In summer of 2020, Steep Theatre announced that they were losing their longtime Berwyn Avenue home (just next to the Red Line stop). The landlord was selling the building, which contained both the flexible-seating 60-seat black box theater and the adjoining Boxcar bar and performance lounge that Steep opened in 2018.
At the time, Steep artistic director Peter Moore and executive director Kate Piatt-Eckert told me that losing their space during a pandemic shutdown allowed them the opportunity to really focus on what they needed. “This gave us the breathing room to explore our options but also to be really thoughtful about next steps,” Piatt-Eckert said to the Reader. They also expressed their desire to be able to stay in Edgewater.
That wish is coming true. Last Wednesday, Steep announced that they’re planning to purchase a building at 1044 West Berwyn, just two blocks east of their old venue. The building, formerly a Christian Science Reading Room, is about 3,500 square feet, and sits on a 17,500-square-foot lot that offers ample parking and room for future growth.
Right now, the company has entered into a purchase and sale agreement. If the building passes structural reviews and Steep’s plans have the community support required for the zoning change to license the location as a theater, the deal should be closed later this spring. Civic Projects Architecture has been retained by Steep to design the new theater.
“I think stepping away from the everyday hustle of producing plays while simultaneously doing a lot of strategic planning work and anti-racism work and organizational structure analysis really gave us the time to be thoughtful about what’s really important to us as an organization, and how that manifests in our physical space,” says Piatt-Eckert.
Moore notes that they came close to a deal for another building in the last 18 months, but that fell apart. They went back into search mode this past fall. “Our realtor actually brought up a different church, kitty-corner to this place. She said, ‘Do you want to check it out?’ and we went, ‘Yeah, sure, why not?’ We went and saw it and it was clearly too much for us to take on, but right across the street was this church with a for-sale sign that had apparently gone up within the last week. And we asked, ‘What about this place?’ We’ve walked past it a billion times in the last 13 years and always were intrigued by it. We popped in. It was kind of a revelation, like, ‘This could really work.’ Obviously we couldn’t ask for a better location.”
Plans for the new space will also include a bar area, like the Boxcar. Says Piatt-Eckert, “We’re looking at creating something that is sort of a hybrid of our lobby in the old space and the Boxcar. So really re-creating that experience of gathering before and after shows with bar service and musical performance when we can, really recapturing what we were leaning into in the Boxcar by having that space also serve as a theater lobby. As we’ve been talking with our architect, we’ve been talking about that lobby/bar/lounge space as the bridge that connects the community to the work onstage, and how that manifests has been really exciting to explore.”
Moore notes that the seating in the new venue won’t be greatly increased. “We’re shooting for a comfortable 70,” he says. But the fact that the performance area has 16-foot ceilings and none of those pesky central support beams that the old theater contained means that there will be greater capacity for set and lighting designers to work their magic.
Unlike a lot of other theaters during the shutdown, Steep didn’t really focus on digital work, with the exception of the radio play Moony by Ike Holter.
Moore says, “In the time away, we spent most of our energy doing some internal organization stuff and the search for the new space. Our focus has really been getting back onstage. Digital work has not been a priority for us. It’s something we continue to talk about, but right now, getting back onstage in person is where our energy is focused. It may be a length of time before we produce in this building, but we plan on doing a couple of itinerant shows in the meantime. We plan to be onstage in the next three months.”
When they’ll be able to start producing in the new building is an open question, but they’re aiming for sometime in 2023. Says Piatt-Eckert, “I think one of the questions about this building that’s so interesting is that as it exists now, it’s pretty close to being functional as a theater, so there is a very cost-effective version of getting it ready that we could do. But of course there are things that we want to do to make it a more robust and supportive space for artists and audiences. So we’re in the process of deciding where in the scale of ‘Put some black paint on the wall and call it a theater’ to doing more significant construction we’re going to fall.”
She adds, “I think one of the things we mentioned as we talk about why we’ve been more focused on in-person theater over digital theater and also why being back in our neighborhood is so important is having that direct in-person connection between artists and audiences, and really integrating neighborhood theater into the fabric of our everyday lives. Which is a really wonderful opportunity we have as a neighborhood theater to do.”
Given that Steep already has roots in Edgewater, it seems likely that they’ll get the support they need from the community. (Piatt-Eckert estimates that the capital campaign will aim to raise between $1.5-$2.5 million.) With the help of 48th Ward alderman Harry Osterman, Steep is hosting an informational Zoom meeting on their building plans next Thursday, February 17, at 6 PM. (Interested parties can register at steeptheatre.com/building.)
Kelcey Anyá joins Artemisia
Artemisia Theatre has added Kelcey Anyá to their leadership team as the company’s first managing director. Anyá, originally from the bayous of Louisiana, holds an MFA from Miami University in Ohio in theater, performance, and practice, with certificates in teaching and women’s gender and sexuality studies. She’s worked as a teaching artist locally at the Joffrey Ballet and Pegasus Theatre Chicago, and was also the director of Brooklyn-based Colt Coeur Theatre Company’s annual education initiative, as well as being the founder and director of the Kelcey Anyá Performing Arts Academy (KAPAA), an organization geared toward amplifying the voices of young Black and Brown storytellers through the arts.
She joins artistic director Julie Proudfoot in running the women-centered Artemisia, which also added longtime Chicago actor and director E. Faye Butler to their team as board president last spring. Artemisia hasn’t returned to live performance yet, but they’re still producing the We Women podcast, which includes audio performances of feminist plays and discussions with arts leaders. Anyá will be the featured guest on the episode that drops on Wednesday, February 9. You can check it out at artemisiawomen.buzzsprout.com.
Chicago Theatre Week is back
Next week (February 17-27) marks the tenth year for Chicago Theatre Week, a joint initiative between the League of Chicago Theatres and Choose Chicago. After going digital last year, this year’s offerings provide a chance for patrons to get back to live performances with discounts on shows throughout the city and suburbs. Since February is also Black History Month, several of those productions feature work by Black artists (including August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean at the Goodman; Tyla Abercrumbie‘s Relentless from TimeLine Theatre; Donja R. Love’s Fireflies at Northlight; and travis tate’s Queen of the Night at Victory Gardens). Tickets are available through chicagotheatreweek.com.