Ep. 5 :: Evan Linder is Making Conversation

Feb 20, 2014 by

Welcome to episode five

of Making Conversation.

(click on the media player above left to listen to or download the full audio of this interview)

Thanks for joining me again for Making Conversation, where every week I interview an artist in his or her 30s, who is doing work I find important, and has something illuminating to say about what it means to do what we do as we are now.  My name is Chelsea Marcantel, and my guest this week is Evan Linder.

His show reWILDing Genius is currently running as part of the Steppenwolf Garage Rep, through April 20th. (click for info)

Evan is a founding member and the Co-Artistic Director of The New Colony. He works in Chicago as a playwright, actor and director. He also teaches playwriting at the University of Chicago.  A graduate of the College of Charleston, Evan has had the pleasure of working with Victory Gardens, The Inconvenience, Collaboraction, Bailiwick Chicago, the side project and Bohemian Theater Ensemble during his time in the Windy City. Favorite New Colony roles he has created include Kirk in Hearts Full of Blood, Tasty in Down & Derby and Randy in Pancake Breakfast. Evan’s first play produced in Chicago, FRAT, was named as one of the Best of 2009 in the Chicago Tribune, Windy City Times and New City. Other works include 11:11, The Warriors, The Bear Suit of Happiness, B-Side Studio, and 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche, which was named Best Overall Production at the 2012 NYC International Fringe Festival and is published by Samuel French5 Lesbians also enjoyed an Off-Broadway run as part of the Soho Playhouse’s 2012-2013 season. Evan’s play The Bear Suit of Happiness and his hybrid stageplay/sitcom/webseries B-Side Studio (co-written with Hit the Wall playwright Ike Holter) both received their world premieres in Chicago in 2013, and he was recently listed on Chicago Magazine’s 2013 Power List of Theater Scene Stealers. Evan will next be seen onstage as Jonathan in TNC’s reWILDing Genius at the Steppenwolf Garage.

 

Evan Linder; headshot by Ryan Bourque

Evan Linder; headshot by Ryan Bourque

CHELSEA:  Hey!  How are you today?

EVAN:  I’m great!  How are you?  We start, uh, we start tech today.

CHELSEA:  Oh wow.

EVAN:  I know, I know.  It’s upon us.

CHELSEA:  So, great, well good—I’m glad I’m catching you at an exciting time.  We should have a lot to talk abut.

EVAN:  Yeah.

CHELSEA:  So tell me—what labels do you use to describe yourself as an artist?

EVAN:  I usually say I’m a playwright and an actor.  I started teaching this past year, though, so I kind of throw that in there as well.  And then, I kind of wear so many hats with The New Colony, that… Somebody actually said this to me the other day, when I said, “What do you see yourself doing for the future, or what do you want to be?”  He said, “I just want to be a new play developer.”  And I said, “Oh, that’s great!  I think that’s kind of what I am.”  Because in the past year I’ve directed a new show, and written several new shows, and now I’m about to be acting in two new shows, back-to-back, that I was very much involved in the creation and workshop of before the script was even written.  So I guess that’s kind of a good title: New Play Developer.

CHELSEA:  Yeah.

EVAN:  I’ll own it.

CHELSEA:  Let’s talk more about that.  Definitely.  You’re a founding member and the Co-Artistic Director of The New Colony, which is one of my very favorite companies in Chicago.  And part of your mission as a company is not only to develop new work, but to develop a new kind of theatre audience.  So, tell me about The New Colony and the way you guys collaborate.  It’s so fascinating to me.

EVAN:  Yeah, absolutely We develop everything that we create through a very specific process.  And the process is designed to make everybody—whether you’re an actor, or a playwright, or a director—more confident in that role as you develop the piece.  So, it’s very highly collaborative, kind of right from the beginning, and it takes flexible people.  Flexible people who say, “I don’t know exactly what I’m doing in this show yet, I have an outline.  And now I’m going to learn everything that I’ll be doing for this show.”  So, we really kind of start with just an idea.  And it can be very small; it doesn’t have to be a huge five-page treatment of a story.  As soon as somebody has an idea and says, “I’m ready to start workshopping this,” then we jump into a room.  And we usually ask the playwright to come up with at least two pages of treatment—where is your structure for this story, where are you building towards, and what are the characters that you need to tell this story?  And then the actors come in, and they tell the playwright exactly who those characters are.  And that allows the playwright to write specifically for those actors.  And that’s really what we find can be most, um, vibrant onstage, I think.  Is if you have actors who feel like they own that character.  You know?  Um, and then the director is able to throw different actors together, throw them in different scenarios.  They playwright controls a lot of the workshops as well.  And when the playwright puts his hands up and says, “I’m done, I have what I need,” then everybody just goes away.  And the playwright starts to write the show.  And then hopefully, we’re able to retain those actors who helped create those roles in the workshops, for the actual production of the show.  Um, so we usually have a turnaround time of usually around nine to twelve months.  Fingers crossed that everybody is still in Chicago and does not have a show scheduled at that time.

