Steppenwolf’s “Crisis”: Too Busy for Shakespeare?

Citing conflicting commitments of several key ensemble members, Steppenwolf Theatre Company last week abruptly canceled its production of As You Like It, the fourth show of its present season. Ensemble member Frank Galati was scheduled to direct what would have been the company’s first stab at Shakespeare.

The unexpected development has sparked renewed discussion in theater circles about whether the increasingly busy 23-member Steppenwolf ensemble remains committed to working in the $8 million theater built especially for it on the city’s north side. But one well-informed board member suggested the cancellation may have had more to do with the troupe’s waning interest in tackling Shakespeare than with the announced excuse of conflicting commitments. This source argued that the situation might have been avoided altogether if there hadn’t been pressure from the company’s marketing executives to announce the production so far in advance.

Designs and other preproduction work were already in progress for As You Like It, which was slated to run May 5 through June 27. Galati hoped to use upward of eight Steppenwolf actors in the production, including Laurie Metcalf. But when key ensemble members supposedly became unavailable, the decision was made to cancel the production rather than turn it into less of a Steppenwolf event. A spokesman said he expected As You Like It to be rescheduled, but no new date has been set. The world premiere of Ghost in the Machine, by New Jersey playwright David Gilman, will fill the empty slot. Ensemble member Jim True will direct a cast that is expected to include at least three or four other ensemble members.

Clearly upset about the dropped Shakespeare, Galati referred to the cancellation in one published report as a “crisis,” exacerbated by the fact that many Steppenwolves are frequently sought elsewhere for film, television, and other theater jobs and many no longer reside in Chicago. He indicated that the matter would be discussed when the ensemble convenes later this year for its annual meeting.

Certainly the demands on Steppenwolf ensemble members and staff have increased tremendously in recent years. When the cancellation was announced, both Steppenwolf managing director Stephen Eich and artistic director Randall Arney were in Australia preparing for a two-week run of The Song of Jacob Zulu. They plan to return to Chicago in late February for the March 7 opening of Steppenwolf’s production of Arthur Kopit’s Road to Nirvana, which incidentally was initially rehearsed in Los Angeles, where several cast members and the show’s director, Gary Sinise, are now headquartered.

After the Nirvana opening the company’s attention turns to New York for the premiere of Zulu on March 24 at the Plymouth Theatre, marking the first time Steppenwolf has assumed the huge responsibility of producing its own show on Broadway. Steppenwolf took over as sole producer of the $1.4 million show when the New York-based Shubert Organization backed out.

Several Steppenwolf board members sought to play down the notion that the As You Like It cancellation is a sign of ensemble members’ weakening support for the company most of the helped found. Instead these sources blamed the problem on marketing executives who have insisted the company announce most of its season well in advance to help pull in more subscribers to fill the new 500-seat theater.

Before moving into its new home in April 1991, Steppenwolf more often announced productions as the season progressed, in some instances only a few weeks before rehearsals began. But despite the theater company’s last-minute approach to play selection, subscribers and single-ticket buyers bought tickets, convinced they would experience the old Steppenwolf magic. But not much of that old magic was evident in the past couple of seasons, and there may yet be cause for real concern within Steppenwolf’s marketing department if the company reverts to its seat-of-the-pants approach to play selection and fails to come up with winning productions.

Projectionists Settle for Cineplex Contract

Local 110 of the Motion Picture Projectionists Union has quietly agreed to a new five-year contract with the giant Cineplex Odeon Corporation, the Toronto-based movie-theater chain that operates more than 200 screens in and around Chicago. The contract, which ended Cineplex Odeon’s three-month lockout, slashes the hourly projectionists’ wage to $45 from the previous $118 for a typical ten-screen theater complex. The new contract also calls for a 150-person reduction in staffing from Local 110 over the next three to four years. The layoffs reportedly will come not only at Cineplex Odeon but also at the Loews and General Cinema chains, which are expected to adopt the pay scales in the Cineplex contract. Though the new contract represents a setback for the union, considered one of the country’s toughest, its members remain the nation’s best-paid booth operators: New York City projectionists earn $34.10 an hour, and the rate in Los Angeles is $18 an hour.

Theatre Festival Plans Its Off Year

The International Theatre Festival of Chicago won’t be mounting a special event this spring. Executive director Jane Nicholl Sahlins had hoped to do so, to maintain the biennial festival’s visibility in this off year, but plans to present Australia’s Circus Oz at Navy Pier have fallen through: the circus recently canceled its U.S. tour. Sahlins said the festival considered importing the circus just for a Chicago run, but the cost was prohibitive. She said she is working on a special presentation for the fall but will not provide details until the deal is done.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kevin Horan.