Chris Fields grew up in the theatre. With a Tony voter fatehr and a mother who began as a casting director before becoming a producer and then a playwright, he saw all aspects of show business. Starting his education at Columbia University, Fields left to pursue acting and study with Miss Stella Adler. After working at the Eugene O’Neill National Playwright’s Conference, Fields moved to Los Angeles, and an informal group of actors from the O’Neill who had transplanted to the West Coast began gathering to flex their performing muscles. Fields formalized the group with the founding of Echo Theatre Company; now, he looks back on the company’s origins and forward to its goals on the occasion of its 20th anniversary.
What inspired you to launch Echo back in 1997?
Chris Fields: There’s a bar, a pub up at the O’Neill Conference [a retreat for the development of new work in Connecicut]. I’m remembering it was called Blue Jeans—where we would all go after the readings. A group of us was sitting there kind of, you know whining a little bit, about the lack of theater in L.A. And there was this moment when we looked at each other and realized that we just needed to shut up and start a company.
At first, we were a gypsy company for a really long time. And we didn’t want to commit to a monthly rent. We felt strongly that we should take every cent we got and put it into a play. And then this opportunity [in Atwater Village] came along. The room is great, the courtyard is great. It’s really a great space, we love it. Plus, Circle X is there and EST is there. When it gets going, when there are four shows going and the courtyard is full of theatergoers, it’s really an exciting place.
You’re the artistic director, but you also direct and act outside of the company. Have you found it challenging wearing that many different hats?
It’s challenging. It’s fun though. It’s my life. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Today I’ll go to the theater for a dress rehearsal, I just got off the phone with a New York agent. We’re going to do a world premiere of a play called the Cake by Bekah Brunstetter in July. Debra Jo Rupp is going to be in it with us. Then I’ll go to the theater. Then I’ll go teach tonight. It’s my life.
When choosing a season, what are you looking for to round it out. I know this year we’re seeing several world premiere’s and one West Coast premiere of a piece produced at Lincoln Center. Do you tend to look for new works, or are you looking for specific themes?
There’s a whole artistic team. There’s myself and Jenn Chambers, the associate artistic director. Alana Dietze, the lit manager, and Jesse Cannady who’s producing director. Everyone’s got their own developed aesthetics. We’re all pretty opinionated. What’s happened over the years is it’s evolved where we do a play because we all say we have to do this play. I think that’s terrific because it doesn’t mean we have to do a certain style or that we have to do a certain kind of play.
Personally, I like plays that make me laugh. And I like plays that, there’s something about the play that I’ve never seen on stage. There’s something in the play where you think, “I’ve never seen that.” That’s my personal thing. But it’s still, we have to do this play. We love this play.
Found Dog Ribbon Dance began previews January 18. What made you say, “We have to do this play”?
Well, it has a certain very gentle bitter-sweet aspect of relationships and loneliness and coming home and finding someone. In a certain way the play is this very gentle, very beautiful take on what it is to find your way back to love. Or back to a person, or back to a relationship that just feels right. And the world of the play, the Pacific North West, everyone was responding to it. And the plays that you get immersed in are very representative of the world. So what happens is that you find yourself reading plays that in certain ways are very similar. The landscape, the emotional terrain, the psychology is very similar. And the last couple of years it’s been very violent. Very emotionally violent and difficult. People are going through a lot of really hard things so the plays represent that. And this is a play that came to us and, it’s got a sweetness to it that we hadn’t encountered in a while. Our season last year was filled with a lot of layers of things that were dark. And this is a play about somebody really finding their way through and it’s beautiful.
As you head into the season, what is the future Echo?
We have a season of four shows, [but] I’d like to expand our season. We have a writer’s lab and what’s been wonderful is that every year now for the last three years we’ve produced a show that we’ve developed in house. So we’re really implementing our mission. Maybe we get bigger. Maybe we move to a bigger house. What I’d really like us to be is solvent in a way that gives me the ability to commission writers and then to take it from there.
Found Dog Ribbon Dance opens this Saturday January 21st at the Atwater Village Theater and runs through February 27. For tickets and information visit EchoTheaterCompany.com and follow them on Twitter @echotheater.