B-Side Studio; photo credit: Ryan Bourque

B-Side Studio; photo credit: Ryan Bourque

CHELSEA:  Right.

EVAN:  It can get pretty crazy trying to, uh, trying to maneuver all of that.  But, the ideal of our process is to workshop the show with a certain number of actors, and have those actors actually onstage for the world premiere of that show.

CHELSEA:  So do you use the label ‘devised theatre’ for what you do?

EVAN:  Other people use that label.  I never think of it in that way, just because I think any sort of new play is being devised. 

CHELSEA:  Mm-hmm.

EVAN:  And in my mind—and it may just be a semantics issue—in my mind ‘devised’ makes people think we all get in a room and just make it up.  As we go along.  And it’s really much more structured than that.  You know, the playwright does come in with an idea.  And it their specific idea that they want to see grow.  And then once they have that idea, then the actors come in, and you get to tailor characters specifically to them.  And we have a lot of improvisers in our company.  I mean, half of our ensemble has more of a theatre background and training.  And then the other half of our ensemble is comedians and improvisers and people who moved here to do that.  And what we’ve found is that putting those two mindsets together in a room can create a lot of magic.

CHELSEA:  Mm-hmm.  I have found the most successful experiences I have had making devised theatre have been in situations where the roles were very clearly defined.  And it sounds like that is paramount to your process.

EVAN:  Yeah, absolutely.  I mean it’s just trust from everybody in the room.  You know the playwright trusts the actors to come in and build an interesting character.  Before they’ve started writing their script.  Um, the actors trust the playwright just by signing on board and saying, “Yeah, that’s an idea that sounds great.  I would love to be in that play.  Let me come and create a great character for you.”  And those characters are created, really, from… The playwright will usually come in with just like one to two sentences of a description, you know? Of “this is this character’s function in telling this story.”  And then the actor is entrusted to build a very rich backstory.  And to know everything about that character.  So much so, that when I’ve written in the process, I’ve been able to call up an actor—even months later, after workshops, when I’m still working on the script—and say, you know, “Where did you go to high school, and uh, who were your best friends?”

CHELSEA:  {laughs}

EVAN:  “And how did you interact with them?”  You know?

CHELSEA:  Yeah.

EVAN:  “I have this story that I’m going back to on this, and I would love to just hear your viewpoint as the expert on that character.  If the playwright’s the expert on the story, and building the structure, and telling it successfully, then the actors are the experts on the characters.  And then the director is the expert on, you know, the experience of watching the show.

CHELSEA:  The expert audience member.

EVAN:  Yeah, exactly.  How is the audience going to receive this story that you all have built?

CHELSEA:  How would you describe your artistic style, and has it evolved in your thirties?

EVAN:  Definitely.  I would definitely say it has, solely because I think that whenever I start to sense that I have a style, I want to stop whatever that recurring style is.  And that’s… I don’t know.  Yeah.  I think that’s why it’s interesting.  You start to do something, and you get good at it, and then you say, “Yeah, but I want to tell a whole bunch of stories.  I don’t want to just be known for doing this.”  So, my first two shows that I did in Chicago were very, very personal.  And they were both comedies, and they were both centered around subcultures that I had been a part of over my life.  And I would say those two shows, even though it’s two very different subcultures, were very much had  a documentary-style feel to them.  All the dialogue was very natural, very hyper-realistic.  And they were funny.  And the next show that I did was a show about the survivors of the Jonesboro school shooting in 1998.  One of our company members, Mary Hollis Inboden, is a survivor of that school shooting.  And, it was really her saying that she wanted to do that play, and wanted me to write it.  And I think that doing those first two shows kind of gave me the confidence to say, “Now I feel confident enough as a playwright to tell somebody else’s story.”  And not just stories that are very much on people who I know.  This was about exploring people who I didn’t know.  And then, when we got done doing that show, it was very… heavy.  To be in that world for so long.  And then we immediately followed that up with an absurdist comedy called, Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche.  And then, from there… Yeah.  I feel like each show that I do… From there, my first show that premiered in 2013 last year was called The Bear Suit of Happiness, and it was about gay soldiers in WWII who are tasked with putting on a drag show for the men in their camp.

