Communication alum debuts new Chicago holiday play “Cold Town/Hotline”


Jenn Udoni-Sharp

Communication senior Sam Linda and Caroline Chu (Communication ’18) rehearse for “Cold Town/Hotline.” The play focuses on a group of volunteers working at a holiday crisis hotline.

Charlotte Walsh, Reporter

Last November, Raven Theatre’s artistic director Cody Estle gave writer/director Eli Newell (Communication ’18) a mission: see every holiday play in Chicago and come back with notes. Estle wanted to add a holiday play to Raven’s 2019 repertoire and tasked Newell with finding an untapped niche in Chicago’s seasonal show scene.

Newell noticed many of Chicago’s holiday shows often feel light-hearted and lacked a connection to the city. To find something new, Newell combed through Chicago Tribune archives until inspiration struck — and it did, in the form of a 1992 article highlighting the annual Yule Connection hotline, a call center to help people get through the holiday season. Estle commissioned Newell to write the new holiday play for Raven, and “Cold Town/Hotline” was born.

Premiering Nov. 30 and running through Dec. 22, “Cold Town/Hotline” follows the story of five call center volunteers fielding calls on Christmas Eve 1983. The group is unexpectedly trapped inside as the coldest Dec. 24 on record sweeps through Chicago, with recorded wind chills of minus-82 degrees Fahrenheit. Alongside Newell, the play features Northwestern Communication senior Sam Linda, and alumni Caroline Chu (Communication ‘18) in the cast, as well as lighting designer Seth Torres (Weinberg ‘18).

Written and directed by Newell, “Cold Town/Hotline” is the first holiday production to focus on the Edgewater/Andersonville neighborhoods. Although the show is family-friendly, Newell said it’s not just a show for kids. The story focuses on the bittersweet holiday experiences of many generations, from college students to middle-aged adults.

Newell said “Cold Town/Hotline” is unlike any work he’s written before. As a director specializing in immersive projects like “Masque Macabre” and Sit & Spin’s “FAIR GAME: A Chicago Spectacle,” Newell said he felt ill-equipped for the holiday, family-friendly genre. But the chance to commission a work for Raven pushed him outside his comfort zone.

“This is a real culmination of sorts for me,” Newell said. “As I’ve started to get more interested in writing over the past couple of years, trying lots of new things has been a real gift.”

Because of the commission schedule, Newell said every aspect of the show’s timing has been crunched, from workshopping the play over the summer to a final draft finished by October. The cast will have three weeks of rehearsal before previews, which is “very, very fast, in particular with a new play,” according to actress Caroline Chu (Communication ’18). But Chu, who plays Annie, a 26-year-old from rural Wisconsin looking for a sense of belonging in Chicago, said the play is fun both because of her castmates and because of its relevance to the community.

“One of the things that makes the play exciting is that it’s organic — it’s a story true to Chicago,” Chu said. “And it acknowledges the idea that the holidays are really difficult time for a lot of people.”

While Chu had not worked with Newell before, Communication senior Sam Linda, who plays Bruce in the play, is one of his best friends and a longtime collaborator. Playing Bruce, a 21-year-old Loyola student overwhelmed with his fast-moving life, Linda said he’s excited to join forces with Newell again as they share the same “creative language.”

Above all, Linda said he’s enjoyed working on “Cold Town/Hotline” because it’s a more grounded take on a classic Christmas story.

“It’s a story about a bunch of people that have nowhere to be on the holidays helping people who are having trouble with the holiday season,” Linda said. “At the end of the day, it’s a really heartwarming exploration of what Christmas means to the average person.”

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