Chi Lives: Abby Epstein, theater gypsy | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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Chi Lives: Abby Epstein, theater gypsy


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Abby Epstein has no home. Ask for her phone number and she'll give you an 800 number. Ask where she lives and she'll tell you whose couch she's currently crashing on. Ask where you can reach her tomorrow, and she's as likely to say New York or Los Angeles as Chicago.

"I haven't had an apartment in two years," Epstein laughs. "My car is registered in one state, my driver's license is from another, my health insurance is in a third state. My accountant threw up his arms last week and said I don't know where you should file from."

The 26-year-old director lives as a transient because she's determined to work in theater, and she hasn't been able to find enough paying work in Chicago to keep her here year-round--despite impressive credentials. A founding member and former artistic director of Roadworks Productions, Epstein has a number of well-regarded productions under her belt, including Road, Lion in the Streets, and, most recently, SubUrbia.

So Epstein flits from coast to coast, directing for Roadworks in Chicago, assistant directing the annual big-budget musical version of A Christmas Carol in New York's Madison Square Garden, directing staged readings and working in television in Los Angeles.

But then Epstein has always been driven. Born in New York City and raised in Scarsdale, Epstein became obsessed with making it as an actress after appearing in a student production of Peter Pan.

In seventh grade she started taking theater classes at the local Y, and at 13 she started taking the train into New York City every Saturday morning for classes at Sanford Meisner's famed Neighborhood Playhouse.

"That was a very interesting place," she says. "It was experiencing a turnover at the time. Our voice teacher was like 105. She definitely had been there from the beginning. But our acting teacher was a young fraud. We all knew he was a fraud."

After her classes there Epstein would gobble down some lunch and then scurry over to another acting school, where she learned to work in front of a camera. "We would sit in these classes for two hours at a stretch and learn how to sell peanut butter. That was a very sick place."

Epstein's parents were not pleased that she was stagestruck. "I remember having lunch with my dad. And he was really like, "OK, you know, what are you going to do? This isn't real.' Desperately trying to steer me into a law career." And when she'd talk about getting an agent, she recalls, her mom would say, "You want an agent? You pick up the phone. I am not getting involved. I am not driving you to these things." Still, as long as she kept up her grades, they didn't forbid her to work in theater.

The summer after her junior year of high school, Epstein says, "changed my life." She studied at Northwestern University's theater program for high school students and for the first time was surrounded by kids as devoted to theater as she was. As part of the program they would go to productions at Steppenwolf, Remains, Next, and the Marriott's Lincolnshire. They became particularly obsessed with Remains' production of Jim Cartwright's innovative play Road, and the cast of Road was invited to visit the class at Northwestern.

At the end of the summer Epstein knew she wanted to study acting at one of the country's leading conservatory theater programs. "I didn't want to kick around some liberal arts school," she recalls.

But Epstein's dad refused to send her to a school dedicated exclusively to theater, so she ended up at Northwestern, where she was first drawn to music theater. After a while, however, she became disenchanted with the lack of opportunities for women.

"I was in the musical Chicago and all of a sudden I realized I was just like the sexy dancer girl. I was doing these musical scenes where the guy pinches your ass and you go "Ohhhhh!' And I'm thinking this is dumb. I'm up here in no clothes running around being an idiot, being a stupid chorus girl. My family is coming to see this! If only they knew how many people I beat out for this stupid thing."

Epstein became confused. Suddenly she no longer wanted to do what she'd been working so hard for. She considered leaving school but didn't. Instead, she took a hiatus from theater, acting in student TV programs and with an on-campus improv troupe.

It was during this time that Epstein was invited by a feminist collective to direct a campus production of Susan Miller's 70s play Cross Country. The experience was a turning point. While directing Epstein discovered that she was drawing on all of her interests simultaneously.

Epstein immediately switched her focus from acting to directing--not an easy move to make in your senior year. "I had to tooth and claw my way into a directing class."

A year later Epstein and a group of dedicated Northwestern grads toothed and clawed their way into Chicago's non-Equity theater scene, producing a series of well-conceived, well-directed, well-acted plays that any of Chicago's more seasoned companies would have been proud to have in their season.

Now in its fourth year Roadworks has become one of Chicago's more firmly established non-Equity companies, with a file full of positive reviews and a handful of Jeff Awards. But Jeffs and clips don't pay the bills, and Epstein was forced two years ago to supplement her income by going wherever the jobs led her.

Epstein's current project in Chicago is a rock musical based on the life of a different kind of wanderer: Orestes, the mythical Greek hero who kills his mother for killing his father and then flees across Greece.

Adapted from Euripides' play by Charles Mee Jr., and then turned into a rock musical by musicians Ben Sussman and Andre Pluess (with a little prodding by Epstein), this postmodern retelling of the Orestes myth fills out Euripides' basic story with a cut-and-paste technique. Many of the major speeches in this monologue-heavy play are lifted verbatim from the writings of John Wayne Gacy and Bret Easton Ellis, among others.

Where does Epstein plan to go from here? "My boyfriend gave up his LA apartment and is living in Mexico City where they're shooting a TV series. I'd like to go there and check out the terrain. They've got a lot of theater. And my Spanish is getting pretty good."

Previews for Orestes begin at 8 PM Friday at the Famous Door Theatre, 3212 N. Broadway. Tickets are $12. The play opens Thursday, May 2, and runs through June 9. For more info, see the Section Two theater listings or call 404-0048.

--Jack Helbig

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.

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