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Victory at Victory Gardens

Victory at Victory Gardens

The power struggle is over at Victory Gardens Theater, and long-time Artistic Director Dennis Zacek and Managing Director Marcelle McVay are the winners, turning back a proposal approved by the VG Board of Directors to hire a "CEO" over them; an action that would have triggered the resignations of the husband-wife team, followed by withdrawal of major funding for the $1.5 million annual budget of the 26-year-old troupe.

The genesis of the proposal was in a board and staff retreat last spring, in which broad growth goals—fiscal, audience, and possibly facilities—were approved. Push came to shove over execution, with the board apparently (no one will go on record on this point) particularly dissatisfied with McVay's performance. At the same time, board leadership explored purchase of the 450-seat Royal George Theatre; an action that not only would have overburdened the financial resources of the company, but also would have been death for VG's mainstage commitment to seasons of new works by its own ensemble of playwrights (Jeffrey Sweet, Kristine Thatcher, James Sherman, Steve Carter, Lonnie Carter, Claudia Allen, John Logan, and Charles Smith among them). Owning its own complex of two 175-seat and two 50-seat theatres, VG last year operated its own mainstage season at 90% of capacity and carries no deficit. So, if it ain't broke, why fix it?

The board finally saw the light when word was leaked to the press by the minority of pro-management board members. The board immediately backed off of the Royal George plan, and three weeks ago reconfirmed Zacek and McVay in their positions after a huge outcry from press, subscribers, and at least three major funders. For their part, Zacek and McVay agreed to hire a director of development who will report to McVay. They also agreed to explore facilities options, which might include modifications to the existing space, or a future move. Certainly, both fiscal growth and audience development are hampered by the limits of a 175-seat mainstage, especially when VG can draw stars such as Julie Harris, Jon Cryer, and Sharon Gless to its stage. Perhaps occasional off-site producing in a larger house is the short-term answer. The remaining question is: Will the defeated and discredited board leadership resign?

The eagerly-awaited Dance Chicago 2000 will light up the Athenaeum Theatre Nov. 4-Dec. 3, offering more than 100 dance troupes and choreographers in nine different programs, spanning the range from ballet to ballroom to hip-hop. The sixth annual festival under the Dance Chicago label, the series will offer a nearly-complete who's who of Chicago dance, with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Joseph Holmes, Cerqua/Rivera Experience, Randy Duncan, Joel Hall, Nana Shineflug, Harrison McEldowney, River North Dance Company, Daniel Ezralow, Frank Chaves, Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, Jump Rhythm Jazz Dance Chicago, Melissa Thodos, Jimmy Payne, Jr., Jellyeye Drum Theatre, Mad Shak Dance Company, Ballet Chicago, Nancy Teinowitz, Lane Alexander, Trinity Irish Dance and Ballet Theatre of Chicago among the better known artists and companies. Only the Joffrey Ballet is missing, and this festival doesn't need 'em!

The nine programs in Dance Chicago 2000, all under two hours in length, include a popular annual program specifically for families and kids, plus two evenings devoted to a dance slam, in which up to 20 choreographers, solo dancers, or troupes can strut their best five minutes, and be rated by the audience. Typically, several bookings for next year will emerge from the dance slam. Principal funding for Dance Chicago 2000 comes from the MacArthur Foundation, the WPWR-Channel 50 Foundation, and the Philip Morris Companies.

Congo Square, a new theatre troupe that plans to produce black-themed plays, is setting up shop at the Chicago Dramatists space, 1005 West Chicago Avenue. Calling itself the "brainchild of 12 artists educated at Howard University and the University of Illinois," the group has enlisted heavyweights such as August Wilson, Harry J. Lennix (a Chicagoan), Al Freeman, Jr., and Goodman Theatre artistic associate Chuck Smith as members of its advisory board. Congo Square (the name comes from the market area of the New Orleans French Quarter) has announced a three-play season to include Wilson's The Piano Lesson (which opened Oct. 19), Cheryl L. West's Before It Hits Home, and Fugard's The Island.

