Celeste M. Cooper and Cliff Chamberlain Credit: courtesy Steppenwolf Theatre

Steppenwolf Theatre Company announced today that actors Celeste M. Cooper and Cliff Chamberlain will join the nearly 50-member ensemble. Cooper made her Steppenwolf debut in BLKS and Chamberlain was recently featured in The Minutes by ensemble member Tracy Letts.

Even though the company normally doesn’t add members who live outside Chicago, artistic director Anna D. Shapiro says Chamberlain, who lived in L.A. and has appeared in nine Steppenwolf shows, was the exception to the rule.

“He just kept being requested by our artists. All the writers and directors wanted to work with him,” she says. “This is a person, a human being, an actor who adds so much value to the theater and artists.”

And although Cooper had less history with the company, Shapiro says when she saw Cooper in Court Theatre’s Blues For an Alabama Sky, “I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

“I kept seeing her [in shows],” Shapiro continues, and she was the most transformative young actor I’ve seen in a long time. To see that in such a young person, I wanted to say, ‘We want to give you an artistic home and help you grow that God-given talent and support you.'”

Steppenwolf ensemble members have included acclaimed playwrights, actors, and directors, like Pulitzer and Tony winner Letts, Roseanne and Lady Bird star Laurie Metcalf and Moonlight writer Tarell Alvin McCraney, but what does being a Steppenwolf ensemble actor actually entail?

“The ensemble members contribute to artistic direction and the artistic choices are built around the ensemble,” says communications director Madeline Long. “We turn to them to use their talents and their input when forming their season, in terms of casting and directing. Once they’re in that ensemble, they’re part of the conversation with the artistic director and the casting director.”

Long says there are no formal auditions or strict rules about how many shows ensemble members have to appear in each season or how long their tenures last. The title just means the ensemble member takes part in Steppenwolf plays, has a voice in deciding what productions to put on, and contributes to discussions about future additions to the ensemble. Since Shapiro took on the role of artistic director in 2015, there have been seven additions, including the new hires.

Formed by a collective of actors (including Gary Sinise) in 1976, Steppenwolf has launched lauded productions that later appeared on Broadway, notably The Grapes of Wrath and August: Osage County, and won 12 Tony Awards and the National Medal of Arts.