Bring Your Own Theater – Creating with the Community

Bring Your Own Theater – Creating with the Community

Photo: Best Of BYOT (L-R) Lisa VanAusdall, Vinny Greco, Laura Rupert, Rachel Silvert 

By Abigail Trabue

Bring Your Own Theater (BYOT) is a small group of artists that every month put a show together, comprised of strangers. For 24 hours anyone—artists, construction worker, CEOs, bus drivers, full-time stay-at-home parents—anyone who’s interested in theater, can come together and create a show from scratch. A concept that I found uncommonly intriguing and wanted to know more about, especially since we are always looking for new ways to engage our audience and the community in our art. At BYOT, Chicago citizens are making the art.

I had a chance to ask a few questions of the BYOT crew (including the reason behind their democratically elected, and yearly rotating positions within the company). Check out what Artistic Director Lisa VanAusdall and Director of Community Outreach, Zach Wziontka had to say regarding the life of BYOT.

PerformInk: What brought about the creation of BYOT and what is it that you feel makes Bring Your Own Theatre unique in Chicago?

Zach Wziontka: BYOT branched out from a graduate thesis project: An experiment in 2013 that brought strangers together to create plays within 24 hours once a month. Increased momentum created a company of people who wished to keep it going beyond the initial project. Since May of 2014, we have expanded from the living rooms to art galleries, to warehouses, to other theatrical spaces, to our new official home, Hq. It was that May that BYOT began to develop into what it is today.

Lisa VanAusdall: Since formation, BYOT has served as a creative haven, which encourages participants to stretch their creative limits, face challenges head-on, and experiment with the boundaries that exist between what has already been done and the possibilities that lay beyond. Active participants of BYOT develop and practice skills that positively impact their everyday lives. Confidence, teamwork, and fast-paced, creative problem solving are all skills that are applicable to the worlds of theater and civic life. It’s not only about creating a high-quality script, but also telling the best story we can within 24 hours. We are unique in that we allow anyone, regardless of their experience, to come and participate in our monthly events. We do not have an extensive audition or application process—all anyone has to do is send us an email explaining how they would like to participate. All we ask from our players is that they come with dedication to the craft and an open mind to work with their counterparts.

PI: What does a 24-hour show cycle look like for BYOT and how many have you produced?

ZW: For our 24-hour shows, we begin with a pre-show meeting the night before the performance. We break everyone into groups by the draw of a hat. The sequence of the shows is decided by drawing the writers. The writers then draw their directors, and the directors draw their actors. The groups have a chance to meet up and discuss the scene before the writers begin. The writers use the theme and the input from the actors and director to create a scene by 8 am the following morning. They rehearse throughout the day, and perform that very evening. Each month we give the audience and participants several themes to vote on which become the general focus of the following month. To date, BYOT has produced about 20 free shows. We have a unique blend of members and participants who have a history of theatrical training and practice, amateur (people of passion and talent who are not theatre artists by trade), and people who have never performed, written, or directed in their lives before coming to BYOT. Most began as audience members.   

PI: BYOT operates on a rotating democratic artistic and administrative staff. How does that work?

LVA: BYOT’s foundation was forged by the passion and talents of those who willingly converged to create. Where we came to be was a result of this convergence. The power of the people. A democratic set-up for deciding Artistic staff was the next logical step as the company has continued to grow. This also allows for new blood to continuously head BYOT. Some of our staff and members may look onto other endeavors, and there are always new people coming in who are excited to try something new besides acting, writing, or directing. BYOT is the company to facilitate this opportunity, and a democratic system assures that.

Bring Your Own Theater recently produced their first full-length play, BY DEFINITION, which ran April 28th, 29th and 30th at The Charnel House in Logan Square. BY DEFINITION was the winner of the 1st ever BYOT “Best Of” Showcase. A showcase featuring ‘best of” scenes with the winner voted on by the audience. Will the 2016 “Best Of” winner possibly see their scene developed into a full play? It’s something Wziontka says will happen.

Bring Your Own Theater runs a monthly 24-hour play festival open to the general public. To find out more about BYOT and to be a part of this monthly event visit byotproductions.com.

About author

Abigail Trabue

Abigail has worked as an actor/director in Chicago for over ten years, and along with husband Jason Epperson founded Lotus Theatricals in 2015, and PerformInk Chicago and Kansas City in 2016 (where she serves as Managing Editor of both publications). When not talking shop, Abigail is raising three padawans with Jason, drinking lots of coffee, converting school buses into RV's, and eating all the foods at Disney World. You can find her on Twitter @AbigailTrabue

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