Radical World Domination, On Stage and Off
Interview by Clare Austen-Smith
“I think theater can be and do more if we focus on people and process,” says Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS) alumni Ellenor Riley-Condit (AB TAPS ’11). Since graduating from the University of Chicago, Riley-Condit has used her talent to embody that focus. She is a member of award-winning ensemble theater company The Syndicate, which produces new plays by women, queer, and trans artists. The Syndicate’s week-long festival, First Read, explicitly functions to center trans and non-binary theater artists. First Read comes to Chicago for the first time this June after having debuted in New York City in 2018. First Read 2019 expands the number of featured artists and adds workshops to the festival schedule.
The Syndicate, with lead producers Hal Cosentino, Denise Yvette Serna of Pop Magic Productions, and Riley-Condit, hosts First Read 2019 at The Martin, 2515 W North Ave, Chicago, Jun 10 – Jun 16. All events for the festival are pay-what-you-can; some tickets are available at the door, or you can reserve tickets here.
Clare Austen-Smith of UChicago Arts spoke with Riley-Condit about her work on First Read, the five words she’d use to describe TAPS, and more.
Please note: While The Syndicate’s mission denotes women, queer, and trans, Riley-Condit’s responses include the terms womxn and trans* to indicate a range of identities.
Clare Austen-Smith: The name of your company is The Syndicate, and I was struck by the choice of the name and those implications—“syndicates” are typically something I think of as white, male, and patriarchal, yet your groups mission is to be “an ensemble theater company that produces new plays by women, queer, and trans artists.” Was the choice of The Syndicate an intentional response to the existing paradigm?
Ellenor Riley-Condit: It completely was! The Syndicate formed in 2014 after studying together with Anne Bogart and SITI Company in New York City. We spent hours in the rehearsal studio at SITI trying to decide on a name. We wanted something that sounded powerful, that identified us as a close knit group. When someone suggested The Syndicate, we all paused and felt it out. It ended up being a great choice exactly because you don't think of syndicates doing positive things in the world, and you don't think of a syndicate being made up of womxn and queer and trans* people. You probably think of a guy in a nice suit at the head of a long boardroom table who runs a corporation but is probably also into money laundering and weapons trafficking.
We like to say we're into "radical world domination" rather than the type that a James Bond villain might be about. We want to put radical people in charge, and to disrupt the usual hierarchies in our industry. We're just as organized and just as effective but instead of sitting around a table plotting criminal activities, we're at the table talking about how to take care of each other and how to make more theater with more people. We do like nice suits, though.
CAS: How would you contextualize the First Read festival in the current theater scene in Chicago and beyond? Why do you think it’s important to cultivate and commission plays by women, queer, and trans artists, in general and perhaps specifically in this era?
ERC: New play development is a major part of the theater scene in Chicago and New York, and pretty much all over now. The industry has recognized that artists need support to write a play, perhaps in ways that theatrical leadership didn't recognize before, especially in this economy. If you want to hear from everyone, if you want to see plays about all kinds of people, then you have to put real effort into that. The idea of the prodigal playwright working alone at his cabin retreat until he heads to the theater with pages in hand has died. Instead, people are coming from different life experiences. They're not all cis white men; they have five different jobs or projects going on at once, and they want the support and input of a team while they're figuring out what their play wants to be. First Read is part of this landscape of new play development, and it's a festival that takes a specific humanistic approach to this work. Not only do we want our teams to make progress on these scripts, we want them to feel cared for while they do it.
The Syndicate has members who are cis, queer, womxn, and trans*, as well as intersections and combinations of those identities. We are constantly learning and growing together to figure out how to create and produce work that is inclusive; First Read is a step towards that goal. One of the best things we can do, especially in this era, is create brave spaces where work can be created without any of us being tokenized. The more plays by womxn, queer people, and trans* people that are in the world, the more we will get to share the fact that these identities are not monoliths, that there are more stories to tell, and people are capable of telling them on their own terms. In Chicago, in New York City—in any city, town, or suburb—we exist. Rather than allowing major institutions to dictate who is produced and how, we get together and share what we have and support each other. That’s art operating in a way that feels necessary to me.
CAS: The organizers and participants of First Read are purposefully making a space not just for their own work within the festival, but that of others in the community. What do you see in the future for work that centers around these communities, as the narrative focus and as the storytellers?
