“Unapologetic Women” Dominate Echo Theater Company’s Most Ambitious Season Yet

Echo Theater Company artistic director Chris Fields, left, with co-associate artistic director Jennifer Chambers, on the set of Bed at the Echo
Echo Theater Company artistic director Chris Fields, left, with co-associate artistic director Jennifer Chambers, on the set of Bed at the Echo
Photo by Shane Lopes

Holly, the transgressive, tangerine-haired rocker protagonist of Bed, Sheila Callaghan's world-premiere play now onstage at Echo Theater Company, is a rare stage creature. More than once, other characters describe her as feral. Played by Kate Morgan Chadwick, she first enters on all fours, crawling as if through a dream­scape, clawing her way through strewn trash, rumpled clothes and wadded-up song drafts. She boasts all femininity's sensuality but none of its meekness. She seldom walks but swaggers and sways, whether she's wailing on her guitar or throwing a one-night stand out of her bedroom.

Even in contrition, Holly never yields. When she demands her lover punish her following a betrayal, he can only plead, "What should I do?"

"Figure it out," she replies.

She's the kind of woman, Echo artistic director Chris Fields says, who's "going to burn her marriage down, going to burn [her husband] down, going to burn everything down."

In other words, a perfect fit for Echo. Over its two-decade history, the troupe has presented more than 40 world premieres by both established and emerging playwrights, often pairing tricky subject matter with a fierce respect for writers. That approach has paid creative dividends: In 2014, the company finally put down roots at the Atwater Village Theatre Complex and promptly won five Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards for its inaugural season there, including nods for playwriting, direction and production. The same year, L.A. Weekly dubbed the group "Best Bet for Ballsy Original Plays."

This year marks something of a turning point. Bed launched the company's most ambitious mainstage season to date, a lineup that includes four world premieres and one West Coast premiere. Perhaps even more remarkable is how prominently women figure in the mix: Holly is the first in a string of female protagonists — many of them conceived by female playwrights — appearing on Echo's stage this year.

"I think for a theater like Echo — for any theater — to be really interested in the voices of unapologetic women is an extraordinary thing," says Mary Laws, whose Blueberry Toast hits Echo's stage in September. The savage farce, "a chaotic conversation about what the American Dream looks like," draws on the 29-year-old's upbringing in a master-planned community.

The emphasis on women wasn't by design, says Jennifer Chambers, director of Bed and Echo's co-associate artistic director alongside Tara Karsian. "It's always been about the writer and doing plays that are evocative and structurally exciting and well-written." But, she adds, "All the plays in this season definitely have a sense of boldness about them. All of them feel very exciting, like we haven't heard this kind of voice before."

Following Bed, Barbara Tarbuck will put up Stopping By, a Wednesday-night solo show that recounts a spontaneous journey to Burning Man. And in April, there's the West Coast premiere of Dry Land, a naturalistic drama by 22-year-old Yale graduate Ruby Rae Spiegel, about two girls in a high school locker room trying to cope with an unwanted pregnancy.

Even this season's two works by male playwrights give unusual primacy to women. The lead role in Captain of the Bible Quiz Team, a site-specific world premiere by Tom Jacobson, was originally written for a man, but the part of a Lutheran pastor will be portrayed by both sexes when the show comes to area churches in May. In July, Erik Patterson's One of the Nice Ones will bring back Rebecca Gray, who played the anti-heroine Miss Keever in Echo's 2014 pedophilia scorcher Firemen.

Both men's scripts are products of Echo's elite writers lab, now in its second year; Laws is also a member. Run by associate artistic director Chambers, the monthly workshop brings together a half-dozen cherry-picked playwrights and runs the length of the school year. The class is Echo's first stop for recruiting quality scripts; artists who don't land an in-house production can tap the company's vast network to find a placement elsewhere.

Over the years, Fields has cultivated relationships with titans of the American theater, including Christopher Durang. More than a decade ago, Durang sent him Sarah Ruhl, whose gift for arresting, lyrical imagery has since established her as a preeminent scribe for the stage. In 2005, Echo introduced Ruhl to Los Angeles with Melancholy Play and helped her workshop Dead Man's Cell Phone, which later opened off-Broadway with Mary-Louise Parker.

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Last year, Ruhl returned the favor by sending the company Laws, whom she'd taught at the Yale School of Drama. The native Texan had decided to take a TV writing job in L.A. and called up her mentor for help finding "a theater family" out west. Ruhl told her to track down Fields. Laws sent him a couple scripts, including Blueberry Toast.

Reading the absurdist tale of "a suburban frau driven mad," Fields says he was captivated by how Laws rendered "the insanity that percolates beneath the calm suburban exterior of America." He thought, "Who is this? What is this? OK, I've got to find this woman."

Echo did an in-company reading, followed by a public reading in summer 2015. During the rehearsal process for the latter, Fields asked about the script's ending, which Laws admits "no one seems to love" (for reasons we won't disclose here).

In her opinion, the play feels "pretty baked" as it is, but Laws says the rehearsal process will be an opportunity to try out rewrites in a safe space with objective collaborators. "It takes a village to raise a play. Echo is a really incredible laboratory environment with people who are able to help bring that play into its best and smartest adult state of being."

But if any offering this season unsettles audiences, chances are it's Spiegel's Dry Land. Already the recipient of rave reviews in New York, the play is singular not only for its direct approach to subject matter some may find upsetting but also its nuanced portrayal of a complex alliance between two young women feeling their way into adulthood.

"I've always been attracted to stories about female friendship," Spiegel says, noting, "There has been a long history of women helping other women in times of bodily crisis." But, she adds, "Abortion is politicized in our country in a way that often makes it feel abstract. It felt important to me to create a specific and visceral depiction of a young woman struggling to abort her pregnancy to push against the vagueness of popular representation."

The graphic result "may not be for everyone," acknowledges Fields, who has two teenage daughters close to the age of the characters. But "As uncomfortable as it is, [Spiegel] earns it, and then she deals with it. She deals with it in a wonderful way."

So does tackling a solid slate of financially risky new plays ever give Fields pause, especially when the season's only field-tested show turns on some wrenching scenes? "The board yells at me," he says. "But you do the plays that speak to you. You do the plays you have to do."

That sentiment has served as the company's north star and will continue to do so, barring the failure of the pending lawsuit against Actors' Equity to block changes to the 99-seat plan, which Fields says would be a "theater killer."

"At Echo, we want to look beyond the surface. We like to give life to complex characters," Chambers says. "I like that people come to our shows craving that."

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