Steppenwolf finally cut the ribbon on their new theater and education center on Tuesday after two and a half years of construction, and everybody from Governor Pritzker and Mayor Lightfoot (whose wife, Amy Eshleman, is on the theater’s board of trustees) to many current members of the ensemble showed up to mark the occasion, which was filled with a series of fulsome speeches. (Founding ensemble members Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney, and Jeff Perry opened the festivities with an audiotape greeting.)
The Liz and Eric Lefkofsky Arts and Education Center (named for the cofounder of Groupon and Steppenwolf board chair and his wife, who were among the $1 million+ donors to the project) cost an estimated $54 million to complete. The kick-off celebration took place in the new Ensemble Theater in Honor of Helen Zell. (Yes, that’s the official full name, in recognition of the director of the Zell Family Foundation and wife of Sam Zell, the billionaire and former owner of the Tribune. The Zell Foundation also donated in the seven-figure-plus range to the new venue, as did the Pritzker Foundation.)
The Ensemble Theater, a 400-seat theater in the round, replaces the former Upstairs venue at Steppenwolf’s Halsted Street campus, which has been reconfigured as a rehearsal space. (The footprint for that space will now be the same as that for the Downstairs theater, meaning that nothing will need to be reblocked or otherwise adjusted in the move from rehearsal space to performance space.) The new complex was designed by Gordon Gill of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, with U.K. firm Charcoalblue handling the theater design and acoustics. The two firms previously collaborated on the Yard venue at Chicago Shakespeare.
Steppenwolf continues to operate the Front Bar and the 1700 theater, an 80-seat flexible black box space, which has been used for performances by smaller companies and multigenre events curated through Steppenwolf’s LookOut series. The new building includes expanded lobby and bar spaces, with a “History Wall” gallery of boxes in the second-floor lobby (commissioned by Sinise and designed by Arnel Sancianco), featuring a cunning array of artifacts from past productions and quotes from Steppenwolf artists, labeled with QR codes so visitors can take a deeper dive into the history online. (Some of the featured objects include a pair of black high heels worn by Tarell Alvin McCraney in Ms. Blakk for President, his 2019 celebration of queer Chicago icon Joan Jett Blakk, and a scarf that belonged to the late artistic director Martha Lavey, who was famous for that particular sartorial accessory.)
A new stage management booth has been named in honor of the late Malcolm Ewen, who worked on over 40 Steppenwolf productions between 1987 and his death from bile duct cancer in 2019.
The theme for the day seemed to be connecting past and future, with an emphasis on the theater’s expanded youth theater programs. The fourth floor of the new venue has been dubbed the Loft, and includes three learning spaces as well as gallery walls featuring work by young artists, selected by a panel of professionals (including Nick Cave and Santiago X). The new dedicated facilities will allow Steppenwolf to expand the reach of its teen educational programs from 20,000 to 30,000 students annually through Steppenwolf for Young Adults performances and other training opportunities. (Even as the building plans proceeded, former artistic director for SYA, Hallie Gordon, was laid off in the summer of 2020, along with Steppenwolf artistic producer Jonathan Berry. Megan Shuchman, director of education, is currently running SYA.)
Glenn Davis and Audrey Francis, who were named as coartistic directors earlier this year to replace the departing Anna Shapiro (Brooke Flanagan, who came on board in 2020 as executive director, remains on the job), both spoke of the need to acknowledge the past and embrace the future.
Francis delivered a land acknowledgment and comments on structural racism, noting the segregation and disinvestment that still define many Chicago neighborhoods. Davis talked about the role of ensembles, young and old, as the lifeblood of the theater. “By repeatedly working together, we build our boldest, bravest, and most audacious work,” he said.
Earlier this year, two artists made waves online by talking about their experiences at Steppenwolf. Lowell Thomas, digital producer for several of the shows produced in the “Steppenwolf Now” series during the shutdown, posted on Instagram, asking artists to divest from the company and charging that “There is a pattern of inequity that precedes my time at Steppenwolf and threatens to continue if nothing is done.” Thomas specifically called out Shapiro, Flanagan, and associate artistic director Leelai Demoz. (Flanagan’s hiring came not long after the controversial appointment of Erica Daniels at Victory Gardens, but at the time, the announcement didn’t lead to the same public dissent from Chicago theater artists, despite the similar circumstances of there not being a national search when Flanagan replaced David Schmitz.)
And playwright Isaac Gómez, whose plays La Ruta and I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (the latter adapted from Erika L. Sánchez’s novel) have been produced at Steppenwolf—an audio play version of the latter was also part of Steppenwolf Now—wrote a Medium post in support of Thomas and outlining his own experiences as an artist in primarily white institutions. Gómez wrote, “Steppenwolf has, and remains to be, for me, one of my greatest artistic homes. It’s where I learn the most, grow the most, and do my best work because of the collaborators and staff I’m able to work with. But like the home I was raised in, it’s a home that also sometimes causes me great pain.”
Steppenwolf of course is hardly alone in facing charges of not adequately dealing with systemic racism and other abuses; We See You White American Theatre and other artist-led organizations demanding accountability and equity have been heightening calls for action in the past few years. Following a blistering September report by Ashley Lee in the Los Angeles Times about working conditions at Williamstown Theatre Festival, artistic director Mandy Greenfield resigned earlier this week.
In a July article for American Theatre, Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel (who is now the Reader’s audience engagement manager) gathered the insights of over a dozen theater artists, many of them queer and/or BIPOC, to illustrate some of the difficulties in negotiating the terrain of predominantly white-led institutions and the historic problems of artists (particularly freelance artists) being overworked, underpaid, and otherwise marginalized in what are supposed to be artistic homes. As Mikhaiel notes, “Ultimately, it is up to leadership to hear these calls and commit to practices that finally equip artists and staff to do their best work in environments that resist exploitation in the face of urgency and supposed scarcity.”
The new Lefkofsky center and the new leadership for Steppenwolf both seem to promise some great opportunities, especially for the next generation of theater artists and leaders. The speeches at the ceremony concluded with remarks from Kristen Das, an alum of the Steppenwolf Young Adult Council, and current YAC member Joelle Reiter. It was clear that they find inspiration in the company’s history and in the promise to the future represented by the new home. It remains to be seen if the upheavals within and without the theater world of the past few years will lead to weaving new ribbons of connection and inclusion from the inside of the theater outward to the larger community.