Playwright Hallie Palladino's The Cleanup focuses on four parents, one of whom is a gay father, as they interact behind the scenes of a DIY preschool co-op. The play, directed by Jen Poulin, will run Oct. 21-Nov. 19 at the Athenaeum Center for Thought & Culture, 2936 N. Southport Ave.
The Cleanup was commissioned and developed in Prop Thtr's 2021 Play Development Lab. It centers on the members of the toy cleaning committee at The Learning Co-Op played by Brandon Rivera (Ryan, the gay father), Lynnette Li (Julie), Chad Patterson (Logan) and Lucy Carapetyan (Nicole). The understudies are Tony DiPisa (Ryan), Christina Chang (Julie), Chris Lysy (Logan) and Norah Flaherty (Nicole).
Rivera (who was born and raised in Chicago's Logan Square and who, like his character, is gay) and Li play the co-op co-founders while Patterson plays their longtime friend. Carapetyan's character comes into this group as a new member of the toy cleaning committee.
"The story begins six years ago with our desire to create a school/daycare community where the parents step in to help run it out of necessity and convenience," said Rivera. "Also, a financial need because a lot of the daycares around us were quite expensive. Pulling our own resources, we created this co-op daycare. Ryan is married to a man, and they have three children, two of whom were in the daycare and now are in elementary school and a four-year-old who is in the daycare and having some sensory issues. Ryan is struggling with if this daycare works for his youngest child."
"Julie is married to a man and has elementary school twin girls and a four-year-old boy," said Li. "This co-op is under stress right now and they are at a crossroads in terms of, can we really support the 86 families who are a part of this community. We feel these families in the background of what is portrayed onstage. There are a lot of families depending on us. Also, Julie and Ryan have different visions for the direction of the co-op. Julie dreams of expanding it into a real school and getting a building instead of renting the church basement."
"Logan has been friends with Julie and Ryan for 10-plus years," said Patterson. "Since we all live on the same block, we were in a pod community during the early days of the pandemic. Coming out of that pod, Logan decides to help Julie and Ryan out with their co-op as the janitorial, all hands-on deck helper and benefit from it by being able to have his daughter join the daycare. What ends up happening with Logan is he gets to see his friends more often and then Nicole comes into the mix. Logan is going through a separation/divorce and that is where we find him initially and the show unravels from there."
"Nicole is coming into the group, and this is the first year for her four-year-old at the daycare," said Carapetyan. "Nicole also has a baby. She is going through some marital strife and that provides some antics during the play. The marriage struggle is very identifiable for many people with young kids who have just gone through a couple of years of pandemic parenting. My character still feels like very much of an outsider as she comes in and gets to know these three people who have been friends for a very long time."
Palladino decided to write this play because when she became a mother it "almost radicalized me because I started to understand the ways in which maternal labor was devalued by our society … I think the pandemic amplified that."
"This play is really about partnership, community and the problems of making friends in your 30s and 40s," added Palladino. "And how fraught those friendships can be."
When Palladino was developing this play, she took from her own experiences being on the toy cleaning committee of her own child's nursery school co-op way before the pandemic. She said it was a "great social experience" and "one of the few times that I could leave the house and be with other adults" who also happened to be other parents at her child's school.
Palladino wanted to showcase this dynamic onstage and that is how The Cleanup was born. Her Ryan character is based on her friend Rufus Gonzales who, along with his husband, lived in the same condo building when their children were younger. The two couples shared parenting duties.
The play has a similar dynamic where the Ryan and Julie characters, their husbands and children have interacted for many years, including before they had children.
"When I wrote the story, I really wanted to include the importance of queer dads," said Palladino. "Within the school volunteering ecosystem, the amount of labor queer dads put in is very high percentagewise. Andrew, Ryan's husband, is not seen onstage, nor are the other spouses, but they are all talked about among our four characters."
During the play development process, Palladino held a Zoom reading with Rivera, Li, Carapetyan and Nate Faust who originated the Logan role.
Palladino wrote the Julie role specifically for Li (who also plays Nurse Nancy on Chicago Med) because "she has amazing comic chops and is also a very serious person." She said the Julie character is the one she most relates to.
"I took Rufus to see Brandon starring in Isaac Gomez's Leopard Play at Steep Theatre right before the pandemic," said Palladino. "Rufus told me he had never seen himself so well represented on stage. When I wrote the Ryan character in The Cleanup, inspired by Rufus and his husband Ed Hebson, and the centrality of the friendship between our families; I was stoked to tell him Brandon, whom I had worked with before, would be playing that character also. I wanted Rufus to feel celebrated, as a queer married Mexican father of three raising kids in Edgewater and doing loads of volunteer work. This story is in large part a love letter to our fourteen-year friendship and a decade of raising our kids together like cousins."
The Cleanup's original director during the development process knew Carapetyan and suggested her for the Nicole role. Palladino agreed with that choice because "she is an amazing actor."
