Rewriting the Theatre Scene

19 June 2014 | 3:03 pm By:

Evan LinderIt’d been a long time since he had stage fright. In fact, Evan Linder ’04 couldn’t really remember feeling this sensation at all, not even when he was an 11-year-old kid playing Mike Teavee in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He’d had a lot of roles since then, and this had never been a problem. And yet here he was, peeking out at the audience as it filled the Brandenburg Room on the second floor of Chicago’s DANK Haus German American Cultural Center for a play he wasn’t even in – a play, mind you, that he wrote and that would later be named the Best Overall Production at the 2012 New York International Fringe Festival, then transferred off Broadway to the Soho Playhouse in 2012 and published by Samuel French in 2013. But, right now, he was wishing he could just curl up and make it stop.

What was I thinking? Linder fretted. Of all the plays, why on earth did I invite my theatre history professor – the one who knows all the great plays – to this play? It’s the silliest thing ever! She’s going to hate it!

But Susan Kattwinkel didn’t hate it. In fact, the associate professor of theatre loved it.

“When I saw her laughing and smiling and really getting into it: That was amazing,” says Linder, who wrote 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche as something of a palate cleanser after his theatre company, The New Colony, finished a run of Linder’s The Warriors, about the Jonesboro, Ark., school shooting of 1998. “Susan’s theatre history class was the first time I really felt the importance of theatre. She’d always said that if you’re going to do this, you have the responsibility to do it well. I took that seriously.”

And – at 8 a.m. the day after he crossed the Cistern stage – he took that responsibility with him to the Playhouse on the Square in his hometown of Memphis, where he stayed for 14 months and nine shows, until he moved to the theatre mecca of Chicago. Nine months later, he was finally cast in a show – and then another and another and another.

“After a while, I realized that I only liked one of the shows that I was in over the course of a year. They just weren’t the kinds of works I wanted to make – or the kind of shows I wanted to see,” says Linder. “So eventually I did a postmortem on my work. I decided that if you were consistently going to be happy with what you were doing, you had to make your own work.”

In 2007, Linder and five other disillusioned actors and comedians began envisioning a different kind of theatre – one that is all original, all collaborative, all encompassing, all their own. And thus The New Colony was born.

“We’re not trying to find ourselves in someone else’s work. We’re telling our own stories,” says Linder, now co-artistic director of TNC. “Basically, we ask ourselves: Is it something we want to see? In a lot of ways, I feel like we’re our own audience.”

And that means changing the way theatre works – changing the way it’s experienced.

“When people walk into one of our shows, they know they’re about to experience something different,” says Linder. “The perception of what going to theatre is, is that you go in, someone hands you a program, you sit down and ruffle the pages until the lights go down. We reject that experience. Here, you don’t even get a program. It’s communal. You shouldn’t be sitting there looking at a program, you should get to talk to everyone around you. This isn’t something that exists outside of the theatre space, it can’t be written up on a piece of paper – it’s an experience that exists only here, and now. When you leave, it’s over.”

That, says Linder, is what keeps it fresh. One way TNC accomplishes this is through unconventional staging. Take, for example, the company’s second show, FRAT, which Linder wrote loosely from his own experiences as a Pi Kappa Phi at the College.

Lasting 90 minutes with no intermission, FRAT is staged to allow the audience to drift through the environment – wandering from the bar to the frat house basement, and observing the fraternity subculture in all its pomp, all its filth.

The play definitely got some attention, receiving rave reviews and being named one of the Best of 2009 in the Chicago Tribune, Windy City Times and New City.

“I was very lucky. It was the first experimental play I’d done, and I had no idea how it was going to go over,” says Linder. “It really got our name out there, establishing us as a theatre company.”

FRAT also established the TNC style, which Linder describes as “very naturalistic and hyper-real, with that documentary feeling.

“People say, ‘It felt like you were making it up as you went along,’ and that’s what we strive for,” he continues. “We go by the premise that audiences know when they are lied to – when they’re being fed lines. We recognize our audiences as human beings and give them very real dialogue.”

How that dialogue comes about marks another way TNC is different: The writing process comes after the casting. In fact, at TNC, the writers, directors and actors all get together for two weeks of workshops before the writing even begins.

“In our workshops, we have a general idea of what roles we need to fill, and the actors come in and blow up the characters, they take ownership. This way, the character plays directly into the actors’ strengths. So, if one guy can play the accordion, that might be something that gets written into the script. It also lets them come in and say, ‘I’ve never been cast as whatever.’ So, that way they get to play something that’s off-type for them. It’s really cool because it allows them to try something new and challenging,” says Linder. “Once the actors are cast, the writers go away and come back four to six months later with a script.”

The collaborative creative process at TNC does not fit well into the traditional theatre hierarchy, where the director calls all the shots. Instead, the company has three areas of creative expertise: The writers are in charge of the story, the actors are in charge of the character and the directors are in charge of the audience experience.

The key, of course, is finding the right people, or colonists, to fit the bill – and Linder found the perfect talent in fellow alumni Ashley Wolfe ’06, Will Cavedo ’06 and Henry Riggs ’08, all of whom joined TNC’s ensemble in 2009 and have continued to thrive there in various capacities – with Riggs even landing TNC’s That Sordid Little Story a Non-Equity Jeff Award for Best Original Music.

All told, TNC is now made up of 100 colonists (including its ensemble, freelancers, board members, etc.), many of whom have the freedom to slip into whatever role suits them best for each individual production.

“I moved here as an actor and discovered I was a writer, and I try to keep those two things at the forefront. I like to call myself a ‘new play developer,’ because I think it better describes the different hats all of us wear,” says Linder, adding that last year was more of a writing year for him, while this year he’s been acting, most recently in reWILDing Genius, part of Steppenwolf Garage Rep 2014 and the recipient of some complimentary tweets from The Office’s B.J. Novak.

In addition to developing new plays, Linder teaches playwriting classes at the University of Chicago, a job that allowed him to quit his day job, freeing up more time for TNC and his own personal playwriting projects.

“I get to do something I love, and I learn so much about being a better writer in those classes,” says Linder, whom Chicago Magazine listed in its 2013 Power List of Theater Scene Stealers. “But it was The New Colony that gave me a career. It’s been the most impactful part of my career so far because it’s put me out there. And it’s a huge privilege that, now that I’m out there, people want to come in and hear my stories.”

Even more huge: People want to reproduce them. And be in them. And not just anyone.

Six months after Susan Kattwinkel sat in the audience of Linder’s 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche, she was standing in line to audition for that very same play’s East Coast premier. She got the part of Veronica “Vern” Schultz, and – when Charleston’s What If? Productions mounted the show at Threshold Repertory Theatre in 2012 – the roles had reversed.

This time, it was Linder sitting in the audience, beaming with pride. And if his former theatre history professor was feeling any stage fright, he certainly couldn’t tell.

“She was great!” he says. “It was enormously special to me.”

It was, after all, recognition of the responsibility he’s taken on, validation that he’s honoring the tradition of theatre well and reassurance that he needn’t doubt his work again. Especially when it’s his own story he’s telling.

– Alicia Lutz ’98

1 Comment on "Rewriting the Theatre Scene"

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  1. Lane Hudson says:

    So proud of my Pi Kappa Phi brother, Evan! I’ve been to a few of his shows in Chicago and not only are they all unique from other theater experiences, they are all different and special on their own. Truly worth putting The New Colony shows on your must do list if you live in or visit Chicago.