“When I was 13, my mother made me take an acting class over the summer,” says Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s new resident director Anna Shapiro, making it sound like her mother forced her to eat soap. “I think I was irresponsible in some way during the academic year, so I had to make up for it.”

The class, held at Link’s Hall, was taught by Steppenwolf members Rondi Reed and Tom Irwin. Over the next two decades Steppenwolf would have a hand in nearly all her major career choices. Though she didn’t know it, her fate was sealed.

At the time Shapiro wanted nothing to do with the theater. Acting may have been an outlet for many a rebellious Evanston teenager, but she was in familiar territory: her mother, Joann, is a successful local actor and director. Shapiro tried her best to hate acting. “I just thought those theater guys in high school were the biggest geeks,” she says. “And they were. They still are.” By the time she got to Columbia College she was determined to strike out on her own, but the farthest afield she could wander was to study film. Then she met Tom Bell, a fellow student who had big plans for a cramped storefront he was renting in Rogers Park.

“He was actually living there,” Shapiro recalls, “with no heat, a plastic shower stall, and a couch to sleep on.” They naturally felt ready to open their own theater. “We all almost died from fumes gluing down linoleum tiles until two in the morning with no ventilation,” she says.

Big Game Theater opened its doors in 1988 with Shapiro’s production of Balm in Gilead, one of the plays that had put Steppenwolf on the map almost a decade before. “There were 23 people onstage in a theater that held 50,” she says. “It was like the clowns coming out of the Volkswagen.” The set cost 50 dollars. “We tried to make back production costs by holding a benefit and making our parents buy expensive tickets.” The show was a hit and ran for four months. Still, the company couldn’t afford to produce more than two shows a year, let alone pay themselves anything. “The mission of the theater became getting as many people in the cast as there were seats in the house. Big casts bring audiences.”

In 1990 Shapiro was accepted into Yale’s graduate directing program, thanks in no small part to a recommendation from Steppenwolf member Jeff Perry, whom she had assisted on a staging of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. She tried to continue her duties at Big Game, directing Daniel J. Rubin’s Selling Water between her first and second years of school. The production was slaughtered in the Reader. “The last line of the review was ‘Is this what they’re teaching you at Yale, Anna? Maybe it’s time to come home.'”

Upon finishing her degree Shapiro did just that, but found it “impossible” to get a paying job as a director. Then she lucked into a honey of a gig with New York’s Atlantic Theatre Company, directing Edwin Sanchez’s Trafficking in Broken Hearts. “I got the job because the artistic director of the company heard my name twice in one day,” she says. One of the people who mentioned her was another Steppenwolf member, Terry Kinney, who had originally been offered the production. “So the director of the Atlantic called me and said, ‘Who are you?’ And I said, ‘I’m nobody.’ But I talked my way into the job.” That show was a bona fide hit, complete with a good notice in the New York Times. “But of course,” Shapiro adds, “the most important part was that Madonna came to see it.”

At 27 Shapiro had everything she needed to launch a directing career. She sent inquiries to every regional theater in the country. “I got a personal response, a letter or a phone call, from every one–even from Lincoln Center–except the theaters in Chicago.” The best she got from them was a form letter.

Fortunately her guardian angels at Steppenwolf continued to watch over her. Kinney had seen Trafficking in Broken Hearts and was impressed. “That was in 1994, when Steppenwolf was planning a big personnel change. I got these strange, cryptic telephone calls where they couldn’t really tell me what they were offering me, if anything. They were just checking in.” This went on for several months. “Then Jeff Perry called me and said, ‘Will you please have just one more conversation with us?’ And I thought, Yeah, I’ll have a million more conversations with you. At what point will I not have a conversation with you?”

After being whisked to New York to meet with Gary Sinise, Shapiro was appointed director of Steppenwolf’s New Plays Lab in 1995. Her first production there, Rubin’s The Viewing Room, got clobbered in the press. “My mother said, ‘If the worst thing that happens to you is someone writing bad things about you in the newspaper, how bad is that?’ And I said, ‘That’s really fucking bad. People who went to high school with me who thought I was a jerk are reading that I’m a moron.'”

Three years later, Shapiro was appointed resident director. Last weekend marked her main-stage directing debut, with the opening of Richard Greenberg’s darkly comic family mystery Three Days of Rain. Thinking of Steppenwolf’s enormous stage, she cowered for a moment before opening night. “If this is bad,” she said, “it’s gonna be big bad.”

Still, she’s savoring the reward for a decade of toil. “It’s absolutely dreamy. I have no kind of coolness about it. I sat in the theater when they were loading in my set. I could have sat there all day and just watched them.”

Three Days of Rain is reviewed in this section. It continues through April 4 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted. Tickets are $35 to $39; call 312-335-1650. –Justin Hayford

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Anna Shapiro photo by Eugene Zakusilo.