Since graduating from the College in 2017, David Gosz has teamed up with Leo Fotos to form the Chicago-based producing team Gosz & Fotos, whose mission is to create “impactful, inspirational, and inclusive stories for all audiences.” With their new musical TRU, which premiered at Stage 773 on November 1, Gosz and Fotos aim to fight the stigma surrounding mental illness by exploring the topic of mental health in a new, thought-provoking way.
TRU explores the lives of Truman, a man living with mental illness personified as a toxic relationship with the manipulative Her, and Isla—an artist seeking to rekindle her lost passion and overcome her anxieties. Last week, I sat down with David in the lobby of Stage 773 to discuss TRU, his time at UChicago, and his career since graduation.
Kenjiro Lee: Tell me a little bit about your experiences at UChicago: your degree, RSOs, etc.
David Gosz: Technically, the degree that I received from the University of Chicago was a B.A. in economics; but in practice, I feel like I majored in a cappella there. I spent all four years involved in the RSO Voices [formerly known as Voices in Your Head]. The a cappella group really allowed me to grow as a leader and grow as the type of person that wants to produce theater, frankly. All of those things that I did ended up being the perfect training course for doing professional theater in Chicago in the weirdest way that I never would have guessed.
KL: Could you elaborate on that?
DG: So, my sophomore year in college, I was the stage manager, and with that, I learned how to set up and tear down and operate a $20,000 sound system that Aca-Council has. And that gave me the tools that I need to be able to sound design or work with sound designers. I know how to wire a theater, and I know how to operate a soundboard, which has been fairly valuable thus far in the process. And my junior year as the business manager of the group taught me a lot about outreach and engaging with corporations and organizations that are trying to book events and musical gigs. So, I learned a lot about how to pitch performances and how to get people engaged with Voices, which was my main job, and I learned how to write professional emails that way! And then my fourth year as the president of the group really taught me a lot about just how to lead bright, creative people in a way that inspires and creates enough transparency without too much transparency to then fall into these real long conversations that can end up being far more taxing than they need to be.
And so, in many ways, all of those things combined is what I’m doing now with this production company and with this musical where I’m a leader of 32 different people, including our cast, our production team, our crew, and they’re all so wonderful and they’re all so brilliant and they have a lot of thoughts and opinions.
KL: You actually answered what was going to be my second question, about how your experience at UChicago informed your career path….
DG: Yeah, and I do have a little bit of economics in there. I am using that in terms of trying to understand the Chicago theater market, how to set ticket prices, how to advertise, how to appropriately negotiate and respectfully negotiate people’s stipends. Just really trying to understand the beauty of the Chicago non-equity theater market where people value themselves, and it’s really fun to see how different people value the work that they do.
KL: You have an interesting way of going about things in that you’re self-producing this, which a lot of people don’t necessarily do in the theater world: They’ll hire a producer to help negotiate productions of their work. What has it been like juggling producing duties while creating theater?
DG: It’s a lot of fun, first and foremost; it is by far the most rewarding thing that I’ve ever pursued. At first, I thought the writing of it was the most rewarding thing, but then adding that production element to it has just enhanced the experience tenfold.
It’s one thing to create something and send it off to someone and say, “Hey, can you help me make this happen?” and it’s another thing altogether where you feel so much more empowered if you say, “I created this thing and now it’s my responsibility to make this happen.” And so, me and my coproducer Leo Fotos over the last two and a half years have really had to take a crash course on Chicago theater production. And we’ve had some great mentors along the way who’ve been there to answer our dumb questions and we’ve really just been absorbing everything that the more established theater professionals that we’ve met have told us. And we’ve also made really great partnerships with some mental health organizations with this production that I don’t know would have happened if we weren’t holding the reins.
KL: Moving on to TRU itself and your experiences as a writer, what are your music inspirations, theater or otherwise?
DG: TRU is very much musically-inspired by Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder. Definitely not musical theater at all, but those are the kinds of music that my cowriter Leo grew up on, and he shared that with me. And those two artists, if you go through their entire discography, they have a song for everything. So, we kind of wanted to play with that in a musical theater style and we ended up with a very eclectic mix of musical stylings where each character—there are six principal characters—has their own distinct style.
KL: Where did the idea for TRU originate?
