Chicago, IL —
For the last three weeks Nothing Without a Company has welcomed theatregoers into the Berger Park North Mansion where they're staging a living room drama in an actual living room, giving the audience an intimate peek into the lives two lesbian couples whose lives are about to change. "The Kid Thing," written by Chicago-native Sarah Gubbins (look for her upcoming Amazon series "I Love Dick," produced by Jill Soloway of "Transparent"), follows the couples as their longtime friendship is rocked by the sudden announcement that one is pregnant, and the desires, fears, prejudices and questions that ensue.
"I just love the play because it's fast and it's smart and it's funny and it's sad -- and it doesn't try to be just one thing and that feels so important," director Jake Fruend told ChicagoPride.com. "It feels so true because it's so complicated. There's a moment where you love everyone and there's a moment where you hate everyone...it's a quick-witted, queer-as-f*ck show."
Nothing Without a Company (NWAC) has been making theatre in Chicago for over ten years with the intention to "empower self and community through immersive and revolutionary acts of art in site-specific and reclaimed environments" ("which essentially means we do unconventional theatre in weird places," joked Fruend.)
Think a punk rock musical about a band trying to make it big staged in a garage in a Chicago alley, or series of short plays performed in a bar's backroom that take place in the bar. A show last year had audience members wandering through the space stumbling into and patching together fairy tales from around the world; audience members could return and see a completely different show every time.
"They're just real as f*ck, these two people, and they run this company out of sheer passion for making the thing," Fruend said of NWAC's cofounders and Artistic Directors Anna-Rose Il-Epstein, who joins the cast of "The Kid Thing," and Hannah Il-Epstein (yes, they're a couple). "Immersive theatre isn't always the easiest thing to do -- as an audience member I, pretty often actually, feel awkward in an immersive theatre environment...and so what makes NWAC so great is they approach everything with such heart and so much enthusiasm that you can't help but be sucked into the thing."
Fruend met Anna-Rose when he was a freshman and she a recent-graduate of Columbia College of Chicago and after working together in the theatre world, he began as a company member with NWAC over three years ago. His Chicago theatre career has included credits as a director, writer and actor with multiple companies, including Mercy Street Theatre
, which he helped found and continues to direct shows for. Among his favorite projects are the aforementioned theatre's annual production of "Merry Christmas, Mulch Pile!" which follows a trans girl who comes out to her family with the help of her friend Santa Claus and a play developed from a true family story about his grandmother's friendship with an openly gay photographer in the 1950s.
"The Kid Thing" represents a turning point for Fruend, as the first show he was approached to direct without having specifically pitched or written the show himself. It's likewise new ground for NWAC, as the first previously published piece that they've produced after over a decade of focusing on original works. The company was first introduced to the show at a reading Anna-Rose (who was a student of playwright Gubbins' at Columbia) and Hannah attended at Steppenwolf
in 2010 and fell in love with.
In 2009, when the show was written, same-sex marriage was only legal in four states and 44 did not have protections against discrimination for gay and lesbian couples trying to adopt. A lot has changed in the past eight years and "The Kid Thing" continues to speak to relevant topics -- from queer families and the pressure to conform to the traditional nuclear model to fear-driven politics to how we react when faced with change.
"What's fascinating is how even as gay marriage has become legal and gay adoption and gay parenting has become more common, this play still speaks to those ideas that just sort of live under all of this -- that level of discomfort," Fruend said. "Things are feeling pretty fascist right now and that just feels like it's in reaction to culture changing so quickly. It's like, all the a**holes are pulling back on the reins because they can't handle how fast things are going -- and this play speaks to...the fear at the heart of that kind of enormous change."
"It went from being a living room drama about gay marriage and parenting to being a living room drama about personal fear and prejudice and safety in public...it turned into something else completely," Fruend continued. "It's really cool how it kept changing for us, so it felt important enough to want to do it."
When initially approached, Fruend was unsure about directing "The Kid Thing" ("well I don't know if you've noticed," he joked, "but I'm not a lesbian"), however after talking with Anna-Rose and Hannah, considering the questions as the heart of the show and seeing the Berger Park mansion space, he was unable to pass up the opportunity. Neither Fruend nor his design team had experience with this type of immersive production, and approached it as the challenge of balancing the way the immersive style can make some traditional theatregoers feel awkward with the desire to make the audience of this show feel invited-in.
Oftentimes, immersive theatre involves the audiences getting up and walking around to multiple spaces or scenes, something Fruend avoided, instead focusing on making the scene feel realistic and the audience involved. The audience (of about 25) never moves from their seats in the living room, but must also shift and divide their attention among action occurring in adjoining spaces, sometimes concurrently and often in real time. The first few minutes of the show consist of overlapping dialogue as the two couples stumble in, drunk, arguing about Michael Jackson; during one scene, a character is baking in the nearby kitchen and then sets down a tray of freshly baked cookies within audience members' reach.
The pace is quick and goofy, peppered with opportunities for the audience to miss small details and moments occurring simultaneously. The style is purposefully not stagey or over-produced, but loose and natural.
The immersive quality of the show comes from the audience perceiving this realism, feeling both invited in and like they're intruding on an intimate scene -- children watching, unnoticed, from the bannister or closet as the grown ups' party unfolds.
"We're literally doing a living room drama in a living room and that should be all the reason in the world for an audience member to feel comfortable and welcome," Fruend said. "The coolest part about walking in there is it's this big empty looking house and you step into that living room with the record player going and candles lit and wine out and you feel at home...It really is like the first theatrical moment of the show -- stepping into that room."
Fruend credits this "first theatrical moment" to his designer Alaina Moore ("I have the most amazing designer in the entire world -- and you've got to put every word of that in there," he insisted) who plays the unconventional role of Production Designer for a staged play. Her cohesive vision for the set design, props and costumes add to the immersive quality of the show by making the space feel truly lived-in while subtly reflecting the themes of the action taking place within it. The set plays with the ornate Berger mansion's antique feel, setting questions about the characters' roles in the nuclear family and traditional values against a mixture of contemporary and mid-century design, reflected in everything from furniture to the glassware.
The design accentuates a cast of only five (the two lesbian couples and the sperm donor, who drops by for a visit) that truly "embodied their roles" and "brought everything they had" to the show, says Fruend . Their discussions surrounding the themes addressed in the show, and the questions left unanswered by it, never stopped. Neither did the post-rehearsal karaoke parties, both of which were part of building a real-life bond that's tangible in the close relationships acted out onstage.
"I knew that if the actors were good and that the space looked good the immersion would sort of take care of itself." Fruend said. "There's a lot that goes unanswered and I think that that's why it's successful is you're left with some questions and some ideas and rehearsal would end and we'd all just sit around and end up talking about it. It was a fun bonding experience, I'm gonna miss them."
Also noteworthy is the music utilized in the show. Fruend continues his tradition of, instead of pulling unlicensed music, organizing a partnership with a band and scoring the show by an album. This time that partnership is with Stoop Kids
, a band out of NOLA that Fruend describes as "psychedelic jukebox...surf rock meets jazz and hip-hop." The unique sound fits the show perfectly and Fruend encourages anyone who likes the music to check Stoop Kids out.
"The Kid Thing" plays for two more weekends -- Thursday through Sunday this week (4/6-4/9) and Thursday through Saturday next week (4/13-4/15) -- at 7:30 p.m. at the Berger Cultural Center North Mansion, 6205 N Sheridan Rd (off the Granville Red Line.) For online tickets or more information check out http://gopride.com/Zd09/