Kate Sprouse

Kate Sprouse (July 29, 2014)

Like many freelance writers, Kate Sprouse often works in coffee shops. And like most Americans, she was horrified when she heard the news about the Boston Marathon bombing—and disturbed when she began overhearing random coffee shop conversations that directed anger at entire groups of people based on a few individuals' actions.

The experience led the 35-year-old Chicago resident—who has worked as a bartender, teacher, nonprofit teen empowerment advocate, ad agency copywriter and memoir ghostwriter in Brooklyn and Chicago—to explore her discomfort in a play. The result, "Half Price Cosmos," is a drama set in a bar—and leavened with some humor—about a diverse group of strangers' reactions to a terrorist bombing.

But how does a novice playwright go about producing her work professionally? Sprouse had been active in her theater communities in high school and college but had not yet worked on a Chicago stage. So she enlisted local theatrical production company Bread & Roses Productions and co-founding partner Lauren Girard Forster hooked her up with director Antoine McKay, whom you may recognize as a former Second City mainstage cast member and current recurring cast member on Comedy Central's "Review with Forrest MacNeil." She then crowdfunded and invested her own earnings to finance such expenses as facilities, equipment and salaries.

We called Sprouse during tech rehearsals to find out more about the play, its production and whether the "Cosmos" in the title refers to the universe or the "Sex and the City" cocktails.

'Half Price Cosmos'
Go: 8 p.m. Thursday through Aug. 24 at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave.
Tickets: $30; $25 for students. 773-935-6875; athenaeumtheatre.org

The inspiration behind the play: "'Half Price Cosmos' grew out of a one-act that I wrote for a series called 'Barhoppers' [while in college at The University of Virginia], where all the all the plays were one-acts and they had to take place in a bar. And we would perform them in local bars. I graduated in '01 from Virginia—the May before 9/11—so it had nothing to do with any of these topics. But I was really interested in divergent perspectives. If you had a bunch of strangers in one place, how they could experience something in drastically different ways from each other in the same place at the same time?"

What compelled her to expand it from a one-act: "I was sitting at my Starbucks 'office' right after the Boston bombings. I started to just observe different types of conversations about those events, and I couldn't put my finger on how things had changed. But it just seemed like there was a permission suddenly to be racist, especially against an Arab sector of the population—'They're blowing us up. That means I can hate 'em all.' And that did not sit well with me. And in a coffee shop—where people have this pseudo-anonymity where they're with probably a close friend that they feel safe having that kind of a conversation with and yet they're in a public place—you're really close to observing these intimate conversations that someone else is having, and it's weird that they don't realize that you have ears. [Laughs.] I thought about it for probably a month while I was working on another project. And I talked about it a lot with different friends to take everybody's temperature and figure out how they felt and 'What was the difference between how you felt after 9/11 or any time any of these events have happened over the last 11, 12 years?' And then I started writing and it just came out. The editing process, obviously, was long. But the play as it stands in its structure came out in about a week."

Why her focus remained on telling the story from multiple perspectives: "I really wanted a diverse audience to say, 'I don't know where I fit in here. Obviously, I look most like that guy but would I say that?' Or, 'Is that true?' Or, 'Ooh—that really makes me feel uncomfortable.' To say, 'You know what? I need to think more about where I stand on these things and what I would say if I was in this position. If I was a character in that play, where would I have fit in or what would I have done differently?' Or, 'Where are my biases and my prejudices?' I want to encourage these conversations, whether it be at intermission or if it's at a dinner the next week or right afterwards, where people are inspired by watching something difficult."

How she brought humor into a dramatic script: "A lot of the way that I write is by observing people and watching what they do in real life and how we deflate situations. So once you have a character in mind and you know what their instincts are, there are natural times throughout the play with certain characters where that person would say this at this moment. And the actors have done such a great job of living in their roles that they have [added] some lines—and they are some of the funniest moments, too. Sometimes it's a look or it's who you're directing a certain line to. But I think that all this comes out of just natural tendencies—you can't live in seriousness all the time, no matter [how] serious the situation is or whose funeral you're at. We need to laugh at some point, even when it's inappropriate."