The Bear Suit of Happiness;  photo credit: Anne Petersen

The Bear Suit of Happiness; photo credit: Anne Petersen

CHELSEA:  Mm-hmm.

EVAN:  And then, this past year, I kind of came and wanted to thwart kind of the style of all of those shows was just… I always had the creative force of The New Colony around me, and workshopping all of my shows before and while I was writing them.  Then this year I just said, “You know, I already have this one story where I know the characters extremely well, I know exactly how they talk, I know exactly how I want to tell this story, my structure is already laid out, and I don’t feel very flexible with this story.”

CHELSEA:  Ah.

EVAN:  “And I’m ready to go ahead and just start writing it.”  And one thing that I kind of landed on the other day when thinking about this, in detailing our process to other people, is that it is meant to empower you in the role that you have.  If you ever feel that you have a story, and doing our process would not empower you—if it feel just like a cocoon to you because that’s the way you’ve always done it, like a safe little haven for you to create in—then maybe you should step outside of it.  Then I stepped outside of it.  And that was a big kind of evolution for me, to be able to do that.  And just being able to say, “I have an artistic family who I can use for a resource for writing some of my shows, but I’m not completely tied to them all the time,” was a really great realization to come to.  You know?

CHELSEA:  Do you find that that’s kind of how you run the room with a different company?  The same way that it goes with The New Colony.

EVAN:  Yeah.  It’s um…  I’m not sure.  I would definitely say The New Colony has taught me how to best behave collaboratively.

CHELSEA:  Aha.  So you teach playwrighting as well, at the University of Chicago.

EVAN:  I do.

CHELSEA:  How does teaching writing impact your own work?

EVAN:  Let’s see.  I would say that teaching writing taught me that writers who are most interested in other people’s stories, are the best writers.

Evan with students at University of Chicago; photo credit: Robert Kozloff

Evan with students at University of Chicago; photo credit: Robert Kozloff

CHELSEA:  Wow.

EVAN:  People who know how to be an engaged audience member know how to write plays that will engage audience members.  If that makes sense.

CHELSEA:  Yeah.

EVAN:  I just remember… My first class that I had at U of C was just sort of magic to me.  Because I just had six students in that class.  And I run my class kind of as a writer’s workshop over the course of 10 weeks.  And those six students in that class were so invested in what everybody else was writing and the characters they had created.  And were always anxiously awaiting everyone else’s pages the next week, almost as much as they were interested in hearing their pages read.

CHELSEA:  Right.

EVAN:  And that was just amazing to watch.  And then… I’ve been there a while and my classes are much bigger now—I usually have twelve to fourteen in my classes now—and it’s not as easy to have that much intense interest from everybody in everybody’s stories.  But I still think that it holds true.  That everybody who knows how to be an engaged audience member knows how to write the best plays.

CHELSEA:  Yeah.  I teach playwrighting as well, and I have fifteen in my class this semester, which is the biggest class I’ve ever had.

EVAN:  That’s tough, right?

CHELSEA:  It’s tough!  It really is, because I do sit-around-a-table-and-do-workshop, too.  And especially with a fifty-minute class, it’s like we just get started talking about something and it’s time to leave.  But, um, I find that the most interested edits that get emailed to me or brought to me, are the ones that someone goes home and makes after, like, a day when their play wasn’t even read in class.   That listening and talking about someone else’s play made them realize something about their own, and they had to go home and do a rewrite.  And I always find those to be so interesting, because when it’s… When we’re talking about that student’s play, they go home and they make edits that other people suggested, or that they think I am going to think are, you know, right.  But when it’s something that they come to from listening to other people’s criticisms of different work, they sort of extrapolate these really beautiful discoveries on their own.

EVAN:  Exactly.  I know, and I think that’s a great thing just about opening yourself up to work collaboratively with a room, and be able to say, “That wasn’t my idea, and I’m going to use it.  Absolutely.  I’m not going to not be open to an idea because somebody else in the room came up with it.”  Because everybody, at the end of the day, has the exact same goal, which is to make that show that’s being created.  To tell that story in the best way possible.

CHELSEA:  Absolutely.  And speaking of shows, you have a new show coming up in Chicago that you’re acting in at the Steppenwolf Garage, called reWILDing Genius.  It sounds—I’ve been, you know, reading about it online—it sounds very immediate and a little bit dark, which are two of my very favorite qualities in a play.  So tell me about it, and tell me about working with the Garage Rep.

