Working In The Theatre: Steppenwolf Theatre Company

[scene dialogue] [dialogue continues] It was a style of ensemble acting that you rarely see in New York City and
you rarely see in many of the other centers around the world. You have twenty-some people on
that stage interacting in a very organic and proactive way, livening the story and livening characters in a way that just totally mesmerized the audience. I saw stuff at Steppenwolf’s work going all the way back to Grapes Of Wrath, which is I think 25
years ago. [dialogue] For most of us, we’ve never seen acting of that style and of that nature and with that energy. It was one of the great moments of American theatre. The idea was that they were creating a
theater where the artists, particularly the actors, had tremendous agency. They were looking at the extent model of the regional theater with the director and a board of directors. They wanted the power of the organization as it were to flow in a different direction. The individual artist is strengthened by having an artistic home and by working repeatedly with colleagues. It makes the individual not just a better theatre artist. It gives that person a sense of confidence and agency and voice. It makes them bold because
they have their posse with them. [dialogue] [audience chuckles] [dialogue continues] The hallmark of the Steppenwolf artist is a person who feels made-secure by an artistic home. [dialogue] Their collaborations within the ensemble that have real endurance, those people trust each other. That gets worked out over time.
Does that mean that the relationships are without turbulence? Absolutely not. [dialogue] I think probably it’s the confidence
that this is a vessel that can sustain turbulence that makes the collaborative
collaboration so valuable. Steppenwolf was co-founded by Gary Sinise, Jeff Perry, and Terry Kinney. In general, the actor is sort of in the
theatrical equation the lowest person down on the food chain. Gary, Jeff, and
Terry felt on the contrary that the actor was the lifeblood of the theater: the first handshake with an audience, the true authority on the stage. There was a spirit of “why not” rather than “why,” and it’s something that we
work very hard to maintain, as well as, or perhaps as, a consequence the great
emphasis on innovation. That expresses itself not only in the
development of new work but internal who our thinking about the organization and the
organizational structure itself. I mean, I think one of the things that’s
essential to the creation of a company like this is having nothing to lose. There is no way to start
Steppenwolf again today. It’s just not possible. Austin Pendleton will
talk about the Kismet of this company. There was a moment when this group of
people came together. For one thing, we’re talking about people who are in their
twenties, and really when Gary and Jeffrey were in high school in their
late teens. I’ve asked Gary about their early days, and they had this kind of reputation as being thought they
were better than everybody else, and Gary had said to me, “Martha, we didn’t have
anything. We didn’t have any money, we had no standing in the world. Of course, the only thing we had was our pride and our desire to be better.” That sense of oneself in the world is a unique property I think of being very
young. It was also a moment in Chicago where we had the largest daily paper, the Chicago Tribune. Richard Christiansen was there. He was going around, he was paying
attention. He was writing about this work. In Chicago, there is a fantastic audience, and the people in Chicago to the theater. They go
to all kinds of theater, and there were spaces to occupy, thus the moniker storefront theaters. All
these little companies that were occupying spaces that were not
purpose-built as theaters but instead they were inhabited by theatre artist and
turned into performance spaces. For the about the first year, they were
in a church basement in Highland Park which is a northern suburb of Chicago. Then in about 1980, they moved to the Hull House in Chicago at Broadway and Belmont. During that period of the eighties a number of plays were produced, among them True West and Balm in Gilead. [dialogue] These plays started to have a bigger audience. They moved to New York, and individual members
of the company became well-known. John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. [dialogue] They move then again to
another store front theater at 2851 North Halsted, continue to produce beautiful work, and outgrew that space. That’s when they began talking about building a theater. So, in 1991 the theater that we’re sitting in opened here on Halsted Street. [music and dialogue] Now, we operate three theaters in this building: a black box in our garage
structure there on the ground floor, on the third floor of this building is a
300-seat theater. We’ve added incrementally to the
ensemble. We’ve added a lot of things programmatically. Just the size of the
organization is growing. We do a lot more work and play development. We have a very,
very robust program for young audiences I had just graduated from college and I
was looking for acting classes in the city and came to Steppenwolf. My
teacher was John Malkovich. Jon was soon to direct a play here at
Steppenwolf called Savages by Christopher Hampton. I along with a
bunch of other late college-age people were cast in the play as South
American Indians so course this involve a lot of nudity and body paint. The thing that impressed me the most, and this was certainly true of John
Malkovich, but it was also true of the ensemble members whom I met doing
Savages, this would be Jeff Perry, Glenn Headley, Frank Boeijen,Terry Kinney, Laurie Metcalf was the ferocity with which these actors and all of these theatre artist approach their work. There was a sense of drive and excellence and
