Time Out Chicago / Issue 118 : May 31–Jun 6, 2007
Sister Wendy
Respected playwright MacLeod lends her cred to Sketchbook.

When Wendy MacLeod’s DOWNSTAIRS, UPSTAIRS debuts at Steppenwolf’s Garage this weekend, sharing the stage with other new short works by the likes of Sean Graney and Barbara Blumenthal Ehrlich, it will mark the playwright’s fifth offering (give or take) for Collaboraction’s Sketchbook series. But it turns out MacLeod has contributed much more than that to the 11-year-old company over the past few years. Like, say, company members.

“Somehow Wendy MacLeod and Kimberly Senior became acquainted—this is my version of it anyway—and shortly thereafter, a relationship was begun [between MacLeod and the company],” recalls Anthony Moseley, Collaboraction’s artistic director. “She began submitting plays to Sketchbook—maybe it was the first Sketchbook?” At the same time, MacLeod, the playwright-in-residence at Ohio’s Kenyon College, began sending students their way. “Three or four years in a row, Wendy recommended interns from Kenyon who came to work with the company and became integral to our organization,” he says. Company members Brant Russell and Sarah Gitenstein began as interns from Kenyon.

MacLeod, for her part, is fuzzy on the details as well. She can’t put her finger on how she got started with Sketchbook, nor how many times her work has been featured there. “I think it might be my fifth! I was just trying to remember,” she says on the phone from her office at Kenyon. “I didn’t have a piece in last year’s, but it seems like I’ve had one in every other time.”

The playwright—known for darkly comic works like Schoolgirl Figure, an eating-disorders satire, and The House of Yes, in which a deeply disturbed family models themselves on the Kennedys—has a long history in Chicago. Schoolgirl premiered at the Goodman, as did Sin, a “contemporary morality play” about a helicopter traffic reporter played by Amy Morton. In 2003, Steppenwolf mounted the regional premiere of her Things Being What They Are and Collaboraction revived her early play Apocalyptic Butterflies, both while MacLeod was a visiting professor at Northwestern. “A lot of times people think I’m a Chicago playwright,” she says. “Really I’m just disguised as one.”

MacLeod counts herself as a fan of Chicago, though that extended visit at Northwestern wasn’t totally ideal. “When I’m having something produced I like very much feeling part of the city. When I was [at Northwestern] my kids were in school and we were living in Evanston, and I didn’t care so much for that suburban feeling.”

She enjoys contributing to Sketchbook because “it can be so nice to write a short play sometimes. A full-length play can take, you know, a year or more.” MacLeod says she’s also enamored of the “hip, younger-skewing” Sketchbook style, which features 16 ultrashort pieces (seven minutes or less) in rotating repertory, punctuated by sets from guest musicians or DJs, and has built a loyal following among younger audiences.

If MacLeod likes being around so much when her work is produced, why does she work from tiny Gambier, Ohio, rather than live in Chicago or New York (where this summer she has a new one-act in the Ensemble Studio Theatre’s Marathon series and a production of Things Being What They Are in Sag Harbor)? Well, Kenyon is her alma mater and her home. Plus, there’s a flip side to being in a thriving theater town: “Sometimes you can’t get arrested. It can be pretty terrible being in a city when you don’t have anything going on.”—Kris Vire

Sketchbook07 is playing in the Steppenwolf Garage.