This week’s article is a little bittersweet to write, because it is about a production that is close to me. We are taking a look at Waltzing Mechanics’ seventeenth edition of EL Stories: The New Kids in Town. As a member of this particular production, I wanted to shine a light on the wonderfully talented cast and crew that I have had the pleasure to work and learn from.
To give a little history Waltzing Mechanics was founded in 2010 by Thomas Murray, Keely Leonard, and Zachary Florent. The Mechanics work “to create original documentary theatre inspired by real people telling stories about their lives. Using methods of performance ethnography, we facilitate dialogues among our audiences and within our communities.” EL Stories is part of that endeavor, and is exactly what it sounds like: stories about being on the EL Train and the other public transportation around Chicago.
For this interview I sat down with the director of this edition of EL Stories, Rebecca Willett, who provided some insight with her experience on this production.
Leigh Yenrick: Since this a long-running production with new stories each time, what did you want to bring to the show as a writer and director?
Rebecca Willett: With any production, but especially one that has run for as long as this, one of the first questions I ask myself is: “what can I bring to the project that another director can’t?” As an Australian who has lived in Chicago now for a couple of years, I have had the experience of both being a newbie, as well as now being someone that welcomes new people and Aussie visitors to Chicago (seriously, I’ve done the architecture tour like 5 times now!). I think this journey is very much a part of what Chicago is and I wanted to give voice to those stories — which I felt I was in a perfect position to do.
I’d also seen EL Stories a number of times before directing it, and I wanted to challenge myself artistically as well as contribute to the development of the show’s form. My hope in the addition of the beginning and end scenes, as well as the maps as a metaphorical baton, was to create a frame that highlighted the journey of each character as they went from newbie to Chicagoan.
LY: Since Waltzing Mechanics is a documentary theater in town and you are using real people’s stories, what challenges did you face with the dialogue in creating the show?
RW: With any verbatim theatre piece — from both a directorial and writing perspective — there’s always the question you struggle with of “what is the truth of this story”. You have this responsibility to take a story someone has told you on the street, in a coffee shop, or — in some cases for this show — by Skype, and not just use their exact words, but also communicate what the truth of the story was for them — which is not always the same as the reality of the situation! Sometimes I solved this by adding characters that the storyteller talked about, other times by very careful cuts, and other times by overlaying the story with theatrical conventions. A really good example of this is the “Monopoly man” story. What the teller Ray was saying happened in reality was very different to what was happening in his head — and it was what was happening in his head that actually made the story exist and worth telling. The story he’s telling is essentially a slightly weird drunk guy brushing his facial hair on the train. However, because of Ray’s perspective as a visitor this man became a comment on class and wealth and well, board games.
I found that a fair bit with these stories about being new to Chicago — because of that exact reason — when everything is new, everything seems like a memorable, exciting experience.
RW: Yes, definitely! These stories don’t just reflect my personal experience, but so many of my friends and family!
LY: Since this the column is called Unscripted Moments. I always like to ask: what is your favorite moment in the show?
RW: Argh! Only one!? Well, most of the time my favorite moment in the show changes depending on the performance. Just because a moment is great on the page, doesn’t mean it will be great in the performance — but when an actor really hits something, you know it!
But… if I had to choose a moment that I think is most consistently my favorite, it would probably be the wheelchair guy in the “This Doesn’t Happen in Amsterdam” scene. I think part of why I love it so much is because of how it came about. It was one of the last scenes I adapted and as the story had been used in a past EL Stories, I had the challenge of not just making it live, but also making it different to what had been done before. We actually used this story as a playback for the audition, and at the time David Kaplinsky decided to be the ticket machine — which I loved! So when I was writing it, I thought why not push this further? I made David the ticket machine, and Leigh the turnstile, and it just seemed a natural progression — especially in response to the storyteller’s description of the wheelchair guy as “huge” — to make him three people instead of one. When I first pitched the idea the actors were definitely dubious, but there’s something fascinating in a Brecht-meets-Greek-chorus way of having all three of them being one — and Akua, David, and Keith kill it every time!
Saturday night is the closing of this particular production of EL Stories at the Greenhouse Theater. So come on out and see us the New Kids in Town.