AMERICAN THEATRE | From Chicago, Contraction and Expansion

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Art by Monet Cogbill.

It’s season announcement season once again, but with the excitement of all of the upcoming shows at theatres across the country, there was a notable absence when Steppenwolf recently unveiled its 2024-25 programming. For decades, Chicago students have been able to enjoy Steppenwolf for Young Adults productions, typically two productions a season, situated alongside Steppenwolf’s membership season, which were considered by many the beating heart at the center of Steppenwolf’s educational programming. It was shocking for some, then, when the new season announcement included no SYA productions. Folks took to social media in confusion and frustration at what seemed like the quiet dismantling of a key program, with nary a mention of why or what happened in the institution’s season announcement. So I reached out to co-artistic director Audrey Francis and director of education and engagement Abhi Shrestha to find out more.

“Those two shows were the cornerstone of SYA,” Shrestha acknowledged in a phone conversation alongside Francis, “but SYA was also our school programming, our teen programming, the ways in which we connected with our community partners and provided access to Steppenwolf. Though that’s a loss of those two SYA shows, actually it’s coming with a bit of a shift in expanding the education—now the education and engagement department—to work on every show at Steppenwolf and even be a partner in the season planning.”

Francis explained that when she and Glenn Davis came on board to lead the company in 2021, it seemed that the education department functioned as a sort of nonprofit running within another nonprofit, having separate conversations about programming. There was the membership season—and then there was the SYA season. This year’s shift, they explained, is an effort to bring the education team into conversation with the artistic team, reading all of the script possibilities for the season together and, hopefully, allowing the perspective of teens and the education department’s community partners a stronger voice in the season selection process.

Leslie Sophia Pérez, Eddie Torres, Charín Álvarez, and Isabel Quintero in Steppenwolf’s “a home what howls (or the house what was ravine).” (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

Still, it’s a huge change. That’s why last season, Steppenwolf started testing a new model. The 2023-24 season featured one SYA show, the world premiere of Matthew Paul Olmos’ a home what howls (or the house what was ravine). They also, for the first time, included a student matinee run of a membership series show, Martyna Majok’s Sanctuary City. This was a chance, Francis explained, to experiment with what it would look like for Steppenwolf to have its productions serve both their main membership base and their young adult audience.

“We found a lot of success with that,” Francis said, “because we integrated all of our assets and all of our efforts into a truly intergenerational conversation. So it meant that the adults were getting the same content that the teens were, and vice versa.”

It’s a shift Francis said the company had been talking about for months, in community with their Young Adult Council, teaching artists, and Chicago Public School teachers. She said they wanted to make sure that they were still going to be able to serve the same amount of students, and to ensure that this felt like an intentional move rather than an afterthought. Shrestha said there was enthusiasm behind the change, noting that CPS teachers were excited about the opportunity to have access to more shows covering a wider range of styles and subjects.

Shrestha also said the shift opens the door for Steppenwolf to explore more, and more active, education and engagement opportunities—opportunities beyond seeing shows. Shrestha called it an effort to build with, not just for the community. So far, after sending out registration forms, Shrestha said they’re seeing interest from schools in all four Steppenwolf season shows that are available for student matinees.

“We’re meeting all the feelings that come with change and come with the gravity of this change with the exciting shift that this unlocks for us,” said Shrestha, who added that they’re all looking forward to the next few months of working in partnership with teens, teaching artists, and teachers as they continue to build this reenvisioning of what this program will look like as it heads into the future.

Grant Kennedy Lewis and Jocelyn Zamudio in Steppenwolf’s production of “Sanctuary City.” (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

The rest of Steppenwolf educational programming is staying the same: They’ll still offer afterschool programs, teen workshops and teen nights, and partnerships with CPS and in-school residencies with teaching artists, while continuing to build partnerships with community organizations. Both Shrestha and Francis said that they celebrate SYA’s long history of centering teen voices, and see this change as a continuation of that work, allowing the education and engagement department to be even more active in the institutional decision-making.

“This is a shift in artistic programming that, for me, is actually promoting a more intergenerational experience,” Francis said. “I’ve been tasked with making sure that there is a Steppenwolf for the next 50 years, and I truly believe that that lives in the next generation. I want to celebrate what SYA was, with creating its own line of programming for years. It was iconic what Hallie Gordon and Megan Shuchman did. What they did was so remarkable, and so necessary, and it met the moment that they were in. Right now, from an artistic lens, I am trying to meet the moment that I’m in, where there are different conversations around what it means to have an intergenerational experience.”