When Faust had to leave the production due to other commitments, casting director Karissa Murrell Meyers found Patterson whom Palladino had never worked with before.
Poulin, a Chicago-based director, dramaturg and audio describer who grew up in Downers Grove, got involved with the project after watching the Zoom recording because she was familiar with Palladino's work.
"Thankfully, they recorded it and the link still worked," said Poulin. "It took a couple of weeks to watch the reading because of mom life. When I did watch, and more importantly, listen to it without watching the screen, I really was struck by how much it reflected my experience, and how much that experience I felt had not been reflected on stage before in Chicago. Or ever, really. It showed the parent experience during the pandemic and spoke to me because I became a parent over the pandemic.
"The process of becoming a mother, becoming a parent, involves huge mental and social changes to your identity. My baby was eight weeks old when the pandemic shut everything down. It was an intense experience, which to that point, I have pretty much just been sharing with my partner, my therapist and a couple of good mom friends. I reached out to Hallie and said I feel really seen. Thank you for writing this identity desert. Then Hallie responded and asked if I wanted to talk about it. I said that sounds amazing, so we got together for lunch and that is where it all started. It is truly a dream cast."
Rivera and Carapetyan are both Steep company members while Li is a Second Story board member and "parent which I also consider an important role." Patterson, who recently moved from California to Chicago, has done work with Chicago Shakespeare Theater and worked with Steep as an understudy.
When asked what drew these actors to the play, Rivera (who had played gay characters in his last two productions) said he tries to be intentional with what he invests his time in. Rivera added that roles like Ryan that come from the same queer, Brown perspective that he experiences are very important to him. He said that when he was in college, there was pressure on queer acting students to "become neutral to play both queer and straight characters" and that did not sit well with him so he "made a stance against that thinking."
For Li, the opportunity to play a contemporary parent in a theater production is what spoke to her. Li, whose children are in elementary school, got excited about telling this story because she was not seeing it anywhere else.
Carapeytan said that working on new plays is something she really loves to do. She added that the ability to "have a degree of engagement and conversation around the characters, text and story that you do not get to have with established plays was exciting to me as well."
Patterson spoke about his outside work to keep paying his bills by doing after-school care, the Boys and Girls Clubs, working for families and teaching children how to swim. He said that although he is not a parent, "the opportunity to take a closer look and tell a story that does not get told enough about parents was really intriguing to me."
The rehearsal process was a true collaboration, according to all the actors. Rivera said he learned through this process that "it takes a village to put on a play" while Li emphasized the "invisible, unpaid labor" that is in the arts and how that parallels a parent's role. Carapetyan added that everyone is "bringing so much of ourselves to this process" and Patterson said that he has "learned the value of attention" and who is "vying for your attention" including that there is "something visceral about a child asking for your attention."
All the actors said that the overall message they want audiences to take away from the play is that parenting is a hard job and that it is important to remember that all parents have their own identity outside of that role.
Poulin wants "weary pandemic parents to come out and see themselves and their experiences reflected" and people who are not parents to "see the lives of people in their community who are doing this parenting work." She wants people to "laugh and have fun watching this sexy comedy."
Palladino said that her job is to entertain, however even though this play is a comedy and soapy "it is also very serious to me and stealthily substantive."
Alongside this play, Palladino has put together ancillary programming on a variety of parenting topics.
"The show is all about representation for Chicago parents and people that have gone through a lot in the last two years," said Palladino. "My kids go to Rogers Park Montessori and there are tons of queer parents at their school. Our community events are for my friends and community. I want them to come and see themselves represented. I also wanted them to come in and have these conversations.
"Our Queer Dads Night Out event on Nov. 3 at 6 p.m. at Tied House, 3157 N. Southport Ave. is in association with the Gay Fathers of Greater Chicago group that meets at Center on Halsted. All are welcome to join for a pre-show drinks mixer. Then, after the show there will be a panel discussion at the theater moderated by Loyola University Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychology Rufus Gonzales.
"Our discussion will focus on the pressure around being a model volunteer as a queer father. Women and queer men's labor sometimes is not valued as much as straight father's labor. There is a line in the play where Brandon's character says, 'I feel like the judgment of the whole world is resting upon whether I bring the empty egg cartons to the craft project because my family is so conspicuous'."
Other post-show community events at the theater are a Reimagining the Village discussion Oct. 23 with Across the Table Executive Director Lauren Grossman. Then on Oct. 27, the Parent Artist Advocacy League will be presenting a panel, Toward Parent-Inclusive Production Practices. Finally, on Nov. 13 American Eagle Productions will teach a theater class for children ages 5-12 while the parents are enjoying the show.
Additionally, on Nov. 6 there will be a bring-your-baby matinee performance, as well as babysitting for children ages 0-6 in partnership with Jovie.
For more information about these events, contact Palladino at firstname.lastname@example.org .
To purchase tickets ($10-$48 each), visit athenaeumcenter.org/events/2022/the-cleanup/ .