A Los Angeles-based director, teacher, and actor, Chris Fields is currently the artistic director of the award-winning Echo Theater Company, a theater which he co-founded in 1997. Since its beginnings, the Echo Theater Company has presented multiple award-winning productions. Chris has worked in film and television, including stints in “Fight Club,” “Apollo 13,” “Jurassic Park,” “NYPD Blue,” and “ER.” From 1996 to 2000, he was founder and artistic director of the Ojai Playwrights Conference. As a director, he won the LADCC for “Firemen” and the Stage Raw award for “Gloria.” In 2017, the Company founded the National Young Playwrights in Residence in order to encourage and mentor young writers across the country. Describing Echo Theater Company’s approach to play selection, KCRW noted:
“The Echo Theater Company is on a fierce journey…they’re choosing plays that are consistently challenging, and all have a deep conscious…a rare commodity…the body of work that Echo is building is substantial…if you wanted to pick one small theater to add to your cultural roster – Echo is a consistent favorite.”
Chris took time from his busy schedule to interview in March 2020.
TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT THE FOUNDING OF THE ECHO THEATER COMPANY. WHAT WAS THE IMPETUS FOR IT TO BEGIN? WHAT KIND OF PROGRAMS DOES ECHO OFFER?
Chris Fields: A half dozen of us founded Echo in 1996. The group of us went to the Eugene O’Neil National Playwrights Conference every year in the summer. One of the things we learned in the workshops was that the only way to develop a play is by working with the writer. Process, not product, is the key. We were all actors and transplants to LA, so we thought we would start a company that emphasized having a relationship with the writer.
One outgrowth of that was that award-winner Bekah Brunstetter wrote “The Cake” in our Lab. We told her to take her time with the play. We were able to do that because we have a relationship with her. Another writer we have a relationship with is Kate Robin, a writer for “Six Feet Under” on TV. She wrote “Anon,” and we put 22 women on stage in that one. By developing and maintaining a close relationship with writers, we’re able to develop really powerful stories.
WHEN DID YOU CLOSE THE THEATER DUE TO COVID-19? WERE YOU IN THE MIDDLE OF A RUN?
CF: We were planning to open Chiara Atik’s “Poor Clare” on March 14, and we had previews on March 11 and March 12. The play was very well received. Then the Mayor shut down all the theaters, so we never really had an opening night.
OVER THE PAST FEW WEEKS, HOW HAS COVID-19 IMPACTED YOUR THEATER?
CF: “Poor Clare” was a world premiere production, and we put all our money into the show. When it didn’t open, it was scary. We took a financial hit and immediately launched a fund-raising campaign. Our financial model was shaken up quite a bit. Like almost everyone else in theater, it’s been tough going.
ARE YOU DOING ANYTHING RIGHT NOW TO KEEP YOUR LIVE THEATER GOING? STREAMING? HAVING VIRTUAL MEETINGS? PLANNING FOR YOUR NEXT SHOW WHEN YOU RE-OPEN? AUDITIONING? FUND RAISING? WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE FROM THE THEATER PUBLIC?
CF: We will have on-line meetings of Echo National Young Playwrights in Residence (https://www.echotheatercompany.com/national-young-playwright-residence/). We pair a novice with a professional artist mentor. We’ve always done that on Skype because the writers are chosen from all over the country. We also have the Echo Young Playwrights, which is LA-based; that too will meet digitally.
We’ve moved everything to digital platforms. That includes our weekly meetings and the Young Playwrights. We’re rehearsing a play right now via Zoom. It’s called “Forget Me Not When Far Away” by Kira Obolensky. She’s from Minneapolis and wrote the play for the “10,000 Things” Project. She wrote for an inmate population in Minnesota, and her play has 39 women and one male character. Eleven of our Associate Company members are cast, and we even have men playing women. It’s fine by me so long as they don’t “camp” it up; and Kira agreed. I’m not sure when it will open, since everything is up in the air.
We have a Playwriting Lab headed up by Darcy Fowler, a writer, and Stephanie Ward, a director. We discussed the current situation and decided we can’t just sit around. We’re putting content on our Facebook page. We’ve also already posted a radio play to our Facebook page. We introduced a “Lifetime Pass” in which people pay $500 and have a lifetime pass to everything that Echo does. People are responding well to that. Since we’re a non-profit, it’s tax deductible too. We want the theater public to remain connected and involved.
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FUTURE PLANS?
CF: We want to keep on going. We’re hoping to open “Poor Clare” in July. We have a season of three plays planned. I hope that everything works out. Right now, I know that this will end at some point; and then we’ll be ready to offer quality productions again. We just keep going with love for our work and our community.