Bryn Mawr: 'El Stories' Brings CTA Tales to the Stage

Actress Margaret Scrantom plays an el rider in "El Stories."
(Photo by Tyler Core, Courtesy of Waltzing Mechanics)

Bryn Mawr Stop IconBy Katie Karpowicz
The Red Line Project

Posted: Thursday, March 3, 2011

Every day thousands of Chicagoans bond over one thing -- public transit. And in doing so most have picked up at least one hilarious, quirky or downright strange public transit-related tale along the way.

Now Thomas Murray, founder of local theater group Waltzing Mechanics, put those stories on stage.

“El Stories,” written and directed by Murray, ran Feb. 7 through 23 at City Lit Theater, located at 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. The production was a series of vignettes that took place on a dramatized El ride. The vignettes were adapted from actual interviews Murray conducted with Chicago public transit riders.

Murray explained the concept for “El Stories” came to him some two years ago while working with local theater group Strangeloop Theatre. One night, during a business meeting, one of his colleagues began recounting a “nightmare commute” that she had had earlier in the day. The rest of Murray and his colleagues then proceeded to take turns telling stories about similar public transit experiences of their own.

“And it was in that evening that I realized that public transit in Chicago is really representative of the community itself,” Murray said.  “Because of its utility and diversity, it easily becomes an extension of the public square - a place where Chicagoans of all walks of life come together.”  

Murray began writing the first version of “El Stories” soon after based on written accounts of notable public transit tales that he collected from friends and peers. That version of “El Stories” debuted at American Theatre Company in February 2009. While Murray recalled the audience response being “strong,” he knew his production needed more.

“…If we were going to profile people sharing their stories, I felt we really needed to document people speaking them—in all their ‘Chicagoese.’ I started collecting and then transcribing interviews [with CTA riders] over a year ago,” he said.

Interviews were conducted initially with just friends and coworkers, but recommendations from these interviewees led to a wide array of material from commuters all across the city.

Once the play was cast, Murray spent one night asking cast members to share their own stories with each other, several of which were then worked into the script. Cast members were even asked to conduct interviews within their own circle of peers.

“As a result, I threw out about forty percent of the script I’d originally offered and replaced less evocative stories with some of the ones they brought to the table, so it really became a group effort,” he said.

The result was Murray’s revised production which was showcased at City Lit Theatre last month.

CityLit Photo by Katie Karpowicz
City Lit Theater showcases local productions like "El Stories." (Photo by Katie Karpowicz)

“People loved it,” said cast member Margaret Scrantom. “It is so relevant to any Chicagoan. We all ride the train or bus at least every once in a while…People tell me they are much more appreciative and attentive on their train rides after seeing our show. I love that.”

Reception to the show—which played on off-nights (Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday) through February—overwhelmed the cast.

"[We had] some big crowds and everyone seemed to really like the show,” said cast member Eric Loughlin. “Even the president of the CTA came to the show and said ‘good job’ to everyone. It’s been kind of nuts. It’s tough getting people to come to off-night shows and we’ve been about 25 seats from selling out a couple days.”

When Murray formed Waltzing Mechanics last summer, his goal was to “create original theatrical works inspired by real people telling stories about their lives.” “El Stories” is the theater group’s first production.

“Primarily, this was about trying to represent who we are as Chicagoans through the lens of how we move through the city,” Murray said. “I wanted to document a living history of those stories because I didn’t see a forum where they were being showcased in this kind of detail.”

The success of “El Stories” led to a second installment of the production, one that, according to its website, promises to showcase “new stories” and a “new rail line.” This second installment will run this summer, July 1-30, in the Downstairs Studio at the Greenhouse Theater Center. The Greenhouse Theater Center is located at 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.

In the meantime, CTA riders are encouraged to record their stories at 773-59-WALTZ and run the chance of seeing them adapted for the stage this July. 

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