that was just incredibly impressive. It’s very addictive to be
around theater people like this, and plus they were just good. [dialogue] [audience laughing] We started something
called “The First Look Repertory of New Work” I gave the challenge to our director of new play development I said, “You know, I don’t
want Steppenwolf to be a part of the ‘workshopping-it-to-death’ culture of the
American theater. The plays have to go into production for us for the
playwright and for us to really understand what it is about the play
that works, that perhaps doesn’t work. So, Ed came up with this model of
producing and developing three new plays and running them in rotating rep so that
the work has an opportunity to go through the process with designers and
with the director. It has an opportunity to be in front of
an audience. The storefront movement is obviously a
small opportunistic-type way of producing theater. What Martha and I have tried to do in leading this company, which is a
large company with a large budget, a lot of real estate, a lot of it investment
portfolio, is to try to make sure it’s nimble and stays opportunistic and
doesn’t take itself quite as seriously as an arts institution. [dialogue] In a company like this, where the artist is the center of the voice of the company while I may
be leading the company with Martha Lavey the artistic director, it’s not a
hierarchical situation. It’s not even Republic situation and
it’s far for democracy, but decisions are made, ideas get brought forward in ways
that are not typical in a more hierarchical arts organization. No idea is a bad idea, and every idea has to be taken seriously. That can make decision making and strategizing a little more complicated than it is in most
theatre companies. But in the end, that very attitude of “no idea is a bad idea,” or
“why versus why not” is why this company has been so immensely successful. Well, I came to Steppenwolf because it’s
one of the great theater companies in the world. It’s got an incredible group
of artists, it’s in a wonderful city that supports good theater and equally as
important it’s got a very smart and progressive audience. We first were an acting company. Then, we
became an acting-directing company. Now, we have some of America’s most
significant playwrights in our company. It’s diversified its talent and focus
as it’s grown. There are usually about 16 productions in any given season here at Steppenwolf. We have a wonderful staff of nearly a hundred people, and we have a great deal of outreach to our community in terms of learning opportunities. We have a conversation after every performance in the place. [dialogue] At any given moment, an ensemble member may be very active at Steppenwolf. Even for a period of years that person can kind of be off doing something else, and then merge back in and be extremely strong. This is the advantage of having ensemble membership that doesn’t have a specific list of demands that says, “You have to be on the stage this
number of times.” It’s a very permitting contract which says, “We, the theater, will prioritize you in our work. We ask you to prioritize us.” The actors that started this company and have worked at this company over the arc of its history
come and go with this company. None of them are totally dependent for their
financial or or well-being. [dialogue] They come here when they have a project they want to do, they come here when we have a project that’s exciting to them, they may
come here for a year or they may come for one play, they may come back just for
a fundraising event. It’s their artistic home, but it’s not their only home. What usually can really kill an ensemble company is when all of the members of that
company are totally dependent upon the theater for other totality of their
artistic work and their financial well-being. No company in this country can sustain
that kind of relationship. [singing] [music and dialogue] The leadership of this company has
always been smart when it needed to regenerate the company, or get younger
actors in the company, or get more cultural diversity in the company. Today, it’s a company in range of age from the mid-twenties to the low eighties. That’s the range of our ensemble. [dialogue] When we received August: Osage County, I believe Tracy had given me the
first two acts of what was ultimately a three-act play. We did a reading here and
remember was a very hot day and we read it in our rehearsal room. These are collaborators. Tracy Letts and his director Anna Shapiro, who is also a
member of the company. The report among those individuals as well as of
course with someone like Amy Morton, who played the central character of Barbara,
these are just very close honest intimate working relationships. The
work simply through all of that time together became, I think, really focused. I always use the
example of Rondi Reed and Fran Guinan who play husband and wife in this play. Those two actors had known each other roughly the same amount of time as the couple they played were married, so there’s a kind of nuanced and subtlety and sensitivity in that relationship that you just can’t
manufacture. [dialogue] Generally what happens in the way that a
season comes together is that we start usually with at least one project that’s
been motivated by an ensemble member. Perhaps it’s a play that one of our
writers has written, or it’s an adaptation that one of our directors has created, or
it’s a play that an actor passionately wants to do. And then, maybe another on
ensemble member comes with the project. So, once we have let’s say two of them, we
begin to think about, “how are these plays talking to each other? Is there
