Young Playwrights Find Their Footing in Chicago Theater
Shakespeare had a quill. Arthur Miller had his typewriters. Zoë DePreta ’17 and Zach Weinberg ’14 had Google Drive.
As the pair began creating their original play for the Director’s Haven Showcase in Chicago, they faced one significant obstacle: they lived over 300 miles apart. However, the emerging playwrights were able to skirt this problem fairly easily, using virtual documents to cowrite the majority of Love in a Maze, their modern adaptation of Eliza Haywood’s 18th-century novella Fantomina, or Love in a Maze. In fact, they may have even benefitted from it.
“Collaborating long distance has actually been very helpful overall, I think,” says Weinberg. “When we were writing it, we both had the opportunity to really try things out on our own and then share it with each other when it existed, rather than feeling the need to check in or discuss every small change in person.”
Drawing on the novella’s themes of female identity, agency, and sexual desire, as well as issues of class privilege, DePreta and Weinberg have crafted a clever and self-conscious update of Haywood’s original material. It’s a feat made even more impressive by the fact that DePreta is a current fourth-year student at Oberlin, where she is completing a degree in theater. Over the past two months, she has spent much of her free time—in between classes, work shifts, and rehearsals for the mainstage production of Spring Awakening—driving to Chicago to assist Weinberg as he directs the piece.
Weinberg discovered Fantomina his junior year at Oberlin in Associate Professor of English Laura Baudot’s course “Wits, Rakes, Madmen, and Jane.” He says he was instantly drawn to the material: “Finding a 300-year-old parable about female sexuality and power that refuses to impart a moral, features an unnamed but emotionally complex female lead, and functions both as a bodice-ripper and social commentary seemed very contemporary and very exciting.”
Upon researching the piece, Weinberg was surprised to find that there were no high-profile modern adaptations of the work, especially considering the continued relevance of its themes. He resolved to return to the idea eventually, keeping the “strange little novella” in the back of his mind until this past April, when he was selected as one of three young directors to be featured in the Director’s Haven showcase. “This seemed like the perfect piece for it,” Weinberg says. “I could share an unfortunately relevant story from the past with a contemporary audience, put my own aesthetic spin on it, and excavate and display the feminist themes under the skin of the piece.”
DePreta and Weinberg, who met in a Western Theater History class, began writing the play this past spring. The accelerated timeline of the project—six months to write, cast, stage, and perform an original—created certain challenges. For one, they needed to find their actors months before the script was completed, an experience further complicated by the fact that DePreta was auditioning for Oberlin’s production of Spring Awakening around the same time. “It was actually heartening,” says DePreta of being on both sides of the casting process. “It was a reminder that people can be good actors, but they’re just not right for the role. It doesn’t mean they don’t like you.” The final draft of the play was completed over the summer, with the couple working and performing at Oberlin Summer Theater Festival (OSTF) during the day before returning to their apartment at night to continue fine-tuning their script.
The original story of Fantomina features an unnamed female protagonist who poses as four different women in order to win over her chosen beau—a plot that was meant to rewrite the archetypical narrative of the “persecuted maiden.” DePreta and Weinberg’s adaptation includes a modern-day narrator who wants to frame the story of the protagonist as radically feminist; however, when things don’t go according to plan, she is forced to rapidly rethink this framework. Though contemporary references abound—DePreta even used distasteful messages she received on her Tinder account to create the character of a sleazy old man—the duo deliberately chose to leave the dialogue of the male antagonist, Beauplaisir, in 18th-century dialect. “So much of what he says reflects something that’s still really relevant, which is that boys will say these elaborate things, and we’re so charmed by it,” DePreta says, “but once you get to the bottom of it, you realize there’s nothing there.” The play also features original music written and performed by several cast members, who play the flute, guitar, ukulele, and harp during the show.
The staging of Love in a Maze has not only given the pair the chance to integrate themselves into Chicago theater scene, but to collaborate with other Oberlin alumni in the industry. The Director’s Haven Showcase, where the play will premiere, was pioneered by Josh Sobel ’09, the artistic director of the Haven Theater. Sobel created the program to address what he sees as a large oversight in the theater community—the distinct lack of opportunities for young directors to stage their own productions. “You have to make work in order to get hired,” Sobel says. “But you have to get hired in order to make work. So it’s this weird Catch-22.” He explains that many “early career programs” cater toward directors who already have assistant and associate directing credits; therefore, the label “early career” has become a misnomer that disadvantages those who are truly just starting out, especially recent college graduates hoping to get their foot in the door. Director’s Haven, he explains, seeks to rectify this artistic quagmire while providing active support for young artists.
“I wanted to create a program that is intentionally for directors who are truly ‘early career,’ who are at the earliest moments of their professional journeys, and provide an institutional program that’s tied to a company where there is a support structure in place, where they don’t have to worry about fundraising, they don’t have to worry about logistics and planning and scheduling and all these things, because there’s a theater company with a staff managing that side of things,” says Sobel. “They can then focus on creating the art, focus on presenting their work to the Chicago community, and saying, ‘Here I am, let’s talk.’”
“It's an opportunity I certainly wished existed when I was getting my start, and it's now something I refer young directors to whenever I'm asked for advice,” says Max Truax ’98, who served as Weinberg’s mentor in the program. Truax, who has been named as one of the most innovative directors in Chicago theater, notes the unique experience of collaborating with fellow alumni: “Having gotten to work with many types of artists in Chicago, there's definitely something about Obies. It’s tough to put a finger on precisely what it is, but I can definitely say that we speak a familiar language and share a similar perspective on the world — overly analytical, verbose, introspective and, perhaps foolishly, optimistic.”
Sobel agrees there is something intangible that tends to draw Oberlin grads back together, even if their paths cross purely by chance. “I really do believe that Oberlin is sort of a diamond in the rough theater program,” he says. “The training and the mentality of Oberlin and the [theater] department prepares the students extremely well for the professional world, both from a liberal arts perspective and just by creating value in things other than just the arts. Additionally, the culture of Oberlin is so connected with politics and social issues, which makes you a better artist. So on that level, it’s an amazing crucible. I think it’s that shared training and that shared standard that Oberlin really nurtures so well, and that sort of keeps us running into each other.”
Love in a Maze, which DePreta and Weinberg have affectionately abbreviated to “LIAM,” has also been accepted to Rhinofest, Chicago’s longest running fringe festival, where it will run alongside Frank Wedekind’s Mine Ha-Ha, directed by Anna Gelman ’16 and featuring Ariana Silvan-Grau ’16. As a talented new generation of Obies floods the Chicago theater scene, it seems certain that the artistic legacy established by Sobel and Truax, as well as other notable artists. such as Greg Allen ’84 of the Neo-Futurists, Adrian Danzig ’87 of 500 Clowns, and actress Taylor Bibat ’07, is sure to be sustained.
Love in a Maze will run at the Haven Theater from October 28 through November 9. Tickets are free and available for reservation online.