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Echo Theater at 25: How Chris Fields gave L.A. a place for offbeat plays to thrive

Chris Fields, artistic director of the Echo Theater Company, celebrates his company's 25th anniversary.
Chris Fields, artistic director of the Echo Theater Company, celebrates his company’s 25th anniversary.
(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

Chris Fields, the founding artistic director of Echo Theater Company, is a sociable guy, a class A talker and a veteran schmoozer.

Ninety minutes into our interview, with only a half-hour for me left on the parking meter and half my questions still unasked, I abruptly tried to reverse out of kaffeeklatsch gear. But each inquiry only brought back more memories, names and associations. It was just the two of us at an outdoor hotel cafe on Melrose Avenue, but our table might as well have been teeming with artistic friends and collaborators.

The subject of our conversation was Echo’s 25th anniversary, quite a milestone for a theater that arose to bring adventurous new playwriting voices to Los Angeles. The idea for the company was born at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center, a prestigious center of play development in Waterford, Conn.

Fields was there as an actor, and while hanging out at the bar with a group of other recent L.A. transplants who were “all whingeing about the lack of theater,” a lightbulb went off: Why not try this back home, but with an option to produce the work that was being so carefully midwifed?

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Right from the start at Echo, the emphasis was on the relationship with the playwright. Fields had in mind another theater as his model: New York’s Playwrights Horizons. The idea was for a smaller version of this off-Broadway powerhouse, renowned for bringing forth adventurous new work.

By the time I started reviewing the company in 2007, Echo was operating at the Zephyr Theatre on Melrose. Two things about this outfit immediately caught my attention. The first was the playwriting sensibility, which I’d describe as loopy but with a gritty edge.

The plays, by such idiosyncratic writers as Adam Bock, Jessica Goldberg and Jenny Schwartz, didn’t always work. But even when they fell short, they tended to have a fumbling charm.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ celebrated ‘An Octoroon’ has its Los Angeles premiere at the Fountain Theatre’s new outdoor stage.

Fields said he has two requirements for choosing plays for production: He and his team have to passionately love the work and it has to make them laugh. Later, he mentioned that crazy, violent occurrences have been known to occur in an Echo play, and indeed a streak of twisted menace runs through the long line of eccentric dramas.

The other thing I noticed about those Echo productions at the Zephyr was the electricity in the audience. The houses tended to be filled with members of the creative class: actors, designers, literary types. Many theatergoers looked like they could switch places with the performers. There was a level of attention that felt professional — peers watching peers, taking notes, rooting one another on.

This crackling absorption can still be heard at Echo’s Atwater Village Theatre, where the company took up permanent residence in 2014. Fields attributes the energy to the theater’s beginnings as a laboratory for new work.

“We’ve had a very simple system at the Echo,” he said. “We read a play every week amongst ourselves and talk about it. If we respond, we’ll do a public reading. We knew we didn’t have money to produce right away, so we did free public readings and invited everybody. Actors would invite other actors, many of them new transplants to L.A., and so we really started to develop our network. And that really trickled down over the years.”

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When Echo was still only a toddler, Fields became the founding artistic director of the Ojai Playwrights Conference, which has grown under Robert Egan’s leadership to rival the O’Neill as an incubator of important new plays. After leaving Ojai, Fields started the Echo Playwrights Lab to provide a home for emerging writers to develop communally through readings, workshops, mentorship and fellowship.

Throughout the interview, Fields kept harking back to all the writers who have passed through Echo’s doors. He hasn’t forgotten about the plays that got away — meaning they were swept up by larger theaters before Echo had a chance to land the premiere. But he’s proud of introducing L.A. audiences to distinctive new work by Sarah Ruhl, David Lindsay-Abaire, Adam Rapp and Tanya Barfield.

Field’s willingness to take chances on such incendiary material as Tommy Smith’s “Firemen” is a testament to his producing fearlessness. But the competition for new writing has only grown more fierce.

When he first started, he could pick up the phone and call playwright Christopher Durang at Juilliard and ask him to send him the work of a promising student. But now those fledgling writers, he said, already have representation and are being hired out of school to staff TV shows.

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Fields’ record and relationships still give him access to some choice work, including Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Gloria” and Sarah DeLappe’s “The Wolves,” both Pulitzer Prize drama finalists. But this pandemic period has provided time for rethinking the old ways of doing business.

For some, the Echo Theater Company’s vibrant artistic community has seemed more like a club — a rather white one at that. This perception was compounded when the Los Angeles premiere of “Pass Over,” Antoinette Nwandu’s play described by the Amsterdam News as “‘Waiting for Godot’ meets ‘Do the Right Thing,’” was canceled because of irreconcilable artistic differences with the director, Deena Selenow.

In this year of racial reckoning, Fields has said he and his small company have been examining institutional practices through an anti-racism lens. “We faced our whiteness is what I called it,” he said. “We’ve been looking at our whiteness and our racial awareness in terms of our aesthetic.”

When I asked how he would evaluate his record on diversity, he said he would give Echo high marks for its early days. But as the theater raised its profile, he found that his access to agents, writers, directors and other artistic leaders enclosed him in a white world.

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He wasn’t shifting the guilt. In a company with no permanent staff members, the buck stops with him. But in addition to taking action steps, he’s tried to become more mindful of how a certain kind of “success” can veer an institution off course.

The Echo made two key BIPOC artistic hires last year: Ahmed Best as associate artistic director and Gideon Jeph
Wabvuta as literary manager. This year the theater launched the Echo Designer Mentorship Program for emerging BIPOC designers, an area in which inclusion has long been overlooked in the American theater.

Existing programs, such as the National Young Playwrights in Residence, are being used to further Echo’s mission to cultivate and support emerging playwrights from diverse backgrounds. Commissions to BIPOC writers (including Matthew Paul Olmos, whose “Underneath the Freeways of Los Angeles” was produced virtually in the spring) have been going out. And the Echo Theater Truck, an initiative to broaden audience reach, is bringing Augusto Boal-style interactive performance to local BIPOC communities.

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Building an audience isn’t something a theater figures out and then doesn’t have to worry about again. It’s a living organism that requires constant nurturing if it is to survive. No one need tell Fields how difficult that work can be in Los Angeles.

When Echo moved to Atwater Village, Fields and his associates were knocking on doors, offering free tickets to those in the neighborhood. He never imagined his company would last as long as it has. The history, as he reflects with a bemused smile, has been a series of hurdles, from depleted cash reserves and real estate conundrums to missed artistic opportunities and, oh, a once-in-a-century pandemic.

Fields’ passion is as unstoppable as his conversation. There’s still enormous work to do, and he knows that the onus is on him to make sure that change is systemic and sustained.

But a silver anniversary is an occasion for a party, and on July 1 there will be a benefit celebration on Zoom. The program features 25 monologues by 25 alumni playwrights (Bekah Brunstetter, Hilly Hicks Jr., Ruhl and Lindsay-Abaire among them) performed by 25 alumni actors (including Hamish Linklater and Enrico Colantoni).

The play is still the thing at Echo Theater Co., and Los Angeles’ dramatic tradition is all the richer because of it.


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