The regulars at Victory Gardens Theater are theater-going people. A number of subscribers say they hold season tickets to six to eight different theaters all over town — and have for decades. Many of them also feel a longtime affinity for Victory Gardens, having purchased their season passes for 20 years or more.
In that time, Victory Gardens won a Regional Theatre Tony Award (2001), moved two blocks up Lincoln Avenue into its current home in the Biograph (2006), and built a Playwrights Ensemble that was at the center of its identity as a theater devoted to new works, much in the same way the actors ensemble is at the core of the Steppenwolf.
But creative enterprises change when the faces behind them change — which surely is what has happened at Victory Gardens. Those longtime subscribers no longer belong to quite the same theater — which opens its 2012-13 season with the Midwest premiere of "Equivocation."
About 7 percent of current subscribers have been there since Victory Gardens was founded in 1974, says executive director Jan Kallish, another 10 percent for at least 20 years.
For 35 years, Victory Gardens was run by artistic director Dennis Zacek and managing director Marcelle McVay, a husband-and-wife team who were the faces of the theater, and who had an unusually close relationship with their regulars. They would greet many of their subscribers by name. But after a sometimes-rocky relationship with the theater's board, McVay left in 2008 and Zacek retired in 2011.
After a nationwide search, Victory Gardens hired director and playwright Chay Yew as the new artistic director in May 2011. The Singapore-born New Yorker, known for being a young, experimental talent on the rise, was widely regarded as a "get" for the Midwestern theater. Since his arrival, Yew has embraced the theater's mission to cultivate new works and develop new voices. "I'm like the Little Match Girl," he says, identifying himself with a character who's outside looking in. So it's probably not surprising that he has brought in his own new voices — but he has also all but dispensed with that Playwrights Ensemble.
"What makes a theater a theater is not a business plan or a physical facility but the group of people who come together to tell stories," says playwright Jeffrey Sweet, who's had 14 plays produced at Victory Gardens over the years. "None of the people who built that theater are there anymore. They have a new theater with an old name."
Subscribers have certainly noticed that things are different.
"That was a supershock," says Ernest Rients, a subscriber who's been attending Victory Gardens for some 30 years. "We have seen those playwrights for years. We truly care about them and then just to have them all listed as 'emeritus' — it's shocking."
The theater first listed the playwrights as "emeritus" in a program for the first Yew-directed show, "Ameriville," in February; it is now using the term "alumni." Yew appointed four new playwrights to the ensemble; they will have seven years to explore and develop their work at the theater before they too become alumni.
For the 2011-12 transition season, Yew was responsible for scheduling two of the plays — "Ameriville" and "Oedipus el Rey," which ran over the summer. How has the tried-and-true audience responded so far to the new new?
For several subscribers, "Ameriville" did not seem to have made much impression. A performance piece without conventional plot, character or scene, "Ameriville" featured rousing chanting and singing, rhythmic movement and poetic declamation from minority voices on topics of American disenfranchisement. "It must've been something forgettable," says Evelyn Finegan, a subscriber for 35 years. "It was strange," says Kooki Finkelman, another longtime subscriber. "We did not care about it," Rients says. "It was too far out."
Yew says he was absolutely intending to do something different than what the audience may have become accustomed to. In addition to bringing in new playwrights, Yew wants to bring in a new and diverse audience — to "make the audience look like the face of Chicago."
Of course, no Chicago director would want to alienate those who have pledged their hearts, time and wallets, but few would surrender a theater's artistic direction to subscribers' expectations. Yew says he values and respects the theater's audience, understanding that without them, he would be working in a vacuum. "Our audience listens to plays better than any other audience in the country," he says.
They were certainly listening to the final play of the 2011-12 season. "Oedipus el Rey" received an overwhelmingly positive response from the subscribers interviewed, even those who were disappointed about the "graduation" of the playwrights. The play is a gritty retelling of Western drama's most securely canonized work, set within in gang-ridden West LA: "I thought 'Oedipus' was fabulous," says Grayce Papp, who's been attending Victory Gardens "since it's been there." "A mindblower, so exciting," Finkelman says. "Oh, my gosh, it was fantastic," Rients says.
In terms of the numbers, subscriptions are holding steady. If some ticketholders are falling away, then others must be stepping up to fill their seats. Victory Gardens says subscription sales are roughly equal to what they were last year at this time.
It appears that, through these changes, the Victory Gardens audience wants to go along for the ride. "We're faithful subscribers," Papp says. "There are many things to be discovered and to be put in a theater. I'm stirred up with interest to see what's going to be next. No qualms about it."
If others are reserving judgment, they're hanging in there. "In one year, we'll be able to say," Rients says. "Things are very different, and I liked that very much. He knows what he's doing. We have to give him the year to see what he's going to do."