by Francisco Lopez
For what I hope to be our practice for future shows and events, I sit down with the founders of Mercy Street Theatre Company to get to know them better and to invite you, the audience, a chance to see into the minds of the people that generated this company. The following is an edited excerpt of that discussion.
To get the group started, I led with the basics: How did you all meet?
DANIELLE STACK: Julia and I had worked together on a couple of different shows with a different theatre company. And when those projects closed, we thought to ourselves, "we make art together and we do a good job at it –"
JULIA ROHED: "– So let's do something about it." Danielle and I talked about starting something of our own initially in the basic sense that we knew we liked working with each other and we knew that we wanted to continue working with each other no matter where we were. And then Jake and I had a couple of dinners and I had mentioned how Danielle and I wanted to start a theatre company and he expressed interest.
JAKE L FRUEND: I had already done some freelance work with them as an art director. Julia asked me to hop aboard, and that's how the three of us had our first meeting in February.
FRANCISCO LOPEZ: And Jake, you and Julia went to the same school, right? What was that like?
JLF: Julia and I went to Columbia College Chicago together, where we majored in stage directing. I think that growing as artists with those shared experiences and that shared vocabulary shaped our interests and really made this collaboration possible.
JR: In school, we were exposed to a lot of the same material, same plays, and a way of talking about plays.
JLF: We have a shorthand, in a way. And it's useful in a company dynamic.
FL: So exactly how do the three of you work together? Where do the jobs differ?
DS: I think that the main way we differ is that Julia and Jake are both directors, they are the artistic vision of this company and while I do have some say, I make the big picture come to fruition. How exactly are we gonna do it? Who will we get to do it?
JLF: You're the mechanism.
DS: The mechanism!
JR: We’ve created this structure where it’s the three of us making decisions, which I think will allow for a much more cohesive vision. It won't allow for a dictatorship.
JLF: We vote, we talk about everything. Usually, if two people fall on one side of the fence, that's where we go. It's worked out really well so far. We really trust each other.
JR: I wouldn't say there are a lot of differences artistically between Jake and I. I think our aesthetics are a little different. Our processes are different. And the material and works we are attracted to differ in some respects. Like, I’m really interested in new work and so is Jake, but I would be terrified of creating a devised piece, where Jake is jumping in head first and is gonna make something really awesome this season with “Rotpeter.” But I think those differences will allow for variety within our season selection and overall company aesthetic.
FL: Already in the thick of things with launching your website and season, what are some of the challenges you've faced so far?
DS: I think one of the challenges is making sure you have all the aspects of a successful theater company with a strong mission statement, strong ensemble, and a clear idea of what we really stand for. You have to think in terms of longevity.
JLF: We've taken the long way 'round in that we've gotten our not-for-profit status, we've pulled together a multifaceted ensemble, launched a season and we're currently fundraising. We're doing all of this before putting up a single piece of work.
JR: And our intent with creating MSTC was not to be a “one and done” kind of thing. We want to be here for as long as the community will have us. So I think the biggest challenge so far has been to get to a place were we feel we can springboard our ideas and our mission into something successful and sustainable.
JLF: That meant a lot time and paperwork.
JR: A lot of the nitty gritty stuff. Only now, 8 months later, we get to talk about casting and spaces and design and that's what every theater company wants. It was hard not to jump to the fun stuff first, but we knew in order for this thing to survive, we needed to lay the ground work first.
FL: Your mission is to tell stories that examine the modern myth; stories of everyday interaction with the epic, iconic and divine. Talk to me more about that. What's the modern myth?
JLF: I think something that's interesting is that the language for this mission came out of a conversation about Julia's work. In school, we were talking about each others work and what it means to us. And this “modern mythology” language came out of how she toyed with classical forms next to contemporary themes. I always thought “I wanna make stuff like that,” and I think that language just stuck. It was the thing that we kept jumping back into because it was so rich.
JR: Just by talking about that, we created a vocabulary between us. From there it was just talking about what those words meant to us and how that would shape our mission and our values to strive for in every production.
In understanding what a modern myth is, it is not Greek mythology –
JLF: – No, it's about our cultural pantheon. It's about the patterns and the figures and the symbols that we pull from to make sense of our lives.
FL: Talk to me about your core values. That's something you don't often see with theatre companies.
JLF: The core values are really the checklist for play selection. If we're committing ourselves to years of work, we want there to be a standard – and a language – by which all of that work is evaluated. When it comes to picking a play for our season, we are looking to do four things...
Number one: "transcend the familiar." We're looking to take things that are magical, spectacular and impossible and bring that into the real world. Put it in front of fifty people a night.
As a counterpoint to that, we are looking to "scrutinize the orthodox." We are looking to take something that is very familiar, an idea or theme, and really pick it apart in a new or interesting way.
Our third core value is to “cultivate unity.” Simply put: we are interested in other perspectives. Art should be an empathy factory. We want to produce plays and tell stories from all over the world in addition to utilizing the incredible talents of our resident playwrights.
JR: It's an opportunity for a lot of work that's not necessarily seen in this community to have an audience.
JLF: And lastly, we want to “bring the house down.” We want to have a good time. We want our audience to have a good time. This is our job and it's our audience's night out. It had better be entertaining.
FL: And just to wrap things up, where do you see the company in the future? What are some of your goals?
JLF: We are really lucky to be a part of such a huge and immersive theatre community. Beyond making three or four plays a year, we are interested in really connecting with that community. I think in the next few years, we are going to start toying around with new ways to connect and collaborate with each other. We're in a gigantic city brimming with talented people. That's a gift.
JR: My goal for us is to still be kicking in five years and for us to be doing work that we are still proud of and to continue working with the incredible artists in this city that make Chicago on the the most incredible theatre communities around.
DS: My goal for MSTC in five years is be able to pay actors! It's true. And in ten years I would love a performance space. That's half of our worries when starting a new show.
JR: As an itinerant company, one of our biggest challenges (monetarily) is finding space to rehearse and perform. It would be such a luxury having a performance space. That's something we've talked about since day one, this idea that Mercy Street is a destination, a place to go to and experience. That's what I hope for.