The cast of ReWILDing Genius; photo credit: Pat Coakley

The cast of reWILDing Genius; photo credit: Pat Coakley

EVAN:  Yeah.  It’s been a great experience.  The development of the show was very interesting, because we developed it at the University of Chicago, where I teach.  Last year.  The New Colony was the company in residence there during the winter quarter of 2013.  So Andy and Megan Johns both went in with a story idea, which was about Anonymous and about a group of hackers who wanted to change the world.  And this was… This is so often, for so many of our shows, we find something that we get interested in, either in the news or a piece of history or something like that, and we just start learning everything about it.  I think reWILDing has really been swirling in Andy’s brain for maybe like four or five years, really.

CHELSEA:  And Andy Hobgood is the other Co-Artistic Director of The New Colony.

EVAN:  Yes.  Exactly.  And he had this idea, for just a very long time, of the power of a small group of people organizing to change the world.  What is the biggest impact that the smallest group of people could have?  And we went in to these workshops, and one of our actors in the show, James, he was given a few lines of character description and everything like that, and at the end of that workshop, Andy had said, “You know who you should look at, James—this would be a great kind of jumping-off point for you—but look at the co-founder of Reddit, Aaron Swartz. This is a great person to kind of use as a foundational base for you.”  And he [Aaron Swartz] was, at the time, being prosecuted by the US Government.  And, we had just started this workshop, it was on a Monday, and five days later, we get a Google alert, and then we get a Google alert, and then we get an email from James that says, “Aaron Swartz just killed himself in New York.”  And, um, we were like, “All right, we’ll talk about it on Monday.”  And then the show just got very, very real.  Immediately.

CHELSEA:  Yeah.

EVAN:  On the second week of those workshops.  It was very unsettling.  All of us were… We were all unsettled.  And we walked in, and the direction of the show, and the tone of the show, completely changed from that moment on.  And, let’s see, yeah, now we’re on draft, like, eleven of this script.  Because it is so current, and it is so ‘right now.’  So it really has been changing and changing.  And the last act of our show now takes place in December 2013.

CHELSEA:  Wow.

EVAN:  I remember Andy, when we had a reading in October… The changes of the weather, and very weird, intense days of extreme weather in Chicago kind of drive each act of this show, and I just remember that in the stage directions for that, it was just bracketed as: [We Have Yet To Find Out.]  What that day will be, in December 2013.  Because, uh, we will know by the time we open, but we just don’t know quite yet, right?

CHELSEA:  {laughs}

EVAN:  And Walkabout Theatre Company and Prologue Theatre Company, the two other Garage Rep companies, what they’re doing is they have two world-premiere works as well.  And Walkabout’s is completely devised.  From everybody in their cast.  And I think that is more of a ‘devised’ piece of theatre, because it’s very movement-based, I know it’s very Viewpoints-based.  And then Prologue is doing a world premiere by Katori Hall.  And just to have three world-premiere shows, and to see how differently each one of those three was created: One playwright’s voice, two playwrights with an idea who workshopped with an ensemble and then they structure their story around that, and then something that’s devised by everybody who was in the room.  That’s kind of the three different methods that three world-premiere plays were developed with.

Evan in ReWILDing Genius; photo credit: Pat Coakley

Evan in reWILDing Genius; photo credit: Pat Coakley

CHELSEA:  Pretty incredible.

EVAN:  It really does feel like a curation, really, by Steppenwolf.  A very smart one, I feel.  And then on top of that, it’s just been fun.  Again, everyone is really invested in everybody else’s work.  Right?  So that makes it a whole lot of fun, getting to work with everybody.

CHELSEA:  Are you happy with where you find yourself in your career?  And what sustains you, as an artist?

EVAN:  I am happy, without a doubt.  I think that that definition just always changes for you.  I moved here to Chicago eight years ago to act, and to be an actor.  And it wasn’t until nine months of not getting cast in anything, and then I got cast in my first show, and then that snowballed.  So then I did five shows in one year.  I kind of came to the conclusion at the same time I was meeting everyone else who eventually became the founders of The New Colony, that in order to constantly be fed and constantly be happy, we have to create our own work.  And I think, really, once I realized that, even through every shitty day job, and you know, everything that you have to go through to be able to do that work—I would say ever since we came to that realization, that we can make whatever we want to, because we’re in Chicago, and you can do that here.

CHELSEA:  Yeah.

EVAN:  I think once you kind of come to that realization, then it doesn’t… You have to work hard to not be happy, if you’re an artist who wants to make new work in the theatre, and you live in Chicago. 

