Algonquin teen navigates LGBTQ world in 'Work in Progress'
In her life as a sophomore at Jacobs High School, 15-year-old Lauren Viteri is a well-behaved kid who gets good grades and comes home to her parents, Raul, a Realtor, and Lisa, a mortgage underwriter, twin sister Jessica, three cats and two dogs in a typical suburban home in Algonquin.
In her job as an actress in the adult-themed Showtime series "Work in Progress," Lauren plays Meg, a sassy niece to her Aunt Abby, a self-described 45-year-old, fat, "queer dyke" who threatens suicide before she starts dating a transgendered man.
Lauren says the show's diverse cast helps her understand the challenges of the LGBTQ world, with nonbinary classifications, gender fluidity and a new host of pronouns.
"I felt people should have equal rights, but I really didn't know much about it until I started working on 'Work in Progress,'" says Lauren. "I feel I've become more open-minded. Now I have a better grasp of the struggles they deal with."
Chicago improv veterans Abby McEnany, whose life inspires the main character, and Tim Mason, a heterosexual man, created the show. They write it along with Lilly Wachowski, a transgender woman, who, when she was known as Andrew, teamed with her then-brother Laurence, who now is a transgender woman named Lana, to write and direct the "Matrix" movies.
Not surprisingly, "Work in Progress" is a dark comedy that doesn't back away from issues.
Asked on a date by Chris, her attractive server at a restaurant, Abby says, "I haven't been out for a drink with an attractive woman in a really long time." When Chris corrects her by noting he is a transman, Abby quickly pivots to, "I haven't been out with an attractive transman in ever."
A friend, hearing parts of the conversation, asks, "Who's a man?" and the response is "Abby's new girlfriend."
"I think the show is special because it's so truthful," says director Mason, who notes people can't always fit nicely under one simple label. "So much of it is about listening to an individual person."
The show, filmed in Chicago and the suburbs, taps into the city's vibrant LGBTQ community, but also interacts with the suburbs, where what locker room a kid can use after gym class has been known to fuel fiery debates and lawsuits. Lauren's character is a girl without a label, who has a heterosexual father and mother, and a little brother.
"I'm super-picky when it comes to kid actors because I have four kids of my own," Mason says. "Lauren has an amazing truthfulness to her."
In her recurring role, Lauren's character is at home in the suburbs. Mason, who notes that he is a "straight, white, cisgender guy," who identifies as the male gender he was assigned at birth, enjoys the suburban scenes, too. "When you get out to the suburbs and have the suburban nuclear family of four, I'm like, 'I've got this,'" he says.
The scripts include everyone's preferred pronouns. The character Chris prefers the pronouns he and him on the show, but the actor playing Chris, Theo Germaine, uses both they/them and he/him pronouns on the set. Lauren, who uses she/her, says it's easy to master all the pronouns and treat people the way they want to be treated. She gets the same consideration.
When McEnany realized that the food options on set one day contained sesame, she immediately checked on Lauren, who is allergic to sesame, and apologized for the mistake, Raul Viteri says.
"She's a big hugger," Lisa Viteri says of McEnany.
The show also features Wilmette resident Julia Sweeney, the former Saturday Night Live member who created a popular androgynous character named Pat in skits built solely on the idea that people were never sure if Pat was a man or a woman. McEnany says she was teased growing up because of that character. In the show, Abby and Sweeney talk about Pat, and build a friendship. While the plot features plenty of LGBTQ angles, "my 83-year-old Catholic mom likes the show," Mason says. "It's a love story, and a story about mental illness, and the world changing. And that's something happening to all of us."
"Work in Progress" premieres at 10 p.m. CST today on Showtime. Lauren, who did almost all of the filming before the school year started, doesn't appear in the first episode, but her parents say they are inviting friends over to watch Lauren in next Sunday's episode. While she has appeared in productions at school and at Chicago's Signal Ensemble Theatre, this is Lauren's first national gig.
"I would always watch movies and analyze faces, and it looked like so much fun," Lauren says of acting. "I became interested in it around first grade but I didn't start taking classes until third grade."
After the family's evening meals, Raul Viteri, once a theater major at Western Illinois University, would give Lauren a role to play, and Lauren would return a short time later portraying the sadness, joy, anger or whatever emotion was called for. Lauren has agents in Chicago and Los Angeles, and hopes her work on "Work in Progress" brings her new opportunities.
In the meantime, she now has a much more diverse set of friends, including McEnany.
"She's the fun aunt," Lauren says. "In my phone, she's saved as Aunt Abby."