In the “Hey kids, lets put on a show” romance of the American theatre, Chicago’s Steppenwolf is something of a legend. Founded by Jeff Perry, Gary Sinise, and Terry Kinney, Steppenwolf Theater Company formally launched in 1976, performing The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds in the basement of a suburban church. It wasn’t long before the ensemble established itself as intrepid interpreters of such works as The Indian Wants the Bronx, by Israel Horovitz, Lanford Wilson’s Balm In Gilead, and Sam Shepherd’s True West.
Central to the company’s success were the fearless performers who came to call Steppenwolf home, a roster that includes John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf, John Mahoney, and Joan Allen. At the same time, the organization has long championed new work, generating original pieces in-house and welcoming playwrights from around the country. In 1995, the group upped its commitment with the formation of the New Plays Initiative, which supported a range of playwrights, including Adam Rapp, Bruce Norris, and Tina Landau. While still admired for daring performances, Steppenwolf is equally cherished for the determination to bring new work to local audiences, a mission exemplified by the 2017-2018 season, which includes three world premieres.
“The upcoming season really represents a concerted effort to have work that speaks directly to the audience we have and the audience we seek,” notes artistic director Anna D. Shapiro, who won a Tony for directing August: Osage County, written by Steppenwolf ensemble member Tracy Letts. “Steppenwolf’s decidedly homogeneous origins do not reflect its current interests. We want to be having conversations with more of our community.”
The world premieres scheduled for the coming season are Letts’ The Minutes, BLKS by Aziza Barnes, and Matthew-Lee Erlbach’s, The Doppelgänger. “The new works we are producing have absolutely nothing in common structurally,” shares Shapiro. ““One is a single-set, 90-minute one-act about a small town city council meeting; one is a twenty-location contemporary, day-in-the-life of a group of young black women in New York City; and the other is a giant farce set in the Central African Republic. And while most of the time when you program a season, you search for work that tries to understand what we share, in this particular moment I think we are trying to investigate what we don’t share. Because we seem to be missing each other a lot these days.”
While producing three new show seems like quite the plateful, Shapiro suggests Steppenwolf is nicely positioned to manage that task. “Because we are, at our core, an artist-first organization, we know how to customize our approach to the work and to different folks moving through the building. We don’t have to re-jigger the system every time someone new comes in. We spend every day trying very hard to listen to the artist in front of us at that moment, to understand what they are trying to say, what they are trying to accomplish. And it doesn’t matter if that’s a founding company member or a writer we just welcomed. It’s who we are.”
For more information visit Steppenwolf.org.