Dennis Zacek to step down at Victory Gardens
Victory Gardens Theater's artistic director, Dennis Zacek, announced today that he plans to retire at the end of the 2010–2011 season after 34 years at the company's helm. Zacek, who's directed more than 250 plays at VG, guided the company's growth as it moved in with the Body Politic in 1981, eventually taking over the building (now the Greenhouse Theater Center), and then to its current home, the renovated Biograph Theater. In 1996 he established the Playwrights Ensemble that cemented VG's commitment to writers and new work, and in 2001 picked up the Tony Award for regional theater.
"Even though many people think that I am ageless, I will indeed be 70 on November 5," Zacek said in a phone call this afternoon. "So it’s inevitable. I’d rather retire while I’m on top than when I’m older, perhaps a trifle weaker, and they toss me out with the garbage."
Zacek is vocal about his preference that he be replaced by Sandy Shinner, who's served as his associate artistic director for 25 years and has been with the company almost as long as he has. (Shinner, who's directing A Guide for the Perplexed, currently in previews, was in rehearsal and unavailable for comment this afternoon.) "It would make me happy," he says. "She’s eminently qualified, she’s a first-rate director, and I think she should get the job. But it’s not my choice."
The choice falls to VG's board of directors, with whom Zacek hasn't always seen eye to eye in recent years. He and his wife, Marcelle McVay, who served beside him as managing director for many years, made clear their opposition to the board's decision to sell the Greenhouse in 2008; McVay stepped down soon after.
"Dennis has said very strongly that he wants Sandy to replace him, and that’s understandable—they’ve worked together so closely for so many years," says board president Jeff Rappin, but he says the board will launch a national search. The nationwide-search strategy has backfired on other companies, most recently with Next Theatre's hiring and firing of Jason Southerland, but Rappin says VG's board and search committee will seek input from the Playwrights Ensemble and others.
"It's a bad idea," Zacek insists. "The problem is, if you have someone right under your nose and the person is golden, you should take that into consideration. And they’re not inclined to do that."
Those under the nose of VG's board include other Chicago theater artists in addition to Shinner. Rappin says the national search shouldn't be seen as ruling out locals. "We think there are going to be Chicago artistic directors who’re going to be interested. But we also think it’s going to be a pretty long line," he says. "We just feel that the best service to the theater and to the theater community is to get the best. That may be somebody from Chicago, but I don’t want it to be said on my watch that we didn’t go out and look for the best."
For Zacek, there's no question that Shinner is the best. "If we’re talking about what the VG has accomplished, she’s part of the accomplishment, and this would be a way to continue it," he says.
"And she’s a different person. She’d take the organization in a slightly different direction. And I think slightly is enough."