5 mar 19 | Re Journal

Iconic Chicago institution Steppenwolf Theatre breaks ground on extensive expansion

Steppenwolf Theatre Company broke ground today on the next phase of its multi-year campus expansion, unveiling plans for a new state-of-the-art theater building. Located in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood, the 50,000-square-foot building is slated to open in the summer of 2021.

“Steppenwolf is first and foremost a Chicago theatre and that understanding has guided the design of every inch of the building. Our company’s role is to create experiences that are in conversation with the diverse life of our hometown and that motivate youth and adults toward participating in a future that is aware, connected and inclusive,” said Steppenwolf artistic director Anna D. Shapiro. “As the home for an ensemble of theatre artists who are widely talented and working throughout the world, we must be a place that cultivates the range of their voices and makes it exciting for them to come back to do their best, most important work.”

The expansion is designed by Gordon Gill of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture and London-based theater design team Charcoalblue. Chicago-based Norcon Construction will handle the build-out. The new theater building will be located at 1646 N. Halsted Street, between the existing parking garage and the main theater building, seamlessly connecting the campus across the west side of Halsted Street.

The parking garage will remain and undergo cosmetic changes to its façade to create symmetry across the campus. Increased valet service will be offered to continue to make parking easy, and accessible parking will be available next to Front Bar: Coffee and Drinks at 1700 N Halsted. During construction, the parking garage will continue to be available to patrons.

“The expansion of Steppenwolf will introduce new relationships with its patrons, neighborhood and Chicago as a whole,” said Gill, the project’s lead architect. “Architecturally, the design fits within the character of the neighborhood, recognizing the significance of its presence along Halsted Street while respecting our neighbors.”

The expansion will feature an intimate 400-seat theater-In-the-round only six rows deep that puts the actor at the center and with no audience member more than 20 feet from the stage. Other improvements include a dedicated education floor, a two-story atrium lobby, space to house Steppenwolf’s costume shop and other updated production amenities, as well as a wine bar and a sidewalk lounge, increasing the social gathering spaces where artists and audiences converge.

Key elements of the in-the-round theatre include a modular staging system that allows for designers and directors to control the architecture, adjust the capacity and explore different stage footprints for a variety of audience relationships. Accessibility was at the forefront of the design, including 20 fully-integrated wheelchair accessible locations (versus the six that are required by law), as well as an induction hearing loop and improved sight lines for performances featuring ASL Interpretation and Open Captioning. Once complete, the space will be the only in-the-round auditorium found in a major Chicago theater.

“The new theater is a bold, modern in-the-round space offering [unparalleled] levels of focus for the actors and audience,” Gavin Green, senior partner at Charcoalblue, said. “Chicago doesn’t have another space like it—in fact Steppenwolf is leading a renewed charge in defining rooms where dialogue and the immediacy of the performers is paramount.”

This is the second phase of a years-long process to expand and update the theater that began in 2016 with the completion of the 1700 Theatre and Front Bar: Coffee and Drinks. Following the completion of phase two—the new theater building and renovation of the existing Downstairs Theatre lobbies—Steppenwolf enters phase three of the expansion with accessibility-minded renovations.

The total cost of Steppenwolf’s multi-year expansion is $73 million, with the new building at 1646 N. Halsted comprising $54 million of that total. To date, the company has raised $46 million from the board and ensemble towards this goal including $8 million from the sale of an asset.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company is the nation’s premier ensemble theater, formed by a collective of actors in 1976. The theater produces hundreds of performances and events annually in its three spaces—the 515-seat Downstairs Theatre, the 299-seat Upstairs Theatre and the 80-seat 1700 Theatre—and has received numerous accolades that include the National Medal of Arts and 12 Tony Awards.

“When Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney and I started this theater more than four decades ago we were just a bunch of kids with a dream,” said co-founder Jeff Perry. “To stand here today—next to the spot where we first broke ground in 1989—about to once again dig shovels into Steppenwolf’s next chapter is a truly humbling experience. The new building profoundly expands our ability to achieve what we have always been most passionate about—intimate performance spaces that magnify our artists connection with our audience, lobby spaces that truly invite our patrons and perhaps most importantly, the classroom and audience space to dramatically increase our bond with the youth and student community that are the lifeblood of our future.”