Earlier this summer, while browsing the web, I stumbled upon a new theatre company, Living Room Playmakers. Intrigued by the company’s work and their choice of venues in particular, I wanted to know more. A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak with two of the individuals behind Living Room Playmakers, Chad Eschman and Erin Austin. Read on to learn more about the company’s history, what’s coming up in the 2013-2014 season, and much more…
Andrew DeCanniere (AD): How did Living Room Playmakers come about? I thought that you could perhaps provide a little bit of background to start with.
Chad Eschman (CE): Most of us met at Northwestern [University] when we were students there, as graduate writers. We decided that we really wanted to go out and start working in Chicago, and rather than wait around for opportunities to come to us, we decided to just start making our own. We had a great group of really talented people, so we thought we should give it a shot.
Erin Austin (EA): We’re all playwrights and we met in the program. Chad and Jennifer [Rumberger] and I were in the same year. We really wanted to work together and to work with other people who not only wrote what we thought were fun things, but were also people we like to be in a room with. People who were generous with their time, with their creativity and things like that. That’s sort of how the group of us have gotten together. We’re a playwrights collective.
AD: Is there anything in particular that you – either you two personally or as a group -- are drawn to? Any particular kind of work?
CE: I started living in this really crazy old house in Rogers Park with a bunch of people, and it’s huge. Erin and Jennifer came up to me and suggested we do plays in that house. That’s sort of become how we approach all of our projects now. We find a space we really like that’s not a theatre, and we start writing things specifically for the location. That’s kind of been forming the way we go about making theatre in this particular company, which I think is really different from what we’ve seen in a lot of other places, and it’s been really fun. It allows us to go into new space, new neighborhoods, and do some sort of unconventional things and meet new people. It also allows us to have parties after every show, which is really fun.
EA: The whole community experience and social interaction is really important to us. Not only do we want to do plays, but we want to bring people into environments that they wouldn’t think of as a theatre, see something theatrical, and then talk about it afterwards. You meet new people and discuss what you saw, so it’s not just going to see a play, it’s like a whole evening or a whole day.
AD: I think that’s so fascinating. I’ve never come across a theatre company where the play was specifically designed in this way, for a specific venue.
EA: We’re always looking for new and different kinds of venues. As playwrights it’s very fun for us, and challenging for us to write plays in different spaces. We have some upcoming projects, but then in the future we’re really interested in doing plays in empty storefronts or gallery spaces. We also talked about some church basements or some recreation centers. All of those plays would be written for that space.
CE: It’s been fun because we have so many writers involved. There’s typically anywhere from three to seven people writing, who all have very different voices and styles, but because we’re building it all around one particular location, it has really influenced the mood. I mean, when we did our first set of plays in this old mansion, they were very spooky and strange. It was in the wintertime. Then our second set of shows was at this loft where bands often play, so there was much more of a party atmosphere, and very different and fun and higher energy. That’s been the unifying thing that can bring all of these different playwrights’ voices together, which is really cool.
AD: I know that there haven’t been too many thus far, but of the venues that you’ve used for your performances so far, do you have a favorite?
CE: We liked them both a lot, but, like I said, they’re very different. They were both very different shows. The first one people stayed after and listened to music and drank wine. Then, at the second, we had a dance party with a bartender and everything. They were both very fun in very different ways, and I think they actually brought different audiences, actually, which was also very cool. There were totally different sections of Chicago coming in to see plays.
EA: Yeah, because the second space is a DIY space that mostly has musicians who come to see things there. So, all of those musicians still came and they were like ‘Whoa! I haven’t seen a play in forever.’ So we had that kind of vibe. Then, for the first show that we did at Chad’s place, a lot of artists were there, there was a Rogers Park sort of feel, so it was really different. We’re currently working on a third project, which I don’t know if we want to talk about, but we’re hoping to get a whole different thing going on.
AD: That sort of touches on my next question, but now I don’t know whether that’s something you want to discuss. What can audiences look forward to in the upcoming season?
EA: Oh, we’re really excited about it. We’d love to share. The first two that we did, we started out with the plays, and with this one we’re really excited about focusing on the community aspect and the social aspect. We’re going to approach this more as a house party, with plays that will take place in a bedroom upstairs at this house in Lincoln Square. There’ll be very short plays that take place, one after the other – seven short plays – in a bedroom.
