Play written by NU alumna explores psychology of working in a slaughterhouse, on death row

Hayley Krolik, Reporter


As a zookeeper at the Lincoln Park Zoo, former Northwestern professor Mia McCullough (Communication ‘92) had to kill mice to feed to reptiles, inspiring her to think more deeply about the concept of ending a creature’s life.

This prompted her to write “Chagrin Falls,” and its newest rendition, produced by the Agency Theater Collective, which will open Friday at the Den Theatre in Chicago.

“Chagrin Falls” features Patrice, a journalist, who speaks with people in the fictional town of Chagrin Falls, Oklahoma, about their experiences working in the prominent industries of the town: a slaughterhouse and a death-row prison.

The play touches on a variety of themes related to the killing institutions, director Sommer Austin said.

“Everyone in the play is complicit in some way,” Austin said. “But also, they’re the small amount of people who do the killing for everybody. The massive amount of killing that happens in this country is on so few shoulders.”

Austin added, through the experiences of the slaughterhouse workers, the play highlights the fact people have to “compartmentalize,” in order to live. If they are forced to think about the workers’ vile actions, the audience may “open floodgates” to all kinds of unfiltered thoughts.

McCullough’s job at the zoo made her reflect on this process as a whole, she said.

“I started thinking about people who have to kill cows for a living, and what that must do to them on a daily basis, because I certainly felt like killing little mice did something to me that has never really gone away,” McCullough said.

McCullough originally wrote “Chagrin Falls” in the ‘90s, and it was produced in 2001 at the Stage Left Theatre in Chicago. She explained, at the time, theaters were prioritizing world premieres over subsequent productions, and “Chagrin Falls” was not brought back to the stage until its current rendition.

The new version came together after McCullough met Austin in an all female stand-up comedy class in Chicago. They worked together on a few comedy projects over the years, and Austin said she thought of McCullough and her writing when she needed to pick a new play for the Collective.

“This play is just really near and dear to my heart, and it’s so nice to see it having a life again,” McCullough said. “It was really hard back in the early 2000s when ‘Chagrin Falls’ was a huge success, but all anybody wanted to do was my other plays. We playwrights called it ‘world premiere-itis.’”

McCullough said she enjoys writing plays like “Chagrin Falls” that relate to social or political issues, but added that she focuses on the characters rather than the issue itself. She also employs humor to lighten the mood while emphasizing the darker topics she tends to write about.

One of McCullough’s favorite aspects of the play’s cast is its ability to find the humor mixed into the sadness of the play, she said. Jennifer Cheung, who plays Patrice, said McCullough’s support has been one of the main reasons the rehearsal process has gone smoothly.

“It’s been a blessing to have the writer in the room because it makes us work that much harder to bring the script to life,” Cheung said. “She is great to work with and very straightforward, so it makes it easy for us to execute.”

At NU, McCullough gained experience with playwriting, but not within her theater major. She said when she was a student, NU did not have a playwriting program. Without the Creative Writing for the Media Certificate, a program that no longer exists, McCullough would have transferred schools.

Through the certificate, McCullough was able to build her portfolio by writing two television scripts, two full length screenplays and two plays. She appreciated being able to bounce her ideas off of the rest of the small class.

“There were like 10 of us, and we had this intensive time of being able to workshop together and being able to figure out what our voice was as writers,” McCullough said. “Some of those people, I still show my writing to, and I am still in touch with.”

The first play McCullough produced was one she wrote during the certificate program and featured Tina Fey and Shawn Douglass, a current NU theater professor. She also worked with other plays through the Women’s Theatre Alliance of Chicago as well as Chicago Dramatists, where she is now the public programs director.

Following these experiences McCullough wrote “Chagrin Falls,” her first full-length production. As she got older, she recognized liberal audiences typically make up the theater community, which she now connects to the themes within the new version of the play.

“There can be a lot of preaching to the choir,” she said. “There are only so many staunch believers in the death penalty who are gonna show up and see ‘Chagrin Falls.’ That’s not necessarily the people who live in urban areas or go to theater.”

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