Time will inevitably be the judge. After all, we’ve watched Steppenwolf, like many theatres across the country, shrink their seasons over the years—from eight shows in 2019-20, to six in ’23-24, to five in ’24-25—and pause their internship and apprenticeship programs for the ’24-25 season as they solidify the business plan and funding for it. Looking forward, Francis and Shrestha said Steppenwolf plans to roll out more info on the education and engagement plans later this year.

Young artists Alondra Rios, Mariana Reyes Daza, Emefa Dzodzomenyo, Karina Patel, and Gabriela Furtado Coutinho join and dream of healing. (Commissioned photography by Joe Mazza with intimacy consultation by Gaby Labotka.)

Turning attention to our recent American Theatre articles, I first want to make sure you have a chance to read Gabriela’s cover story from our winter print issue, about the work of creating encouraging and uplifting spaces in high school theatre programs. Gabriela also had a wonderfully enlightening conversation with film and television actor Jennifer Morrison about her Chicago history and stage turn in Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad.

I recently had the chance to highlight Indy Convergence, a community-focused organization operating out of my hometown of Indianapolis, as part of our Know a Theatre series. Plus, keeping my ear on the ground back home, I spoke to multi-hyphenate artist Vanessa Severo and director Joanie Schultz about their collaborative history as they come off a world premiere take on Dracula at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and head into another production of Frida…A Self Portrait at Indiana Repertory Theatre.

Finally, I’d love to send you on your way with two wonderful pieces from contributing writers. First, Shantez Tolbut turned her attention to Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis to highlight company member Autumn Ness and her new Dada-influenced Babble Lab. Then Crystal Paul talked to students and parents about the frustrating journey to stage for a local high school production of The Prom.

Now See This

While it was very tempting to give this spot to Otherworld Theatre’s production of Twihard! A Twilight Music Parody, because this song has been stuck in my head for weeks, I want to highlight the outstanding design around Goodman Theatre’s production of The Penelopiad, directed by Susan V. Booth. The stunning, operatic look and feel of this production is thanks to set designer Neil Patel, lighting designer Xavier Pierce, costume designer Kara Harmon, and sound designer Willow James. Check out some of the visuals from this Jennifer Morrison-led production below!

Around Town

Gabriela catches us up on a few items you may have missed!

It’s been a month full of femme-powered creative leadership. On March 8, the Goodman hosted an International Womxn’s Day panel featuring insights from artistic and executive directors on shifting workplace culture; Rivendell opened its world premiere of Wipeout by Aurora Real de Asua with an iconic cast, running through April 14; and young company Snails on a Bike has brought How to Defend Yourself by Liliana Padilla back to Chicago for a site-specific catharsis through March 30. From piping hot tea to exciting news—here’s your round-up.

  • Los Angeles-based Theatre 68 has opened I’m Not a Comedian… I’m Lenny Bruce and Bill W. and Dr. Bob at the Biograph Theater, home of Victory Gardens. Victory Gardens went dark over a year ago, following the departure of then-artistic director Ken-Matt Martin and other staff members. In March 2023, the organization’s board said it would “release a comprehensive plan as soon as it is able” to update how the company intended to move forward. That is the last public statement listed on their website. The board has not responded to American Theatre’s request for updates.
  • In union news, Actors’ Equity Association and Producers’ Association of Chicago Area Theatres (PACT) announced that they’ve ratified a new four-year agreement, which aims to support artists in making a sustained living.
  • For the Tribune, Chris Jones reported that Chicago’s Local 2 branch of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees has filed a petition to unionize front-of-house, box office, and concession staff at the Goodman.
  • Lookingglass, temporarily paused since June 2023, has announced new leadership with Kasey Foster as artistic director and a new business plan in the wake of reaching its fundraising goal.
  • WBEZ’s Micah Yason reported four Chicago-area theatre companies will receive a $670,000 grant from the Bayless Family Foundation: Definition, Timeline, Chicago Children’s, and Remy Bumppo.
  • Kerry Reid penned a celebration of Val Gray Ward and Joan Gray’s lives in the Reader, saying that, “while the full scope of their influence on other artists, particularly those from the African diaspora, is difficult to adequately describe, their legacies live on.” In the Sun-Times, Mitch Dudek also paid respects, highlighting Val Gray Ward’s founding of Kuumba Theatre Workshop in 1968 and impact on international audiences of all ages.
  • Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s brand new play Purpose just premiered at Steppenwolf, with Phylicia Rashad directing. For WBEZ and the Sun-Times, Mike Davis wrote on this “dive headfirst into the complexities of one political Black family,” its highly contemporary nature, and the playwright’s connection to the topic. 
  • Alex V. Hernandez reported on Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, performed at a Bowmanville metal factory that normally specializes in titanium rack design and fabrication, for Block Club Chicago. “The majority of scenes happen at Joan’s factory job, where the banality of evil is observed with a combination of dark humor and eerie atmosphere,” Hernandez writes.
  • Over in Cincinnati, Falcon Theatre is staging an adaptation of Hugh Whitemore’s 1986 play Breaking the Code, which Rick Pender previews for CityBeat. Also in CityBeat, Pender announced Know Theatre’s search for a new artistic director, following the announced departure of both artistic leaders last September and October.
  • Having opened back in 2023, Albany Park Theater Project’s Port of Entry is not only still going strong, but remains “one of spring’s most coveted tickets” in 2024, said Mike Davis for WBEZ.
  • For the Reader, Micco Caporale features the troupe Puppetqueers, whose third show sold out in less than 24 hours, a testament to the city’s “appetite for puppetry—and the queerness of the medium.” Creative Grace Needlman elaborates, saying, “Puppeteers are really the misfit toys of the misfit toys. Like the theatre or art kids or musicians who always feel a little bit outside…It usually happens after a lot of searching.”
  • Steppenwolf isn’t the only theatre making some tough choices. Over at Lifeline Theatre, writes Reid in the Reader, a “temporary contraction in the season appears to be a way to bolster a future that includes more long-term diversity and growth.”

