All the world’s a stage for young UChicago playwrights

Fourth-year student Grace McLeod has already screened a short film at the Tribeca Film Festival and had additional works featured at venues and festivals nationwide. But she is still thrilled by the opportunities the University's Theater and Performance Studies Program has opened for her.

Last spring, the young playwright and screenwriter worked with Calamity West, who is part of a growing number of professional Chicago playwrights teaching with the TAPS program, helping to connect students to professional theaters throughout the city.

Thanks to West’s encouragement, McLeod applied for a summer residency program with Greenhouse Theater, where she was one of seven playwrights under 30 selected by the program. In October, McLeod’s play Herland was professionally staged—a heady experience despite her previous accomplishments.

“I’m still riding that high,” McLeod said. “I’m really proud. Now I’m in the process of sending it out to see if there is interest in producing it, and I’ve gotten some so far. Developing new plays is a very lengthy process, but I generally love it and I’m excited to see where it goes.”

Mutually beneficial collaborations

The experience has been a boon for instructors like West as well, who recently joined the roster of teaching playwrights in TAPS, including Evan Linder, Vanessa Stalling, Greg Allen, Sean Graney, Seth Bockley, Terrance Brown, Mickle Maher, Aaron Carter and Ike Holter.

“It makes me such a better writer,” West said. “I wasn’t anticipating that to happen. The students also show up, and they give me notes, and they push me as much as I push them. I can’t think of better ways to facilitate a program where relationships forge in the classroom. It’s really exciting.”

These kinds of relationships are exactly what faculty directors of TAPS had in mind when the major began about a decade ago, and the mentoring is quickly becoming the norm according to Heidi Coleman, TAPS director of undergraduate studies.

“I can’t think of better ways to facilitate a program where relationships forge in the classroom. It’s really exciting.”Playwright Calamity West

“The roster of TAPS teaching playwrights paves the way to a professional creative network,” Coleman said. “Grace is following a highway that Calamity is a part of, connecting her to this world. Every collaboration seeks this continuity, making a conduit for students to emerge as writers.”

This work ties directly into the efforts of the Chicago Performance Lab, which since 2009 has served as an incubator for professional companies around Chicago to develop new work, including residencies with Manual Cinema, The Syndicate and First Floor Theatre—three companies founded by UChicago alumni.

“TAPS has sought to position itself as a hub between the academy and the very vital theater world in our midst, and this is just one of the many ways we have sought to put our students into a meaningful dialogue with the amazing artists out in Chicago and across the country,” said David Levin, chair of TAPS and the Addie Clark Harding Professor.

Fostering professional connections

TAPS students also work closely with the Performance Lab, serving as interns during the summer session and in the process, becoming intimately involved with the production of a professional show.

“We’ve created student internships where students can be in the room when things are in production, and oftentimes they go on with the shows that they were part of here,” Coleman said.

Jesse Roth, AB’13, was a TAPS major and regularly assistant directs at the House, one of Chicago’s up-and-coming theaters. Roth credits her experience with TAPS with connecting her to a network of professional companies when she first graduated. Now she is enjoying returning the favor.

“I love speaking with current students and recent grads about life in the arts,” Roth said. “I’m really encouraged to see more and more young playwrights coming out of UChicago. The TAPS program is so young, but I imagine we’ll start seeing its impact in places like New York and Los Angeles in a few years, but it already feels like we have a quorum in Chicago.”

McLeod is ready to add her name to that group, and she believes that the TAPS program will continue to inject new UChicago talent into the theater world.

“I think that’s where this program is headed—getting students platforms for their work and getting them out to readings and really investing in telling students they can do this,” McLeod said.