31 Oct 2021 | Chicago Sun-Times

Steppenwolf Theatre’s new Arts and Education Center is a ‘love letter to Chicago’

by Clare Spaulding

The $54-million Liz and Eric Lefkofsky Arts and Education Center will feature a wine bar, a teen loft area and a 400-seat in-the-round theater.

The new Steppenwolf Theatre campus is all about collision.

Glass panes collide with ribbed concrete panels. Traditional playwriting collides with a new style of art for performers to imagine. In the new in-the-round theater, artists collide with audiences, who sit close enough to see the sweat bead on actors’ foreheads.

“What we have is an investment in the theater that we are today with the architectural investment in our legacy to come,” said E. Brooke Flanagan, Steppenwolf’s executive director. “We have space to grow into the theater company that we will be. But it’s founded in the principles of ensemble, innovation and the commitment to being a Chicago-based theater.”

Steppenwolf’s new Liz and Eric Lefkofsky Arts and Education Center is a $54-million project designed by Gordon Gill, of Chicago’s Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture.

The space is outfitted with a wine bar, an outdoor sidewalk lounge, a two-story atrium lobby and a teen loft area spanning the entire fourth floor.

But the heart of the new campus, Flanagan said, is the Round Theater, a six-row, 400-seat room where the stage sits in the center and no audience member will be more than 20 feet from the actors.

Bookending Steppenwolf’s renovation fund-raising campaign have been two global calamities — the 2008 financial crisis, which came just as talks of the project were getting underway, and the COVID-19 pandemic, as construction wrapped up. Those challenges required Steppenwolf to “drill down to our core values,” Flanagan said.

“It’s been a testament to the grit and resilience of this company, which is reflective of Chicago,” Flanagan said. “Out of great limitation comes creation. Out of tragedy comes resiliency and a determined focus on the future.”

The new campus is “a love letter to the city and a promise to our next generation of artists,” she added.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company was founded in the mid-1970s in a church basement in Highland Park by three young actors who wanted to change the world through their art. The renowned ensemble group moved to the city and then settled at a permanent home at 1650 N. Hasted Street in 1991. Quickly expanding, the company outgrew the space and started envisioning how to transform the existing building into something greater in the early 2000s.

A meeting in 2007 with architect Gill kickstarted the $73 million campus expansion plan, for which Steppenwolf has raised more than three-quarters of the money.

Gill said he was drawn in by the people at Steppenwolf even before the architectural structure.

“It was the mutual respect that, ‘Let’s try to figure something out together,’” said Gill, who lives blocks from the theater. “I love that. There were no preconceptions. There was no ‘do it my way or else.’ It was a very open dialogue.”

The expansion began by transforming what used to be an Ethan Allen furniture store into a small black-box theater and the Front Bar, a social stop for coffee and drinks, with that work wrapping up in June 2016. What followed was iteration after iteration of design ideas, a process to find what would best serve Steppenwolf’s 49-person ensemble and its audience, Gill said.

The bulk of the funding has gone toward the new Arts and Education Center, built around the new Round Theater, officially named the Ensemble Theater in Honor of Helen Zell, a longtime backer of arts in Chicago. The ability to open the stage floor combined with removable ceiling grids and catwalks give the stage 45 vertical feet — flexibility to produce sets of all shapes and sizes.

A handful of Steppenwolf ensemble members got to see the new theater ahead of the center’s upcoming ribbon-cutting on Tuesday, said Audrey Francis, who was named co-artistic director with Glenn Davis earlier this year.

“Every time we walk in, there’s an audible gasp,” Francis said. “We all have the same sense of awe and reverence for what this space actually means for us as artists coming off of 19 months of being told that we’re not essential” during the pandemic.

A central walkway connects the Round Theater to the Downstairs Theater — which has been home to ensemble productions for more than 30 years — and continues through to the Front Bar at the northernmost part of Steppenwolf’s building. A back-of-house walkway likewise connects the backstage areas of all three theaters. What used to be the Upstairs Theater will now hold two dedicated rehearsal spaces for the ensemble.

It won’t be until February that Steppenwolf will welcome theater-goers to a play in-the-round. But Steppenwolf will continue to perform in the Downstairs Theater.