12 Nov 20  | Chicago Tribune

Rising in a pandemic: Steppenwolf’s new theater campus is a $54 million bet on returning to normalcy

by Chris Jones

In March of last year, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre officially announced its campus expansion: a new $54 million theater-in-the-round. Back then, theaters still staged live shows and cared not for streaming video. Zoom was a comic-book term rather than a communication lifeline. Layoffs and closures were far from ubiquitous in the cultural sector. And social distancing was an oxymoron.

But thanks to the lockdown exemption for construction projects throughout the COVID-19 crisis in Illinois, this transformative addition designed by the Chicago architecture film of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill has, incredibly, continued on schedule, rising alongside the mostly shuttered eateries and bars of a Halsted Street devoid of its usual foot traffic.

The new theater, built on a surface parking area within Steppenwolf’s current Lincoln Park footprint, has benefited from not needing to work around the public and is getting close to ready, even if Chicago and the world remain wracked by a still-exploding coronavirus crisis and Steppenwolf has been forced to replace its 2021-21 subscription season with virtual attractions, beginning this week with “What Is Left, Burns,” a new 20-minute piece by the playwright James Ijames, starring K. Todd Freeman and Jon Michael Hill.

A recent hard-hat tour of the facility revealed one truth above all others: This new theater, and the associated changes to the entire Steppenwolf facility, are a far cry from some current, COVID-influenced design thinking advocating gentle barriers and subtle separations.

In fact, this new theater represent the exact opposite of the gospel of social distancing: it is explicitly designed to funnel disparate people together, to spark personal conversations between those at different stages in their creative lives, and to promote intimacy, collision and the pleasures of the chance encounter.

And, therefore, it is a giant wager on Chicago, and the United States of America, returning to total normalcy and getting there fast.

Especially since Steppenwolf still needs to raise an additional $18.3 million of a total project cost of $73 million, including the renovations and upgrades to the existing theaters and associated public spaces.

Anna D. Shapiro, the illustrious theater’s artistic leader, acknowledges the size and audacity of Steppenwolf’s wager, coming at a time when major, well-resourced North American theaters like the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis have decided to conserve resources by firing staffers and going into a prolonged hibernation, suggesting it may be a long time before they return at a level remotely comparable to their pre-pandemic identity.

Steppenwolf has chosen instead to double-down at the blackjack table. “I don’t think I am super-interested in living in a world where that bet does not pay off for us,” Shapiro said in a Zoom interview with the Tribune.

The clash of 2019 ideals and 2020 realities can be seen throughout the building. The new box office and gift shop for all Steppenwolf’s theaters are designed to be open and barrier-free. Welcoming new bars — one themed around wine, the other around ales — are intended to flow seamlessly from the theater to the street outside. Within the lobby, much effort has been expended to create one piece of connective tissue out of the three separate buildings at 1635-50 N. Halsted St. The idea, said the new executive director Brooke Flanagan, is for everyone — staff, artists, students, administrators, audience members, to run into everyone else.

“I think the theater reflects both Martha Lavey’s concept of a public square and Anna’s interest in collision,” Flanagan said, offering a pretty apt summation of the two artistic directors' philosophies for an expansion long in gestation.

The late Lavey was primarily interested in civil conversation across ideological barriers, in relative thinking and an equal interchange of erudite ideas. Although simultaneously a savvy Broadway director soon slated to direct the commercial musical “The Devil Wears Prada,” Shapiro has emphasized youth, diversification, social justice and radical change at the theater, insisting that its illustrious past would not suffice in so changed a cultural present.

And Shapiro has been willing to alienate some of the older ensemble members in the process, not worrying too much that they were the ones with the box office clout and accepting that some will now mostly be just pictures on the “history wall" coming to the lobby of the new theater.

That new wall is coming, said the Steppenwolf director of production Tom Pearl, at the behest of co-founder Gary Sinise, a man with very different views from the progressive ideologies now hegemonic within nonprofit American theater, and someone who wanted to show the theater’s remarkable past so young people might see “what they could achieve themselves.”

Whether collision or public square is the dominant metaphor, Steppenwolf will now be less of a fortress.

The new theater’s dressing rooms not only contain long, slim windows, a rarity, but they look out directly on the very nearby balconies of private apartments on N. Dayton Street, perhaps allowing those grilling out on a warm future summer evening to catch the eye of a Tracy Letts or a Carrie Coon readying themselves to perform.

The education center, the entrance to the administrative offices and the new theater itself are all designed so traffic patterns and varying populations intersect. And the education center will have a patio overlooking downtown Chicago, and also drawing in the Royal George Theatre complex across the street. Although shuttered in the pandemic and in need of renovation, the Royal George is likely to be a big winner in the expansion of its neighbor. Steppenwolf audiences, and those drinking in its bars, now will spend much more time looking at the exterior and marquee of the privately owned Royal George, cementing a theater campus in the southwest corner of Lincoln Park.

More egg-shaped than strictly circular, the new 400-seat theater at Steppenwolf has a shell made of glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC), a patterned and dramatic surface used (and eventually to be illuminated) for both interior and exterior walls, reaching beyond a glass ceiling toward the sky. Its footprint feels larger than some audience members will expect, but the yet-to-be installed seats still will reach back only six rows.

“There is room for stage to flex and also for the volume of space to flex,” said Pearl, while Flanagan described the theater as “harking back to the intimacy of the ensemble’s earliest days,” which famously took place in a Highland Park basement. Intimacy, of course, is a Steppenwolf imperative, but also a word very much in current retreat. For now, at least.

Current plans still call for the new theater to open Oct. 2021 with a production of “The Seagull,” performed by a cast heavy on Steppenwolf ensemble members. After the cancellation this week of a live spring production of Donnetta Lavinia Grays’ “Last Night and the Night Before” (Steppenwolf says it hopes to produce the show in a future season), the first live show on the theater’s books is currently Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy,” which the theater still hopes to open on its existing mainstage next summer, city and state regulations permitting.

In the meantime, Steppenwolf is launching its virtual 2020-21 season, which is available only to its subscribers (or members). It is composed mostly of new work commissioned from writers like Isaac Gomez, Rajiv Joseph, Vivian J.O. Barnes and Donnetta Lavinia Grays. The streaming season has benefited from the arrival of associate artistic director Leelai Demoz, who has worked a good deal in the film industry and said that theater staffers who previously might merely made marketing or archival videos have “stepped up and transformed what we have been able to do.” Demoz said that the theater intends to experiment with form and become as accomplished as possible at being Steppenwolf on film. (Which happens to be a long-held ambition of the company, dating back decades).

“We knew we didn’t want to go back and pull things out of the vault,” Shapiro said, referencing the practice of many other theaters who have released streaming versions of their past greatest hits during the pandemic. “That would have been awful. We have a very robust commissioning process that we decided we could ignite. And that is what we have done.”

Those streaming shows, which are dropping over the next several months, all will be around until next summer, by which time the new building will await only the world outside its doors. Shapiro says that since the plans already called for a green building, the new theater will have high-quality HVAC systems and that no further changes are anticipated.

“Is the building behind? No,” Shapiro said. “Is the world behind? Maybe.”

As a visitor started to walk away, Flanagan said she keeps hearing from people gunning for this project.

“This new theater has become a symbol of hope for the arts in Chicago,” she said.

“This is talismanic,” Shapiro said. “For all of us.”