CE: The idea is that people can come, they can socialize, and then a couple of times throughout the night they’ll have the opportunity to go up and watch the shows, then come back down to the party after that.
AD: Sounds like an interesting concept to me. When is this going to be?
CE: In mid-December. We’re in the early stages of planning it right now.
AD: Who are your influences and what is it that draws you to their work? What makes their work compelling to you? What do you like about them?
CE: That’s a good question and a complicated one, because we have so many different writers who I think would all answer this question completely differently, in terms of who we look up to and follow. For us it’s less about connecting on our literary influences or our academic influences. It’s more about the sort of approach we want to take of building the work ourselves, and being able to present it to a community that doesn’t typically go to the theatre and being able to have a really strong hand in making the work happen, which we don’t often get to do as playwrights. We get to play different roles and we also get to work together, collaboratively with other playwrights, which also is not something that happens often.
AD: Is there anything else that either of you are working on?
CE: All of us also have other projects we’re working on all of the time, which is also fun. We’re all pursuing our own tracks as playwrights, and submitting to all the festivals and whatnot, but this is our chance to come together and do something that’s fun and more low-key and where we can work with our friends.
EA: The thing about playwriting is that it can be very isolating. You’re sitting at your computer, and you’re writing your 18th draft or something. We’re all very social people who like each other. This gives us the opportunity to go away and we do our own things – we teach playwriting classes, we have workshops going on, productions – but then we get to come back together and work in a really collaborative and positive community.
CE: I think that it’s a great way for us to influence one another as contemporaries. Because I know that the things I write with Living Room Playmakers are somewhat different from the stuff I write on my own, and I like that. It pushes me in new directions.
AD: How did you all get your start in the theatre?
CE: It’s something I’ve done my whole life. In terms of this company, we all sort of met through our graduate program and through the city, because we’re from all different places. A lot of us used to be actors and have done a lot of directing and other things, and we bring that to the table as well, but this is kind of a new venture.
EA: Yeah, we have some people with an improv background. There are some people who are more strictly writers. Because we sort of all are doing it ourselves, we’re bringing in all these different elements, it’s been great for us. We have a woman who does sound design, so she brings that element in. While we like to call ourselves playwrights, we also like to do these other things. Chad acted in our last production. Jennifer acted in our first production. So there are lots of different starts.
CE: It kind of makes it exciting, because we don’t all have the exact same background. I think it gives us a lot of strength.
AD: I’d think it would definitely be a plus, having all of these people coming from all of these varied backgrounds. You’re bringing in people with different experiences, different types of knowledge. I’m sure it makes it that much better.
EA: And from different parts of the country. We all came to Chicago for grad school. I’m from Florida, Chad is from California. We have someone from Iowa, someone from Colorado, from New York. All over the place.
CE: I think there’s a certain open-mindedness that comes to the table. If we were all people who’d been working in Chicago for 20 years, or working in New York for 20 years, I think we might go about this differently. Having this group from so many places, it’s such a fresh start. I think we’re more open to new ideas and ways of approaching the way we create.
AD: Any more specifics on what the second season holds?
EA: Well, we’re in the writing phase of it right now for the Bedroom Plays. We all write on our own and then we’re going to come in together and share our pieces, but I imagine they’re all going to be quite wacky and maybe a little sexy. I think it’s going to be fun to see how they all pair together.
CE: It’s really fun when you do shows in such a different location than the last, because it really does affect the overall tone. And I think you [Erin] are right, because that’s exactly what this one is going to be. Wacky and sexy, who doesn’t like that? Then, for the rest, we’ll see. We have a list of places we’re thinking about and talking to, and we’re open to looking into new venues and possibilities. It’s basically any place we feel like would be exciting for us to write something in or about that has a community attached to it. We just hope we’re able to draw in audiences who can feel welcome and comfortable with what we’re doing and to have fun, and who are going to want to stick around and dance with us afterwards and have some good conversations about creating new work. That’s the most exciting thing for us right now.
EA: As long as we keep making theatre together that’s fun and accessible for our audiences, and people go home and say ‘I had the best time,’ as opposed to ‘I saw the best play,’ that’s what we’re really looking for, and we’re loving what we’re doing right now. It’s been great.
CE: That’s a good point. It’s about the experience, the whole evening.
Photos: Courtesy of Living Room Playmakers