Behind "The Ville"

by Joseph Erbentraut

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday August 26, 2008

After just a short while sitting across a table from the budding Chicago playwright, composer and director team of Rebekah Walendzak and Jeffrey Bouthiette, one can almost immediately tell a number of things. First, the directors of the Bare Boned Theatre company and founders of the Andersonville-based live gay soap opera The Ville are certainly not shy. Nor are they the sort of people who'd be afraid to mention that a stray piece of spinach had snuck its way into your teeth after dinner. No, these are the sort of Chicagoans who don't mince words and refuse to settle for anything less than the biggest hopes and dreams for their newly-formed theatre company.

"I think that as a new company, you worry about money and logistics and all of that kind of stuff, but in the end, if you're not going to try and do big, huge, risky things, then you shouldn't be doing it at all," said Bouthiette. "You should just go and watch theater somewhere else, or stay home and watch your television."

"Our goal is for The Villeto be what gay Chicago does on a Monday night," added Walendzak. "We are not doing it because this is what pays our bills. We are all doing this because, for whatever reason, either we've come down with the disease of theatre or it's just that everybody has that thing that they have to do. It's not to say that we'd die without it, but it certainly wouldn't be a happy existence."

The Ville is a theatre show unlike any other. Its characters and stories - ranging from a character loosely based on a young Walendzak herself to self-identified horror film junkie parents of a lesbian daughter - are based on the lives and stories of queer Chicagoans of nearly every shape, size and color. As the show is described on its Web site, audience members can attend the show "expect[ing] to laugh, to cry, and learn to love (or hate!) the characters of The Ville.

Walendzak and Bouthiette's shared passion for theatre has been key to the success of Bare Boned, an LGBT-friendly, if not focused, company just celebrating its second birthday. The company's current prized possession, The Ville is both performed in and themed around Andersonville.

The city's only live gay soap opera is in the midst of its second season. The show features monthly "episodes" performed three times each. Currently the company is gearing up for the final three episodes at Mary's Attic, located above Hamburger Mary's at 5400 N. Clark St., where the show has found a home since its inception.

"We were having lunch downstairs and saw the Attic and wanted to do it here. We thought, 'how great would it be to have it in a gay-themed restaurant?' and they have been great to us," explained Walendzak. "The more we were hanging around Andersonville, the more we saw a community that is gay friendly and open minded, with families from all walks of lives, that have an open mind. When we first started, we called it a love letter to Andersonville ... and right now, it's just life. It's about the lives of these particular [characters]."

"Our goal is for 'The Ville' is to be what gay Chicago does on a Monday night."

And so the adventure began for the duo, who shortly brought together a staff of crew, writers and actors in ways that both would describe as anything but traditional. "We used online ads for everything, and to find writers, we even used the women-for-women and men-for-men pages on Craigslist," Walendzak revealed. "What I found was that I got a few responses through the women's page, but the men's ad kept disappearing down the page because there were so many other ads. It was flagged constantly as 'inappropriate' -- 'We don't want you advertising for non-sexual things!'"

Once beyond the Craigslist politics, the company had assembled a crop of writers including poets, novelists and masters' students covering a broad diversity of influences. Many of the original actors have continued through both seasons of the show, which has drawn drastically larger audiences in its second run.

"I think [the show] is something that you can be proud of as a community," Walendzak continued. "There's this buzz right before each show as we dim the lights and our opening music and video begins. People are just ready -- they've been waiting for the past month and waiting to see what will happen. The audience cares about these people, because we show humans, humans of all sorts."

"Our mission is really about giving voices to outsiders and granting opportunities to people who wouldn't ordinarily have them," added Bouthiette. "We cast people that you don't see in the soap operas and our performances are interesting and emotionally visceral. We strive to push the boundaries of our non-traditional space -- in a bar, and that's what makes the show so interesting."

Pushing boundaries will continue to be the name of the game for Bare Boned, both inThe Ville and beyond. The company will launch a monthly cabaret show on the third Sunday of each month beginning in December, also at Mary's Attic. They also have their eyes set on their first full-length stage play in the fall of 2009, in addition to continuing with the little gay soap opera that could.

In addition to her work preparing for conclusion of the second season of The Ville-- including a full musical, two-part finale in November and December, Walendzak is also busy preparing for the Nike Women's Marathon in San Francisco in October, a benefit for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Walendzak, a cancer survivor herself, has set the goal of raising $3600 to benefit research on the devastating condition.

"I feel that, three years out from being in remission, it is my responsibility to help people who are in this unfortunate situation."

Episode five of The Ville,complete with "porn, a drama on the beach, a sexy Spaniard and Disney-styled dance moves," as described by Bouthiette, debuts on Monday, September 8, at 8 PM at Mary's Attic. Tickets for the show are available at the door or in advance at Mary's for $10.

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.