ERC: We started First Read in New York City in 2018 as a way to share resources. We had a residency at IRT Theater and we said: "We're already working on two new plays by Syndicate members, how can we invite other artists in?" We dedicated the festival to trans and non-binary artists because we don't see enough of these plays being produced. And while we can't give fully realized productions to every artist we love, we can offer a paid opportunity to get those scripts developed into pieces that are production-ready, so that hopefully other producing entities will snap them up.
I think a lot about the word "community" in theater and in other contexts. I hear it a lot from arts institutions when they mean "the people over there" or "the people that are in this specific neighborhood." And I do use it myself sometimes. So if I say community, who am I talking about? People that are similar to me; cis, white, or queer women; people that I do theater with; people who are different than me? I want my community to mean all, but does it?
My dream would be for everyone in the arts and, really, every industry, to be able to unpack that language, to be honest with themselves about who they are making art for, with, and why. That's what The Syndicate is trying to do. We want to center certain communities because every community should be centered. And ideally, we wouldn't have to think about it that way because the power and the resources would be distributed more equally so that people can center themselves.
CAS: This year, in addition to hosting multiple play readings, there are workshops that accompany the festival. What are your hopes for attendees to gain from the workshops, and what was the impetus for including them?
ERC: There can be a struggle to just make work happen due to the positioning of the arts in American society, especially live performance that isn't “commercial.” Sometimes that struggle leads those of us doing it to think that just because we are in this field, we are doing something good for the world, that we're adding something by showing up to rehearsal. But are we? Just because it's hard to make a play and stories are wonderful, does that mean that we've contributed to society? I don't think so. I think theater can be and do more if we focus on people and process, and that's what these workshops are about. It's no good to say “Here's four play readings by people whom society has traditionally oppressed!” We can do more. We can provide a space that is specifically for trans* artists to be together and talk about their visions for the industry, and we can invite theater makers who want to learn more about trans* inclusion to come do that with us—that’s what these gatherings are about. And now that I'm thinking of it, I don't even know if the word "workshop" fits, because we want them to be spaces where people can think and talk honestly and safely together about the context of the theater that we're making, and what would make it better for all of us. We want them to celebrate and honor each other just as much as they feel like part of doing the work.
CAS: Let’s go back in time a little bit. You’re an alumni of the TAPS program here at UChicago. How would describe your experience in the program?
ERC: I came to UChicago because I went to an arts high school (Duke Ellington, stand up!) and I went through a pre-professional style theater curriculum: Acting 1, Acting 2, Voice and Speech 1, 2, etc. It was wonderful, but I wanted to shift gears a little for college. I knew that UChicago had TAPS and University Theater, and that both offered ways to make a unique theater education for myself. To me, TAPS classes combined the best of all worlds. I had acting classes and theater history classes, but I also had an avant garde class; a class that was about using time in playwriting; a class about presence; and a class about ensemble creation—all of which were taught by theater professionals working in Chicago and beyond, and many of whom I still consider my mentors and inspirations. Leslie Buxbaum Danzig [Assistant Professor of Practice, Director of Undergraduate Studies, Theater and Performance Studies] led my BA colloquium—I truly hope the students that still get to work with her understand her genius (I realize I'm fangirling a little bit here). I could go on and on about how amazing the people are that teach for TAPS. And that continues to be true, because the program is full of working artists and that's whom you're learning from—the program will ideally continue to reflect the current theatrical moment. It did when I was there and that's what I loved about it.
CAS: How has your undergrad experience in TAPs translated in your work at First Read and in the theater space in general?
ERC: I’ve been an actor for a long time, I thought of myself as an actor when I was a kid even. But during my time in TAPS I also began to realize I wanted to do more than that. In my work with The Syndicate now, I am also a creative producer. Acting is always going to be part of my artistic life, but when I'm looking at the bigger picture, when I'm thinking about the context of how and why a play is coming to be in the world, and when I'm getting groups of people together to start a project, all of those skills were grown during my time in TAPS. I think the program enabled me to confidently take on many roles and jobs in theater, because it doesn't force you to specialize in acting or directing or playwriting. You get to become the exact artist that you are by putting the pieces of the puzzle together in the way that excites you. And that's what I'm still doing in my career and in my life.
CAS: Describe TAPS in 5 words (if you can!).
ERC: Praxis (x 5).
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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