Her biggest challenge as a first-time Chicago theater producer: "Accepting risk. We started with a Kickstarter-esque campaign just to try to get a little bit of capital raised because I am producing it pretty much alone. And we did pretty well. It wasn't through Kickstarter—it was another smaller outfit called RocketHub that fit better for us. But the all-in production costs, we just had to say, 'All right, I believe in this. I'm going to see it through' and hope to sell tickets. I'm still living in that risky place. But I think that was the biggest challenge—just saying, 'OK. It's really an investment in telling a story that I want people to talk about.'"

Where the title originated: "I was maybe two days into writing and I met one of my friends out for a glass of wine. And they had a sign—you know, the placards out front—and it said 'half-price sake' that night. And I just thought, half-price is such a 'bar' thing and it takes place in a bar. And then later, I was reading that night in bed, something about the cosmos and how our understanding of it is so limited—it's logical chaos and we can't understand the way that things work, just a small segment of things. And I was a bartender for a long time and I hated making cosmopolitans. And it just all came together."

But the title has caused confusion: "My mother's friends [were] like, 'Oh it's ladies with their martinis! It's the martini play! We're going to come see it! It's going to be great!' I'm like, 'Oh, my God, her church group is going to not know what hit them [laughs] because it's not about the pink drink.'"

On casting the play: "One of the first things that we decided was that we wanted to pick people that had a warmth about them, that really cared about working with the rest of the cast. Obviously, we're looking for talent, but we were looking for people who we wanted to work with. And it's been fun all the time, even when we're in the midst of these really dramatic scenes where characters are saying awful things to each other. And then we stop and like, they hug. I've seen so many bro-hugs—it's been cool."

On working with director Antoine McKay: "On our first interview, we sat in this coffee shop and talked for two-and-a-half hours just about where he grew up, where I grew up, where we've felt victims of prejudice. And I'm a white chick with blond hair—I haven't experienced a whole lot of that. It really took me to be a teacher and to be so protective of my kids and to see things that especially my male students dealt with—you know, 16-year-olds—when we'd go on field trips. The way we got eyeballed and the way I would see people react on the street was appalling. And to sit with Antoine and share these stories and be able to openly talk about and joke at each other and be like, 'From the "peach" world, this is what I see;' and he's, 'From the "brown" world, here's what I see'—I think we've been able to foster that feeling of openness and conversation that we have at rehearsals about the real topics of the play because he and I are in a good place and can talk about that stuff."

Their first meeting: "The first thing he said when he sat down at our interview was, 'OK.' And I went, 'OK, what?' He's like, 'I just was really interested what shade you were going to be. I had no idea.' And I was like, 'All right. Well, this is my shade.' And he said, 'That's not what I was expecting.' I was like, 'OK. I think that's a compliment. At least for the writing.' But it was right from that minute. We started talking about latent prejudice—latent racism, specifically—and how scary that is. I think it's scarier than sometimes the outward shows of things where it can just explode out of nowhere because people haven't had a chance to say, 'You know what? I actually feel this way about it' and be challenged by somebody else in a space that was safe enough."

Her experience ghostwriting the Jeremy "Shoemoney" Schoemaker memoir: "He's a really funny dude. But I'd come home from working all day and I'd be like 'eff this' and 'eff that' and [my husband's] like, "All right; you're not Jeremy. Get out of character, please!' But it was really fun. And I think writing a book re-awakened my creative side—like, 'I've got to be doing more of this stuff.'"

How living in New York gave her the courage to identify as a playwright: "There's a different mentality there. You hang out at a party and people are doing the strangest things and nothing is outlandish. Like, 'Oh, yeah, I'm sculpting with marshmallows.' And people are like, 'That's really awesome. Good for you.' And I think it was really great to live in that environment for a little while. The difference about Chicago and New York, though, is that in New York, good luck and God bless you if you actually want to try to get it to fruition. Whereas in Chicago, there's been a lot of challenges, especially doing this for the first time, but the community is so warm, especially in the smaller communities outside of the big theaters—people just wanting to support you, like, 'This is a good story. We want to help you get it to the stage.'"