You’re Invited to the Party of the Decade (the 1960s, that is)

Words by Rachel Claire

Photos by Emily Madigan, Michael Brosilow & Stephanie Davis

“I’ve got it!” Amy Rubenstein sat up in bed. It was the middle of the night in February 2017, and she shook her husband awake.

“I finally know how I’m going to do this show! I’ve got to call Leslie.”

Her husband reminded her that it was the middle of the night and Leslie would be sleeping. She should not call Leslie.

Reluctantly, Amy went back to sleep and called Leslie the next morning. She shared an idea that would eventually become the breakout theatrical hit, Southern Gothic.

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Amy is one of five creatives behind Southern Gothic. The team includes: Playwright Leslie Liautaud, Co-Creator Amy Rubenstein, Co-Creator Carl Menninger, Director David Bell, and Windy City Playhouse Managing Director Evelyn Jacoby.

The group came together the way most groups do—through a series of seemingly random connections. Carl was Amy’s high school theater teacher. Leslie met Amy through mutual friends. Amy and Evelyn were acquaintances in childhood, then became friends in the Chicago theater scene. David worked in similar circles as Amy and Carl, and he was Evelyn’s college theater professor.

Their web of relational connection makes their creative bond that much more endearing. It’s clear the group has a lot of love and admiration for one another, and it turns out that their curiosity, mutual respect, and openness to collaboration is what made this play successful.

Leslie grew up in Kansas City. The daughter of an actress, theater was in her blood.

She acted from an early age, then went on to work professionally in the performing arts. It wasn’t until years later, however—after becoming a mom and stepping away from work for a while—that she stumbled upon the magic that truly made her light up: writing.

Eventually, she wrote a play called He Is Us. In the story that unfolds, a group of privileged childhood friends in 1961 Ashford, Georgia, come together for a 40th birthday party. As the evening progresses, celebration leads to disaster while fragile friendships and relationships are heavily tested. A newcomer to the close circle opens a path for all the characters to intimately scrutinize their life decisions. It’s a juicy story whose characters are heavily influenced by Leslie’s grandmother. The play was originally produced in traditional, proscenium form and then set aside for 10 years before Amy got ahold of it.

Leslie recalls getting Amy’s phone call and hearing her idea to turn He Is Us into an immersive experience. Amy envisioned a set that was a house that the audience could enter. They wouldn’t just watch the dinner party but be a part of it, roaming freely through the home as the night unfolds. Unlike interactive theater, the immersive audience would simply be an invisible fly on the wall, albeit close enough to touch the actors without actually being acknowledged.

“I remember saying, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but I’m in,’ ” Leslie says.

Amy had always loved immersive theater. She reveled in the depth and variety of emotion it produced. In the late 1990s, she attended an immersive production titled, De La Guarda and said it was the coolest piece of art she had ever seen. “You were inside of the show,” she says. “It was above you and around you, and it brought you into all of these different feelings.”

Most immersive theater is experience-based, meaning there’s no plot. Audiences move from room to room, observing dance, music, and theatrical scenes. Amy wondered what it would be like to take this concept and make it plot based—to find a rich story that audiences could relate to and drop them right into the middle of the action.

It would take years of mulling the idea over, opening an experience-based theater in Chicago (Windy City Playhouse), and reading Leslie’s play, for the concept to finally take shape.

Shortly after calling Leslie, Amy dialed her Artistic Associate, Carl, and presented the idea to him.

Carl said he was in, but he had a couple of concerns. He wondered how the playwright, whom he’d never met, would react to all the changes that would need to be made to the script. “I had no idea who this playwright was,” he laughs. “They could say, ‘No! We’re going to do the show written as is in the space we’re given.’ And that would be it.”

But his experience was quite the opposite. Carl, Leslie, and Amy connected on a three-hour phone call in which their collaborative spirit became apparent.

“From the get-go, we figured out how to work together,” Carl says. “We all have healthy egos that mesh really well together. All of us are proud of our work and what we’re doing and excited to receive what everyone else has to say as well.”

The trio spent the next several months reworking the script. They rewrote plot lines, invented a post-it note method of keeping track of the eight characters as they moved from room to room, and created literal paper trails of script pages that wrapped around Amy’s living room. Eventually, they renamed the play Southern Gothic and were ready to bring on a director to begin casting.

“In true Amy fashion,” Leslie says, “she went straight for the top” and reached out to David Bell.

David is a world-renowned director with 44 Jeff Award nominations and 11 wins. He’d never done an immersive show before but was looking for something new and challenging to work on. He was a “yes!”

“David got it immediately,” Leslie said. “Somehow, after reading only 14 pages of the script,he understood the layers of the story and nailed the characters’ motivations and flaws. His mind is truly gifted in that sense.”

During casting, David chose African-American actress, Ariel Richardson to play the role of Cassie. It wasn’t until after the decision was made that the team realized the additional layers of nuance this casting decision created. In 1960s Georgia, it would have been illegal for a white man to date a black woman.

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Undeterred, the team rolled with it, and it became the thing that, according to David, really gave the show its form. Having an African-American woman show up at that party “really put everyone in a stage of crisis so they revealed who they really were in ways they couldn’t have, had we not had that racial element.”

He credited the transformation of Cassie’s character to the writers’ willingness to let the character morph into the actress who was playing her. Their flexibility allowed an already strong story to take on a depth that audiences won’t soon forget.

“I think the results we achieved as a group came directly from the pure respect and support we had for the process of creating this show. We just wanted to tell the best story we could, the best possible way we could as a cohesive team. The response we ended up receiving… well, it blew us away,” says Leslie.

What transpired from the collaboration was a groundbreaking way of storytelling. Southern Gothic received rave reviews from Chicago critics and beyond as one of the top-rated “must-see” shows in Chicago. In October of 2018, the Southern Gothic cast and crew were nominated for six Joseph Jefferson Awards and joyously walked away with three. The eight-week run turned into a full year at the original Windy City Playhouse location. It has since re-opened on Michigan Avenue’s South Loop for an open-ended run.

Southern Gothic is currently on an open-ended run at the Windy City Playhouse in Chicago. While the cast wouldn’t reveal too many details, it’s safe to say the show will open in other cities in the near future.