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Victory Gardens: A Love Story

Victory Gardens is movin’ on up. We trace key moments in the storied theatre’s 30-year history.

Victory Gardens is movin’ on up. We trace key moments in the storied theatre’s 30-year history.

1969-Marcelle McVay meets Dennis Zacek at Northwestern University. Three years later they marry.
1974-Seven Chicago artists put up $1,000 each (another donates a light board) and Victory Gardens is born. It opens with Stacy Myatt’s The Velvet Rose to less-than-rave reviews on the top floor of the Northside Auditorium Building at 3730 North Clark Street.
1974-McVay auditions for its second production, The Magnolia Club.
Zacek: She did well.
McVay: She did not do well.
DZ: She’s a fabulous actor.
MM: Dennis!
McVay does not make the grade. Despite her absence, critical praise greets the show and McVay becomes Victory Gardens’ “first and only” full-time employee.
1975-Zacek directs Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker with Chicago hotshots Frank Galati and William J. Norris. The show wins eight Jeff nominations. Zacek, a Chicago native and associate professor of theatre at Loyola, joins the theatre’s board of directors. That same year, the Victory Gardens Training Center hatches. Classes include David Mamet’s course on scene study.
1978-Zacek casts William Petersen, a recent Training Center alum, as John Dillinger in Norris’s Dillinger.  Petersen earns his Equity card and becomes a top Off-Loop draw. He ultimately goes on to star in TV shows like CSI.

1979-VGT creates Chicago’s first Equity Latino theatre ensemble, and begins an ambitious high-school touring program. In 2003, the initiative pays off with Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics. Despite initial resistance, Zacek says he and McVay “held pretty firm” wanting to “reconnect to the Latino community” they had played to in those early years. They are redeemed when Anna wins the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

1981-Victory Gardens moves to 2257 North Lincoln Avenue.

1985-The Sovereign State of Boogedy Boogedy, a Shakespeare-meets-Motown high-and-low-culture linguistic ballet by Chicago native Lonnie Carter, becomes a world première hit in VGT’s studio. It ultimately moves to New York.

1996-Zacek and McVay form the Victory Gardens Playwrights Ensemble, whose diverse-by-every-measure corps includes Claudia Allen, Lonnie Carter, Steve Carter, Gloria Bond Clunie, Dean Corrin, John Logan, Nicholas Patricca, Douglas Post, James Sherman, Charles Smith, Jeffrey Sweet, and Kristine Thatcher.
2000-A battle of epic proportions erupts between the board and artistic corps. “It started with a long-range planning session,” says McVay. Board members consider McVay and Zacek’s longevity a negative. Ultimately the husband-and-wife team prevails.
2001-Victory Gardens receives the Tony Award for Regional Theatre at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. Julie Harris starts the press conference by saying, “Victory Gardens stands for everything I believe in, especially bringing new plays to audiences.”
2006-In October, Victory Gardens expands to the Biograph Theater, opening its five-play season there. “We are a Chicago theatre, and we’re very proud of it,” says Zacek. Meanwhile, he and McVay (now 65 and 57, respectively) celebrate their 34th wedding anniversary.

Photography: Mamet Lee Celano/wireimage.Com, CSI Petersen Lorenzo Agius/CBS, all others courtesy of Victory Gardens Theatre

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