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Talking with Victory Gardens' Chay Yew
by Scott C. Morgan, Windy City Times

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Typically when new artistic directors of theater organizations take over, they're often saddled with a planned-out season created by their predecessor. However, Chay Yew, the Singapore-born and out new artistic director of Chicago's Tony Award-winning Victory Gardens Theater, found a way to put his own personal stamp on the season when there was an unexpected opening.

Theresa Rebeck's new play What We Are Up Against was announced for Victory Gardens' 2011-12 season, but she had to cancel once she became busy with her new job as the creator and head writer of the forthcoming Broadway-set TV series Smash ( premiering Feb. 6 on NBC ) . So as a replacement production, Yew programmed in Ameriville, a previous collaboration he directed with the New York-based ensemble UNIVERSES that looks at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and questions how America might react if a similar disaster occurred again.

"It's good for us all to have a piece to remind everyone that citizenship is not free, democracy is not a given and that we all have to participate," Yew said, noting how an updated production of Ameriville is timely in a Presidential election year.

As an 80-minute theater piece suffused with hip hop, song, poetry and dance written and performed by its ensemble, Ameriville isn't entirely representative of the direction that Yew is planning to take Victory Gardens, which has been long characterized by its large stable of resident playwrights.

"I hope to evolve the playwright ensemble," Yew said, hoping to bring in younger Chicago-based playwrights in addition to the current alumni. "If I were one of the theater's playwrights, I would have been very grateful and happy that I've had a home for so many years and that the home belongs to them. Except that I think we also need to start spreading the wealth and I've spoken to these playwrights, too, because they themselves are also teachers and mentors and they see that many of their students are not getting produced."

Exactly what shape Victory Gardens' playwrights ensemble will look like under Yew's artistic directorship is still being worked out. And as an Obie award-winning playwright himself ( other honors include citations from groups like GLAAD and the Rockefeller MAP Fund ) , Yew is trying to find a new balance between his previous roles as a writer and director.

"I've been feeling a little pinched because it's really hard to navigate the left brain and the right brain," Yew said about his new administrative duties leading Victory Gardens. "I just have to be more rigorous with myself."

He admitted that playwriting will have to go on the backburner, much the way that his role model playwright/director George C. Wolfe shifted his artistic energies after directing the Broadway production of Angels in America in 1993 and running The Public Theater in New York.

Yew has also started making some changes at Victory Gardens with the recent hire of Geoffrey Jackson Scott as its new director of new play development, who joins with Sandy Shinner who maintains her position as Victory Gardens' associate artistic director.

He would prefer that Victory Gardens didn't need to rent out its spaces at the Biograph Theater to other theater companies, but with Victory Gardens' current deficit he sees the rentals as a necessary but hopefully temporary salve. But if Victory Gardens isn't always producing its own shows in the Biograph's two theaters, Yew would like to at least curate the rentals so they might tie in more closely to his company's output.

Yew said he hopes to be a good fit with Victory Gardens, and that its audiences will be willing to go along for the ride.

"Chicago theater audiences are tough and demanding," Yew said. "Chicago is about change, too, and I think that the exciting thing is that the change actually makes the city more vibrant, more exciting."

Ameriville by UNIVERSES in development with Chay Yew continues in previews before an official opening on Feb. 6 at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln. Regular performances then run 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, with 4 p.m. matinees on Saturday and 3 p.m. performances on Sundays ( a 2 p.m. matinee on Feb. 15 replaces that date's evening performance ) . Tickets are $20-$40 for previews and $20-$50 during the regular run ( student, senior and rush tickets available ) . Call 773-871-3000 or visit .

Sudden parting

Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's new artistic director Timothy Douglas abruptly resigned his post a couple of weeks ago midway through his first season with the company. According to a report in the Chicago Tribune, both Douglas and the Remy Bumppo ensemble of actors agreed that his hiring was a "bad fit." Remy Bumppo ensemble member Nick Sandys is to become the artistic director.

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