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What The Buzz is All About: Inside a Rising Chicago Theater Company

Darcy Rose Coussens learns from Buzz22 Chicago about starting a theater company after graduation.

(L to R) Company Member Ellie Reed and Jessica London-Shields with (background L to R) Allie Long and Katherine Banks inBuzz22 Chicago’s production of She Kills Monsters
(© Michael Brosilow)
Buzz22 Chicago is a young but industrious ensemble-based theater company comprised of seven spirited founding members. Intrigued by the talk on Northwestern's campus about their current show She Kills Monsters in the Steppenwolf Garage Rep series, I spoke with some members about the challenges, rewards, and process of creating a theater company in Chicago.

The company was born when seven recent graduates from Northwestern came together to read plays in autumn of 2010. They had known each other at school, but were not all close friends. What brought them together post-graduation was their love of theater, and the desire to start producing and performing it in Chicago.

"We had just graduated and were in that weird place: this is what real life is—what am I supposed to do with my time?" remembers co-artistic director Sara Sawicki. From the fateful first reading of their 2010 production Hooters, to the present day, the company has come a long way to establish a mission, an identity, and a niche in the vast collection of Chicago theaters.

"It quickly became clear that we couldn't just sit and discuss plays and feel completely satisfied. We needed to be up on our feet experiencing and sharing it," remarks Ellie Reed, the company's casting director. "I think we started at such a young age because the seven of us were all interested in making theater, and we didn't see any reason to wait to start."

Fast forward to 2013: the company is currently mounting its fifth full production and has added artistic associates Daniel Carlyon and Alex Tey to the mix. After each season, Buzz22 revises the infrastructure and values of the company to better reflect group and individual interests. However, enthusiasm and good working relationships don't prevent the challenges of starting a company, especially fresh out of college.

There are logistical challenges such as finding space and raising money; the reality of juggling 9am-5pm day jobs with 6-10pm rehearsal, followed by production meetings sometimes into the early morning hours; and refining their mission—who they make theater for, and why.

Yet these challenges inspire creative solutions when working on a tight budget, determining their goals, and taking care of each other. Co-artistic director Scott Weinstein emphasizes that one important thing they keep in mind is "keeping everyone healthy and still loving what we do. Looking out for each other, keeping track of what people are feeling, and knowing when they're overloaded."

The members of Buzz22 will always be reminded of their mission by their namesake, which refers to "buzzing #22" to get into Sawicki's apartment, where they had their first meetings. "It's nice to be reminded of the place where we began—it just makes sense for what we're trying to do with the company and who we are as people," she explained. By attending their productions they hope audiences will (figuratively) buzz into an environment dedicated to the values of community, family, and an artistic home.

The transitional age of 22 is also reflected in their name, and their productions tackle stories that deal with the constant coming of age throughout life. "This thing we felt as graduates, that we are constantly changing, evolving, and growing, is something people feel at different points in life, not just when coming into adulthood," Weinstein tells me. For that reason, each of their shows will be quite different. Buzz22's productions have tackled issues characters face at different stages of life, such as leaving one's childhood home, getting an apartment, and ending a marriage. What all productions share is the common theme of characters' growth as people, at any new stage of life.

No matter how much producing student theater may prepare us in college, creating a company is undoubtedly a lot of work. That said, the group remained undeterred because of their common passion. "If there is something you want to do, you should go for it," advises Sawicki. "Surround yourself with other people who want to do it. There's also a lot to be said for just producing work, really taking the time to figure out what your goals are and the way you want to spend your time."

If you're hoping to spend your time doing theater instead of just waiting tables, Chicago is a promising place to start. "Here, the sense of community is much greater than the sense of competition. There is a respect for storefront and new theater in Chicago that I think really benefits new companies," says Reed. Sawicki agrees. "Chicago is an incredible city because anyone can make work if they put the effort in," she believes. "Economically you can actually afford to do it, and it's an exciting community to be a part of."

Recognition from larger local theater companies doesn't hurt, either. The Steppenwolf Garage Rep, part of Chicago's renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company, recognized Buzz22 as a passionate group and invited them to mount a production for their Garage Series, which is comprised of three productions from outside companies. Reed points out that Buzz22's experience with Steppenwolf indicates the collaborative culture of theater in Chicago. "Programs like the Steppenwolf Garage Rep set in place by big, award-winning Equity companies help get new companies on their feet," says Reed. By offering exposure to emerging companies, Steppenwolf demonstrates the support among the theater community at large. "We were welcomed," Weinstein affirmed. "People were excited to see what we could do."

Buzz22's story parallels Steppenwolf's own origins, having started as a group of high school and college friends producing a play at a church in Deerfield, Illinois. As the spirit of paying it forward flows from one company to the next, Buzz22 is certainly achieving recognition for its passionate members, compelling mission, and exciting work. This may be a company to keep an eye on as Chicago theater history continues to unfold.

Want to see for yourself what a spunky group of theater graduates can do? Find out what the Buzz is about at She Kills Monsters by Qui Nguyen, running in repertory through April 21 in Steppenwolf's Garage Theatre. For tickets and info, click here.