up to opening night," he said.
The development phase is ongoing all year. Even as Fossils continues its run, VG is heading into a workshop of Jeffrey Sweet's new project, scheduled for fall 2001.
"We're constantly developing something," Zacek said.
The stable of 12 writers includes three women, three African Americans, writers ranging in age from 30s (John Logan) to 70s (Steve Carter), and writers of varying tastes and backgrounds and persuasions. Is there room for more than 12?
"There are a number aspiring writers and writers whose work we do who would very interested [in joining]," Zacek said. "At this point I am working hard to take care of the ensemble and yet not have a closed shop. There's a fair amount of diversity."
For more information, go to www.victorygardens.org.
— By Kenneth Jones