Waltzing Mechanics present ‘El Stories’

By Brianna Wellen

A woman walks onto a crowded train, grabbing hold of the nearest rail to stay balanced. Another passenger willingly gives up her seat. Thank yous are exchanged and the rider, who is now standing, proceeds to pet the head of the stranger now in her seat for the remainder of the ride. For some, this is another day on the Red Line. For the actors in the Waltzing Mechanics, it’s a scene from their newest production, “El Stories.”

Combining a familiar setting with the stories of Chicagoans, the Waltzing Mechanics present a dramatic ride on the Red Line from Jackson to the Howard stop. Using an atypical theatrical approach, the show, which starts Feb. 7 at City Lit Theatre, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., strives to connect city dwellers through the common experience of public transit.

The idea for the show struck director Thomas Murray two years ago when he was meeting with a group to start a theater. According to Murray, instead of talking business, they were distracted by one member’s story about what happened on her commute to work that morning. From there, everyone had an el tale to share, and Murray realized there was an interest in this.

“People who live in the city and ride public transit have a yearning to be connected to each other in a community fashion,” he said. “Sharing these stories is a way to be connected.”

For the past year, Murray conducted interviews with Chicagoans to gather a wide range of stories, saving the original recordings for the actors’ reference. He found when approaching people, they didn’t seem to think their el stories were worthy of the production. But after starting with one, they would inevitably go on to remember three more, each more entertaining than the last.

The cast is composed of 10 actors who are well-versed in improv, he said. After being cast, they were asked to seek out el stories from their connections. Forty percent of Murray’s original script was thrown out in favor of the actors’ stories.

“It evolved to being something we all had a little bit of ownership in, and I’ve never been in a show where that is possible,” said cast member Zach Florent. “It’s surprisingly easy to dial into some of these experiences. Your own crazy or weird or touching experience relates somehow to experiences other people have.”

At the end of the show, the goal is to stir up conversation among the audience, Florent said. To highlight this process, there is an audience participation portion of each performance, where the actors instantaneously perform a story told from the audience in addition to the 20 to 25 scripted stories in the show.

Actor Bryan Campbell hopes this idea of an evolving show is adopted throughout the run to keep “El Stories” a performance unique to Chicago. He joined the production after seeing it in its workshop stages. As the climate and community of Chicago changes, so will the stories—something evident through the early stages of rehearsal when new stories were added, Campbell said.

“We didn’t have a full draft of the script until after the first week, week and a half,” Campbell said. “We’re now actually actively part of the story process. It’s kind of freeing that we don’t have such a set, relegated schedule. At the same time, it’s slightly nerve-wracking.”

According to Murray, it’s the relatable nature of the show that will draw in audiences and keep people coming back as the show evolves.

“I think everybody has an el story,” he said. “There’s something cathartic about sharing that, that you wind up becoming part of something larger.”

“El Stories” opens on Feb. 7 at 8 p.m., at the City Lit Theatre, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. The show costs $10 and will run on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 8 p.m. through Feb. 27. For more information, visit WaltzingMechanics.org.