Chicago Chisme

Every month, Jerald and Gabriela check in with Chicago/Midwest theatre artists about what’s getting them out of bed in the morning and keeping them up at night. This spring, we’re remembering why we do what we do. More below from Willow James, sound designer behind works like Goodman’s The Penelopiad and Definition’s upcoming An Educated Guess, and Otherworld Theatre artistic director Tiffany Keane Schaefer, who wrote the book and lyrics (alongside Brian Rasmussen’s music) for Otherworld’s world premiere production of Twihard! A Twilight Musical Parody.

Willow James (photo by Jess Maynard Photography) and Tiffany Keane Schaefer (courtesy of Tiffany Keane Schaefer).

What’s a piece of art (theatre or otherwise) that you love that you feel doesn’t get talked about enough?

Willow: Not necessarily a piece of art, but more of an art form. I think stage management is just as much an art form as anything else, and I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some pretty awesome SMs throughout my career. Sure, there are cookie-cutter ways of doing things, but there’s no one formula for how to lead a room with compassion, respect, and efficiency, all while everyone in the room needs you at the exact same time. Special shoutout to Julie Jachym, Nikki Blue, Michelle Medvin, Laura D. Glenn, Ariel Beller, Kate Ocker, Miranda Andreson, and Rebecca J. Lister!

Tiffany: I would have to go with The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. It’s a book I reread at least once a year, and every time I do, I receive a new profound life lesson. It covers themes of age, morality, love, death, purity, purpose, and magic. It is also so beautifully lyrical. “But I’m always dreaming, even when I’m awake; it is never finished.” That is one of many quotes that has stuck with me, especially for storytellers, where our dreams and our work constantly intertwine.

What’s a recent moment that reminded you why you choose to do theatre?

Willow: I was recently in a production meeting for an upcoming show that requires cooking onstage, and we spent about 20 minutes discussing how to make it happen. As we all laughed through the conversation, I started building my playlist for the show and fell down a rabbit hole of songs that were about chicken (there are more than you think). This series of events immediately made my day better. What other kind of job requires you to seriously talk through the mechanics of frying chicken onstage, but also in that magical way where people forget you’re frying chicken onstage?

Tiffany: We just are about to finish a run of Twihard! A Twilight Musical Parody. The fans that come out and connect with each other before and after shows, fans from all different walks of life and background, just nerding out together, is really inspiring. We fought really hard to keep the company I run, Otherworld Theatre, alive throughout Covid. Looking at a theatre full of energized audiences making connections made me think, “It was all worth it.”

Shoot your shot. What artist or company are you dreaming of working with, or what show are you dreaming of working on?

Willow: I have two! Suzan-Lori Parks is one of my favorite playwrights, so working on one of her plays (with her in the room) would be a dream! Another dream project would be to work on The White Card by Claudia Rankine. I read the play in college and have been a little obsessed with it ever since. 

Tiffany: As an artistic director, I have been very fortunate to be able to choose my projects. I would love to work on more immersive experiences—maybe partnering with a theme park or studio to make an experience from a preexisting sci-fi/fantasy property.

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