The Talent Connection, a Chicago institution, has closed shop after 22 years. It was the last of the old-fashioned, real-person answering services catering to the acting profession. To its last day, which was Aug. 31, former Chicago actor and cop Dennis Farina continued to use the Talent Connection for his Chicago calls. Owner Pat Dour was done in by e-mail, voice mail, answering machines, and the actors' strike. I used the Talent Connection for the better part of a decade early in my freelance career, and, boy, did I feel guilty when I disconnected them in favor of my first answering machine! Pat and her late partner, Inez Prescott, provided the most motherly and devoted service anywhere. An apocryphal story says they once tracked down an actor in the steam room of a local bathhouse! At its peak, the Talent Connection was a 24/7 operation with 1,300 clients and 14 operators. End of an era, as 773-472-6550 moves on to someone else. God bless you, Pat.

An additional passing: the community is mourning the death of veteran character actor and major-league voice-over talent, Patti Wilkus, 79. A Joseph Jefferson Award-winner, Wilkus was equally at home in musicals or straight plays. During the 1970s, she commuted to New York for a recurring role in the daytime soap, "Edge of Night."

A happier note is being sounded at Davenport's Piano Bar and Cabaret, celebrating its second anniversary in November. In that short span of two years, Bill Davenport's two-room saloon in the trendy Wicker Park neighborhood has become one of Chicago's top cabaret rooms, drawing the likes of Billy Stritch, Karen Mason, and Phillip Officer to its back room, while making the front room a haven for local talent. And with a modest cover charge, no minimum policy, too. Congrats, Bill!

The Writers' Bloc, a long-established ensemble of authors, is staging its 11th annual festival of new plays, "Write Off the Bloc," Oct. 16-Nov. 15 at the Theatre Building. Staged readings of 13 plays by 16 authors and composers will be offered, including a play about architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a musical based on O'Henry's "A Christmas Valentine," and a play about Henrietta Szold, founder of the international Jewish women's organization, Hadassah. The festival coordinators are Laura Targ, Jennifer Savarirayan, and Lisa Holmes.

The Auditorium Theatre Council (ATC) has announced selections for the second season of its Ovations! series, modeled after the City Center Encore! programs. The three will be Rodgers and Hart's The Boys from Syracuse (February), Berlin's Call Me Madam (May), and the Bacharach/David/Simon Promises, Promises (October). Marc Robin is artistic director of Ovations!, with Kevin Stites as musical director. The producer is ATC executive director Jan Kallish.

In other production news, the commercial remount of And Neither Have I Wings to Fly by Ann Noble Massey has been extended through Nov. 12 by producers Michael Leavitt, Fox Theatricals, and John York Noble. It's at the Victory Gardens upstairs theatre, directed by David Cromer. Also extended through Nov. 12 is David Dillon's Party, the gay comedy that returned to the Bailiwick Repertory (where it first saw life eight years ago) in August. The official eighth anniversary of the show—which has played London, New York, Los Angeles, and many other burgs—will be Nov. 5. Meanwhile, at the Briar Street Theatre, Blue Man Group celebrated its third anniversary this month. As the press release notes: 1,439 performances; 5,756 Twinkies; and 138,144 rolls of recycled paper.

Two Chicago theatre veterans have taken on new management responsibilities. Actor, director, and teacher Robert Scogin has assumed the post of managing director of the Next Theatre Company in Evanston. A stalwart of the Chicago Shakespeare and Goodman theatres among many others, Scogin also co-founded ShawChicago in 1994, and continues to serve the company as artistic director. Scogin succeeds Peter Rybolt, who's been named executive director of the Irish Repertory of Chicago, now in its second year. On the local scene as a manager since 1985, Rybolt left Next last year to become director of development at Northlight Theatre, prior to his Irish Rep move. Irish Rep kicks off its second three-play season next April, with Daniel J. Travanti in Hugh Leonard's A Life.

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