Chris Fields, the founding artistic director of Echo Theater Company, is a fun guy, Class A talker, and veteran schmoozer.
Ninety minutes after the start of our interview, with only half an hour for me on the parking meter and half of my questions still unasked, I abruptly tried to get out of kaffeeklatsch gear. But each investigation only brought back more memories, names and associations. It was just the two of us at an outdoor hotel cafe on Melrose Avenue, but our table might as well have been filled with friends and artistic collaborators.
The topic of our conversation was Echo’s 25th anniversary, a milestone for a theater that has sprung up to bring new voices of adventurous playwrights to Los Angeles. The idea for the company originated at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, a prestigious theater development center in Waterford, Connecticut.
Fields was there as an actor, and as he hung out at the bar with a bunch of other recent transplant recipients from LA who were all “complaining about the lack of theater,” one light bulb went out: why not give this a try. at home, but with an option to produce the work that was so carefully midwife?
From the start in Echo, the focus was on the relationship with the playwright. Fields had another theater in mind as a model: the Playwrights Horizons in New York. The idea was to create a smaller version of this off-Broadway powerhouse famed for producing adventurous new work.
By the time I started rating the company in 2007, Echo was operating at the Zephyr Theater on Melrose. Two things about this outfit immediately caught my attention. The first was the sensibility of the dramatic writing, which I would describe as insane but with a gritty side.
The plays, written by such idiosyncratic writers as Adam Bock, Jessica Goldberg, and Jenny Schwartz, haven’t always worked. But even when they weren’t successful, they tended to have a crazy charm.
Fields said he has two requirements when choosing parts to produce: he and his team must passionately love the job and it must make them laugh. He later mentioned that crazy, violent events are known to happen in a play in Echo, and that indeed, a twisted threat streak runs through the long line of eccentric dramas.
The other thing I noticed about these Echo productions at Zephyr was the electricity in the audience. Houses tended to be filled with members of the creative class: actors, designers, literary types. Many spectators seemed to be able to change places with the artists. There was a level of attention that seemed professional – peers looked at their peers, took notes, rooted for each other.
This crackling absorption can still be heard at Echo’s Atwater Village Theater, where the company took up residence in 2014. Fields credits the energy to the theater’s beginnings as a laboratory for new works.
“We had a very simple system at the Echo,” he said. “We read a play every week among ourselves and talk about it. If we respond, we will do a public reading. We knew we didn’t have the money to produce right away, so we did some free public readings and invited everyone. The actors were inviting other actors, many of whom were new transplanted to Los Angeles, so we really started to grow our network. And that has really reverberated over the years. “
When Echo was still a child, Fields became the founding artistic director of the Ojai Playwrights Conference, which grew under Robert Egan to rival the O’Neill as an incubator for new pieces. important. After leaving Ojai, Fields launched the Echo Playwrights Lab to provide a home for emerging writers to grow together through readings, workshops, mentorship, and fellowship.
Throughout the interview, Fields kept reminding us of all the writers who walked through Echo’s doors. He hasn’t forgotten about the coins that escaped – meaning they were swept away by bigger theaters before Echo had a chance to land the premiere. But he’s proud to present to LA audiences the signature new works of Sarah Ruhl, David Lindsay-Abaire, Adam Rapp and Tanya Barfield.
Field’s willingness to take risks on incendiary material like Tommy Smith’s “Firemen” is a testament to his fearlessness. But the competition for new writing has only intensified.
When he started he could pick up the phone and call playwright Christopher Durang in Juilliard and ask him to send him a promising student’s work. But now these newbie writers, he said, already have representation and are being hired outside of school to staff TV shows.
Fields’ record and connections still give him access to select works, including “Gloria” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and “The Wolves” by Sarah DeLappe, both finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. But this period of pandemic allowed for a rethinking of old ways of doing business.
To some, the vibrant arts community of the Echo Theater Company was more like a club – rather white at that. This perception was compounded when the Los Angeles premiere of “Pass Over”, the play by Antoinette Nwandu described by the Amsterdam News as “‘Waiting for Godot’ meets ‘Do the Right Thing'”, was canceled due to irreconcilable artistic differences with the director, Deena Selenow.
In this year of racial calculation, Fields said he and his small business looked at institutional practices through an anti-racist lens. “We faced our whiteness, that’s what I called it,” he said. “We looked at our whiteness and racial awareness in terms of aesthetics.”
When I asked him how he would rate his diversity record, he replied that he would give Echo high marks for his debut. But as the theater increased its visibility, he found that his access to agents, writers, directors and other artistic leaders locked him in a white world.
He was not displacing the guilt. In a company without permanent staff, it is he who is responsible. But in addition to taking action, he tried to become more aware of how some type of “success” can deflect an institution.
L’Echo made two key artistic recruitments at BIPOC last year: Ahmed Best as Associate Artistic Director and Gideon Jeph
Wabvuta as literary director. This year, the theater launched BIPOC’s Echo Designer mentorship program for emerging designers, an area in which inclusion has long been overlooked in American theater.
Existing programs, such as the National Young Playwrights in Residence, are used to advance Echo’s mission to cultivate and support emerging playwrights from diverse backgrounds. Orders from BIPOC writers (including Matthew Paul Olmos, whose “Underneath the Freeways of Los Angeles” was produced virtually in the spring) have started. And the Echo Theater Truck, an initiative to broaden audience reach, brings interactive Augusto Boal-style performances to local BIPOC communities.
Building an audience is not something a theater discovers and no longer has to worry about. It is a living organism that needs constant nourishment if it is to survive. No one needs to tell Fields how difficult that job can be in Los Angeles.
When Echo moved to Atwater Village, Fields and his associates were knocking on doors, offering free tickets to locals. He never imagined his business would last this long. The story, as he reflects with a puzzled smile, has been a series of obstacles, from depleted cash reserves and real estate puzzles to missed artistic opportunities and, oh, a one-of-a-kind pandemic.
Fields’ passion is as unstoppable as his conversation. There is still a huge amount of work to be done, and he knows his responsibility is to ensure that the change is systemic and sustainable.
But a silver anniversary is a celebration, and on July 1 there will be a benefit party on Zoom. the program includes 25 monologues by 25 former playwrights (Bekah Brunstetter, Hilly Hicks Jr., Ruhl and Lindsay-Abaire among them) performed by 25 former actors (including Hamish Linklater and Enrico Colantoni).
The play is still relevant today at Echo Theater Co., and Los Angeles’ dramatic tradition is all the richer for it.