DG: Leo and I got together about three weeks after we first met. I had just graduated from high school and we decided we wanted to be friends and do something together, so we said, “Alright, let’s write a musical. Why not?” So, we sat down and wanted to take on a story that could make a societal impact, because we believe that one of the main things that theater does that other entertainment media don’t do is be progressive and make societal change and draw attention to topics that people might not necessarily feel comfortable talking about or want to talk about at the Thanksgiving dinner table. So, in that first meeting we ended up settling on mental illness as this thing that tied the two of us together. Because our families have a history of it, he and I both have a history of it, and at the time in 2013 it wasn’t something that was as widely talked about or openly talked about as it is today.
So, we started writing and we wanted to try and make the invisible nature of mental illness accessible to people that might not know what it’s like, to begin understanding, because understanding is the base layer for empathy. And what we’re trying to do, especially for the people that end up seeing our show that don’t live with mental illness, is give them an idea of what some of their friends and loved ones might be going through in a way that is more accessible than the inner demons that one can battle in their own head. We personified it in this character [Her], and we’re portraying it as this toxic relationship, which I think is more accessible to someone who doesn’t have the experience. And for people who do have that experience it could be a different way to think about their own mental illness and their battles with their mental health.
KL: As the mental health conversation has shifted since you started this in 2013, how has TRU itself changed?
DG: About three years ago we partnered with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)—we took our eighth or ninth draft of the script to them and said, “Hey, we think we’re onto something here, but we really would like to ask you for help as mental health professionals to be able to make sure that 1) first and foremost, that the story we’re telling is safe, and 2) that it is impactful.” And so, they really helped us transform that character of Her and transform that relationship between Truman and Her into something that is less fantastical and more intimate, because she started off as something that is larger than life and they really helped us make her something that was life-size.
KL: Where do you see TRU going next?
DG: We would love in the next two or so years to try and take it to either Off-Broadway or Off-Off-Broadway in New York to see what that market looks like, because all we know is Chicago and we’re excited to try and take it to different places. But that being said, our longer term goal with this show, our ten-year plan per se, is to take this show on the road and take it in a small way—be able to pack it up in one truck and bring it to different cities across the country, where the stigma surrounding mental illness is especially high or the accessibility to theater is particularly low, and take this show to places that would otherwise not get to experience it if we did not take it there, because part of our mission as a company is to tell inspirational, impactful, and inclusive stories. And sometimes the best way to do that is to take the story to the audience that could benefit from it most.
KL: What advice would you give to anyone pursuing creating theater as a career?
DG: “Don’t be afraid to mess up” is my biggest advice. Write bad songs, write bad dialogue, write bad narratives, and try to find the good in what you’ve written. Don’t let yourself get paralyzed because you feel you have to write something good, because any time you write something, at least part of it will be good. So, make choices, take risks, and don’t judge yourself before you’ve gotten it out on the page or before you’ve gotten the notes on the lines and spaces. Don’t judge yourself before you’ve expressed it. That’s one rule that Leo and I have when we’re writing: We’re not allowed to say “Never mind.”
KL: What excites you about theater artistically?
DG: The risks that people take to try and tell truths. I love going to see a show that is trying to speak an unspoken truth for the first time, because often that’s unique to theater. I’m not the type of person that gets, like, jazzed up by jazz hands per se. I love content and story, and the fact that theater is so fragile and imperfect because a show is only there for three to four weeks and then it’s gone forever, at least that exact version of it, [makes it] precious and special. And the fragility of it all, where if one or two things go wrong then the whole thing can collapse.... It’s a miracle that any show happens at all. And that’s kind of the beauty of it. It is, by far, of performance art, the most fragile.
KL: What is one takeaway you want audiences to have after they see TRU?
DG: I would love it if right after they see the show, they grab a pamphlet and Google NAMI or Google The Kennedy Forum or Google Hope For The Day just to learn more about what mental health care is like currently in the world and what people can do to engage and help out. But I also want people to take a look inward and ask themselves who their family is. Because it doesn’t have to be the people whom you share DNA with. It can be the people that you decide who your family is. Ultimately, TRU is a story about a man’s struggle with his mental illness, but it’s also a story about what family means to different people. And it goes far beyond your nuclear family in some cases, and in other cases it might not even include your nuclear family—it might include the whole city. In hearing and watching and experiencing TRU, I hope that everyone does have a slightly greater appreciation for their friends and loved ones.
KL: I do have one last question. As I was doing research for this interview, I found your Twitter.
DG: [smiles] Oh no.
KL: And I was wondering, since Halloween’s coming up, what’s your favorite ghost joke?
DG: My favorite ghost joke is actually best presented in writing, so this might be good for your article! What is a ghost’s favorite number?
TRU runs from November 1 through November 24 at Stage 773 in Lakeview. Tickets can be bought here.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.