something that at a thematic level to discuss would be illuminated?” Then, there may be a final play that has not come in and we once we sort
of identified a theme we say, “Let’s go look for a play that might be part of
this conversation.” The theme is never intended to be a
principal of exclusion. I mean, we don’t start with a theme and ask the place to
conform to that. The theme is always a pretty capacious theme. The conversation with the audience is so important to us. Having a theme
creates a point of view, which always makes a conversation sharper. [chatter] I think it’s important to understand
that Steppenwolf’s real success as a theatre has been that it never took itself
seriously as an institution. As a matter of fact, it tried very hard not to be an
institution. It took gambles and opportunities that many theaters will
not put themselves at risk for, so it’s always the idea of “why not versus why?” I think the key element to Steppenwolf’s success as a theater are the very
principles that our founders champion The whole reason that they created
the theater was that artists would be better by repeated created
relationships. In other words, to create an ensemble and to create a density of
relationships and repeated opportunities to work together. That’s the thing that made theatre
artists better. Transferring a work to Broadway is… You know, actually, it’s sort of a wonderful, nice perk. It’s an opportunity to bring a work
and to bring this company to a wider audience. With companies like Steppenwolf, when it
has the opportunity to move one of its place to Broadway or to London or to Sydney
or other places we’ve moved our productions, it’s it’s always a mixed blessing. It’s
important that the artist received the recognition they deserve for their work
both in Chicago as well as nationally, internationally. But every time a production leaves Steppenwolf, it leaves the family. Those artists are no longer available to us. When we took August: Osage County to New York City and it was one of the longest runs in a straight plays in the history of in the
last couple decades of Broadway, we lost a significant portion of our principal
actors and directors and designers for a significant period of time to the life of that play. Frankly we don’t tour on purpose. When a project comes along the artists are interested in doing – like playing at
the National in London – we make it happen because it’s part of their experience. It’s
something they want to do. We don’t generally do it as a way of surviving as
a theatre company, [scene dialogue] Everyone always talks about ‘you have to take risks.’ But what does that actually mean? That you go at things full throttle and not all of it works. It’s interesting because I don’t know
that I would think of things that we’ve done as mistakes. That doesn’t mean there weren’t mistakes. Doesn’t mean that we haven’t done a lot of
wrongheaded things. It’s just that I don’t know that we categorize them as
mistakes it just feels like okay we learn from them and now we do this other thing. Perhaps it’s plays that we’ve done that we thought were going to be terrific. Yeah. turns out they weren’t so great. Are we sorry we undertook them? You know for the most part, no. I can think of every play that I could look at and say “gee, that really
didn’t work.” or “That didn’t get an audience.” or “boy, that was disappointing.” There’s some aspect of our having
produced it that was illuminating. [music] You know I was reading something
yesterday by Conor McPherson when he was talking “what is it that plays do?” He was talking about that plays are really there to create a play underneath them. And that play’s feeling. He says the ideas are fine in a play. But an audience doesn’t walk away with what they’re thinking. They walk away with what they’re feeling. That’s the particular gift, a unique gift, of a play. I think you know a conversation about a play in a lot of ways, it gives people an opportunity to experiment with what this feeling
experience was for them. I think that’s you know sort of the work of theatre and the work of plays. To say I go there and I allow myself to let my unconscious be in response and it the play that’s happening onstage. It seems to me
it’s valuable for theater to say “here’s an opportunity to begin to articulate
that to yourself.” With plays are doing anything to me, they speak in the language of metaphor. They speak in the language of
emotion. Plays are psychological. And I don’t know that we have enough
opportunity in our life to grow articulate around that. To experience the nuance of that. To give it words and to speak it in public. I certainly
become concerned when I see important matters in a national discussion with language around it being so flat and literal because I think that’s
you know this is my this is why i think that participating in the theater is a
tremendous act of citizenship. Oskar Eustis often says “it’s no mistake that
the theater and democracy were born at the same place at the same time. Because
what did the theater asked us to do? It asked us to watch people of differing
opinion negotiate difference on stage.” We got to watch that. What does that look like? And that’s what
democracy is. And this is why to me going to the theater – first of all, there’s a tremendous active
empathy that’s asked. I’m watching somebody else’s life and I’m silent.
I’m bearing witness someone else’s experience. And it’s happening in a language that’s not ideological, that’s not driven by you know rhetorical
triumph. It’s nuanced. It’s subtle. It’s psychological. And that to me,
absorbing that, experiencing that, witnessing that, is just a huge part of what it is to be a good citizen. [music] [end credits]

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