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Making a Scene

North Park student Stephanie Weber C’2011 may not be widely considered a legitimate genius yet, but her work as a comedienne and writer is catching people’s attention.

“She’s on the cusp of going national,” says professor of communication arts Chad Eric Bergman, who calls Weber “a wonderfully talented improvisation performer and writer.”

Her play “Legitimate Geniuses” was this year’s spring performance for North Park’s theatre program, and was performed at the Neo-Futurarium in April. The local storefront venue is home to the Neo-Futurists, a well-known Chicago troupe.

The 21-year-old Weber has supplemented her experience at North Park by taking classes through the nationally known Second City Conservatory and Annoyance Theatre. Second City has trained numerous performers including Steve Carrell, Amy Poehler, Mike Myers, Tina Fey, and Stephen Colbert. In only her second year with Second City, the troupe invited Weber to perform with one of their teams. She has also performed at numerous other theatres in Chicago.

“She is a wonderfully talented improvisation performer and writer,” says Bergman.

“Legitimate Geniuses” tells the Millennial Generation’s story of transition, relationship, transportation—and burritos. The unpredictable, quirky romantic comedy follows the relationship of three Chicago couples that are at different “stops” on the relationship “route.” Using the CTA as a central image of storytelling, the additional characters the audience meets on the bus underscore the idea that it is not the destination that matters, but the verve we share on life’s journey.

“Especially for a Chicago audience, it’s really brilliant,” notes Bergman. “It’s tense, it’s funny—there are some really poignant, sad moments, and romance.”

Weber and her boyfriend, Brad Einstein, make up the eponymous duo of Weber and Einstein. They received rave reviews in February at Penn State, where he attends, when they opened an evening of improv comedy that included several groups. A reviewer for The Daily Collegian wrote that the two “brought the audience to tears as they went from characters such as a southern socialite couple, to high school students who are awkward with each other—all without missing a beat.”

Weber and Einstein were chosen to participate in this September’s first-ever Chicago Fringe Festival, where they will perform, “Please Love Me, High School Boyfriend,” which they co-wrote. Similar festivals have become fixtures in cities, including New York and San Francisco, and target primarily new talent. Shows are performed in small, unusual venues throughout the cities.

Weber’s ability to tell a multifaceted story is evident in “Legitimate Geniuses,” which Bergman calls an “amazing script.” He first caught a glimpse of just how talented she was during her freshman year, when he cast her as the “young ingénue” in Tom Stoppard’s play “Arcadia.” Says Bergman, “She did a brilliant, brilliant job.”

Bergman recalls asking her to write a piece last summer for nine women, given the student composition of North Park’s program at the time. “Two weeks later, she hands me a script with nine women,” he marvels. Weber then asked if he would read another one of her plays. When he finished, she told him of a third play she had authored, which turned out to be “Legitimate Geniuses.”

“The thing that was really remarkable to me was that the three plays she wrote for me last summer were all different,” Bergman says. “They were all different styles, and they all represented different aspects of her. Her interior process shifted so drastically from story to story, that by the time I got to the third one, I was ready for that voice.”

Bergman says he was immediately struck by Weber’s awareness of her generation, which comes from having a well-tuned ear. She carries a notebook everywhere so that she can capture ideas as well as conversations she hears. “I really do like sitting in crowded coffee shops,” Weber says somewhat sheepishly. “It might not be a conscious effort. I might just overhear something and have to write it down.”

Naturally, some of the lines for “Legitimate Geniuses” came from hours spent riding the bus. If the notes she takes don’t make it into her plays, they are frequently fodder for other performances. “I use them in improv as opening lines all the time,” Weber says.

She began writing “Legitimate Geniuses” after her freshman year, but didn’t realize it then. She was working at Trader Joe’s and would spend her breaks writing random scenes, again rooted in conversations she heard. In November 2008, she began to realize the stories could be strung together.

“Once I started to look at it as a whole, I couldn’t believe these things worked together,” Weber reflects. “There were so many times I would look at it and say, ‘Why am I writing this?’”

She was also hesitant to share the play because it was heavily influenced by a relationship that had ended. “I guess just because it was so collected and pulled together and personal, I didn’t know if anyone else would be interested,” explains Weber, who had completed the rough draft months before handing it to Bergman. He quickly assembled a group of Chicago actors for a read-through.

