Laura Eason gets the band back together at the side project.
In 1998, a Chicago pop outfit called Tart had its first CD-release party at the Empty Bottle. It was also the band’s final show.
“Unfortunately, we had just made our CD when we broke up,” says Laura Eason, who fronted Tart with bandmate Joy Gregory. The band played around town for about five years, garnering a following and positive reviews from the likes of Jim DeRogatis in the Sun-Times and James Porter in Newcity; Porter described the band’s sound as “fusing lovely Everly Sisters harmonies on top of a ragged, rocking backdrop, running about 75 percent power to 25 percent pop.”
Eason and Gregory were also both members of the Lookingglass Theatre Company ensemble; Eason, a Northwestern grad, spent much of her Tart tenure as the theater’s artistic director. She says the idea of starting a band came about after she and Gregory, both having dated a string of musicians, tired of following them to gigs. “We decided we didn’t want to go watch the band, we wanted to be the band,” she says. “But I never felt like it was a lark or a joke. We really cared, and we wanted to get signed.” Yet Tart came to an end with Gregory’s decision to move to L.A.
Eason’s now an accomplished playwright; her adaptations include Around the World in 80 Days for Lookingglass, Huck Finn and Elizabeth Crane’s When the Messenger Is Hot for Steppenwolf and Stuart Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago for Walkabout. This summer, her original work Sex with Strangers made a splash at Steppenwolf’s First Look series.
The now-Brooklyn-based writer’s experience in her native Chicago’s rock scene informs her play Rewind, premiering at the side project. It’s also inspired in part by the 1996 death of Material Issue frontman Jim Ellison. Told in reverse, the play follows a fictional band from breakup in the wake of its lead singer’s suicide to its hopeful beginnings.
“Jim Ellison was just incredible, so talented, and they had some mainstream success. He ended up killing himself, and I was like, How the hell did that happen?” the playwright recalls. “You would see him perform, and it was like light would pour out of his body, he was so magnetic. How did he end up dead in his garage?”
Eason has held Rewind close to her vest since completing the play in 2001. After attending a reading earlier this year at the side project, the tiny Rogers Park storefront dedicated to new works, while she performed in Lookingglass’s Our Town, Eason sent Rewind to side project artistic director Adam Webster.
The playwright notes that the well-appointed facilities of her Chicago homes, Lookingglass and Steppenwolf, don’t track with the indie aesthetic of Rewind’s world. “The indie-rock scene is not very glamorous,” she says with a laugh. “You’re in these crappy clubs, you’re lucky if you have a dressing room, you’re hauling your equipment all over town in the winter. And yet you have these magical moments.”
The rawness of the side project’s grubby, makeshift space—which sometimes seems held together by gaff tape and wishes—struck Eason as the right fit for her play. “Also, I knew the kind of talent they would attract is very much like the indie-rock scene back then,” she says. “You’re there for the love of it; you’re not doing it for the money. You’re doing it for the magic you can create in this room.
“It’s that youthful idealism of, it’s enough to do it for the love,” she continues. “All that magic happens in these clubs that are like—you know, like the Cubby Bear in 1992, with your shoes sticking to the floor. That’s the aesthetic of the whole endeavor.”
The side project hits Rewind starting Tuesday 17.