CHELSEA:  {laughs}

EVAN:  You have to work pretty hard to not be happy with where you are.  You know?  Because I really think it’s the best place in the world to be inspired by other people’s work, and to be able to find an audience for this weird thing that you want to do.  Whatever it is.  I love, love, love Chicago.  I really can’t imagine living anywhere else any time soon.  And then, I also know that that changes all the time.  You know?

CHELSEA:  Yeah.

EVAN:  I’m open to anything else, but I’ve got an amazing family of artists here that I love creating with.  So.

CHELSEA:  So what is your biggest artistic goal for the next year?  Both interior accomplishments—like how do you want to feel—and the exterior accomplishments?

EVAN:  I would love to see more New Colony scripts just being produced.  We’ve definitely had some success with Five Lesbians in regional theatres, and kind of around the country.  It’s being published by Samuel French…

CHELSEA:  Awesome!  Congratulations.

Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche;  photo credit: Anne Petersen

Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche; photo credit: Anne Petersen

EVAN:  Oh, thank you.  It’s got this title that people raise their eyebrows at, and at least, you know, want to see the script in front of them.  After they see the title.  So that’s been great for us, but because of that, it has kind of opened up the rest of the archives of New Colony shows to other companiesThat was really just always our mission in creating our shows, is we want to create new plays using our process, specifically for our actors, but there’s a reason why it is scripted theatre.  We want these shows to continue on and to have other lives outside of our original productions of them.  So, I would say that’s really kind of a main focus for me this year, is just getting—not just mine, I mean all of—our scripts that we’re proud of and that we want to see somebody else’s interpretation of them.

CHELSEA:  Awesome.  So besides reWILDing Genius, do you have anything coming up after that that you want to talk about?

EVAN:  Yes, we have a show coming up after reWILDing called Orville and Wilbur Did It by David Zellnick.  And it’s just one of my favorite scripts I’ve ever read.

CHELSEA:  {laughing} Fantastic.

EVAN:  {laughing} It is so funny.  David is a New York playwright, he wrote the musical Yank a few years ago, which was about gay soldiers in WWII.  And when I started writing Bear Suit, about a year and a half ago or two years ago… David had been a fan of The New Colony because he had seen us when we’d come to New York Fringe, and we had met him there.  And he was so supportive when I was writing that, which I was even kind of nervous to tell him, “Oh, I’m writing a show that kind of is digging into the exact same history as your successful show that’s running right now.”

CHELSEA:  {laughs}

EVAN:  And he was like, “No, that’s great, that’s amazing.  They’re going to be completely different, because you’re going this completely other angle.  No, people need to know these stories, put it out.”  And, you know, he was just so sweet through all of that, and then he came out to see Bear Suit last year.  And when he was coming out, I said, “You shouldn’t come out to Chicago for the weekend unless you have an idea you want to workshop with our ensemble.  Because we’re here and we would love to work with you.”

CHELSEA:  Ah!

EVAN:  So he came in, and he brought in the idea of a touring children’s theatre company, doing a musical about the Wright brothers, travelling around the Midwest in a van.  Um, just great seeing another playwright come in, who’s not part of our ensemble, and who had never worked in this process before, and to say, “We hope you like this, we hope this does something for you, we hope that this isn’t something so insular that we’ve created for ourselves, that this is not going to be helpful to other playwrights.”  And he just loved it.  And he loved the style of working, and he created something so unique and specific for those actors who workshopped that.  And we just had our first reading two weeks ago, and it was amazing.  It was amazingly funny.  So that’s our summer show.  Should be going up in June—exact date TBD.  But, yeah, we’re really excited about that.

CHELSEA:  Fantastic.  Well, it’s been so lovely to talk to you this afternoon.

EVAN:  Yeah!

CHELSEA:  Good luck with everything you’ve got going on, good luck with tech and class and workshopping new plays, and everything else.

EVAN:  Thank you.  Well, yeah!  Thanks for calling me.  It was a lot of fun.  And best to y’all down there, and let us know when you’re coming up.

CHELSEA:  Will do.  Thanks for making conversation.

EVAN:  No problem.  Bye, Chelsea!

Thanks for tuning in to this episode of Making Conversation. I hope you’ll join me again soon for another chat about making art in our thirties.  You can download and read transcripts of past episodes at www.ChelseaDays.com.  You can also find this podcast on iTunes.

My guest today was Evan Linder, and you can find out more about him and his company the New Colony at www.TheNewColony.org.  Our music is composed by Miles Polaski, and my name is Chelsea Marcantel.

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