“Everyone at the reading was really excited about this play,” he recalls. “They were pretty much bowled over that she was a junior in college.”

Chicago professionals are also becoming excited about the North Park program, which focuses on training students for storefront theatre. With more than 200 producing theatre companies, Chicago is world renowned for its contribution to the storefront movement.

“We are at the center of the storefront theatre capital of the world,” says Bergman. He recently received a phone call from a representative of the critically acclaimed Halcyon Theatre, which wants to establish a storefront presence in Albany Park.

Unlike traditional theatre, storefront theatre is done in what Bergman calls “unrefined and intimate environments.” Small budgets make it necessary for participants to possess multiple skills. This is why North Park cross-trains students across the technical, acting, and writing disciplines, explains Bergman.

The University’s philosophy of performing storefront productions is preparing its students for the “real world” of theatre, he adds. While many school programs focus on training for large productions, most actors and designers will likely work in smaller venues during their careers.

Bergman has experience in both realms. While a doctoral student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, he directed several plays and had a budget of more than $50,000 for a single production. The stage size was similar to that of Lincoln Center or the Kennedy Center.

Then there was reality. His first job in Chicago was directing a play for a theatre with only 49 seats and a budget of $200 that was supposed to cover building materials, costumes, props, sound, lights, and publicity.

Bergman says he had to develop the storefront program due to economic necessity. North Park didn’t have the funds or facilities to consistently put on large productions. “I’m especially grateful to professor Bob Hostetter and the administration who have understood that this is a vision that works particularly well at North Park,” Bergman says.

Nevertheless, his design staff is comprised of working professionals, who know the capabilities of the students and readily grab them as assistants. “On any given weekend, we’ll probably have a student or two who is working side by side with these designers,” notes Bergman.

Weber especially appreciates the instruction she’s receiving. “It’s so do-it-yourself,” she says. “You’re in a small space. You have to problem-solve. You do your own lights . . . do your own sets. I’m glad that we’re all prepared to that.”

The program makes the students more marketable, she adds, noting she now has a better eye for design because of this kind of training. “People were impressed that I could put on a show with basically nothing, and I learned that here.”

Bergman says having a small program provides other advantages. “Because our program is small and yet strong, I can see where the talents of my students are and push them in that direction.” Weber is a prime example.

North Park’s storefront philosophy helped attract Weber to the school, she says. She also appreciated that the University, unlike another school in the city, would let her take classes at places like Second City and Annoyance Theatre. “I knew for some reason I wanted to try improv classes but I don’t know where that came from,” she says.

Weber grew up in the small town of New Lenox, Ill., and there certainly were no early signs that she would one day be acting on stages across Chicago. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“I was cripplingly shy,” Weber says. “I would want to cry every time the teacher called on me.”

But Weber developed a vivid imagination and began to write scenes about what her fellow students might do when they got home. “It was nothing fantastical. It was, ‘T. J. went home and had a birthday party.’” She began to get more serious about writing when she was in high school and penned scenes with her brother and a friend.

Weber says she is very self-motivated. Despite carrying a full load of classes at the University, she has also made time to study with the other programs and perform. “I have to keep doing the things I love,” she explains.

She adds that the improv training has contributed significantly to her personal growth, especially when it comes to taking chances and being vulnerable. “You just can’t be afraid to fail because nothing is ever really failure. Everything is a learning experience. If you don’t try—that is failure.”

Improv and sketch comedy has also taught her to trust her choices and her peer performers, and that the key to improvisational comedy is not going for the easy laugh. “The worst thing you can do is try to go out and be funny,” she says. “That was a huge lesson to learn. It’s about being truthful, actually. That’s where you find your comic voice. Vulnerability is actually very funny.”

In addition to experiencing personal and professional growth, training at Second City also gave Weber an evening she will always remember. The company celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, and numerous graduates returned for the event. “They let the students volunteer there, and we got to meet our idols while doing coat checks and other jobs,” she says. For Weber, that was Amy Sedaris and Stephen Colbert. A friend had to coax her into talking to them. “I was so starstruck,” she says.

As for her future, Weber says she eventually would like to write comedy for television but also perform. “I see myself as both a writer and a performer. Tina Fey, who started as a writer for “Saturday Night Live,” says if you don’t write, you won’t get very far in this business.”

Bergman has no idea what lies ahead for Weber, but says, “I feel really privileged to be part of her journey.”