Steppenwolf: Redefining Theatre

Chicago has always been known to outsiders as the second city. In comparison to New York City, Chicago always fell second in every

Gary Sinise
Gary Sinise

aspect of modern living and culture. Incorporated a city in 1837, Chicago was the fastest growing city in the history of the world until a few years ago.  After a fire in 1871, the city reemerged with steel buildings and the modern skyline was born. Chicago, after all, was an innovator in a great many things because of its location far from the eastern shores. By the 1970s, Chicago also saw a new innovative theater troupe emerge out of a church basement. Taking its name from the Herman Hesse novel, the Steppenwolf Theatre Company would reshape theater in Chicago and across the country.

What made Steppenwolf Theatre different at the time of its inception was its emphasis on ensemble acting. For many years on Broadway, the stars and directors drove the business. Big names meant big business. Even in regional theater, an actor could be lured to act in the middle of nowhere if enough money was involved. Chicago, on the other hand, was not in the middle of nowhere. However, Steppenwolf’s roots would be. Highland Park is located on the shore of Lake Michigan, north of Evanston. But it would not be Evanston and Northwestern’s long history of actors where Steppenwolf would draw its actors. Instead, Illinois State University (ISU) in Bloomington-Normal was the foundation.

Beginning in 1974, Rick Argosh and Leslie Wilson went to Gary Sinise, a high school classmate, about staging Paul Zindel’s And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little. Over the course of the next year, the troupe put on three plays in a basement of church in Deerfield, Illinois: Grease, The Glass Menagerie, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Argosh, who had been reading Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, christened the name of the ensemble. Sinise brought in former classmates Jeff Perry and Terry Kinney, then students at ISU. Kinney, Perry, and Sinise enjoyed their group so much that they decided when Perry and Kinney finished college, the three would pursue the ensemble group full-time.

Gary Sinise (on the right) in Rosecrantz and
Gary Sinise (on the right) in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

In February 1975, the three founded Steppenwolf as a non-profit organization. The group began its season in Immaculate Conception Church and School in Highland Park, Illinois. The 88 seat facility saw the ensemble grow from the three founders to include H.E. Baccus, Nancy Evans, Moira Harris, John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf and Alan Wilder. Kevin Rigdon was hired as the set designer. 1976 saw the company put on six plays.

A Chicago Tribune review of Steppenwold productions of The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year and The Dumb Waiter
A Chicago Tribune review of Steppenwolf productions of “The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year” and “The Dumb Waiter”

Early reviews were mixed. The company often put on two plays in one night. Some were good, and some were bad, often on the same twin bill. John Malkovich’s acting caught the early praise of local papers then the Chicago Tribune  in 1976. In 1977, the company kept expanding its ensemble to include Joan Allen. The company tended to stage 6 productions a year and the ensemble slowly grew to include names like Glenne Headly, Rondi Reed, Amy Morton, and John Mahoney.

In an interview with Tribune critic Larry kart, H.E. Baccus summed up what made Steppenwolf different from other theater companies:
baccus quote

In 1980, the company moved to 134-seat theater at the Jane Addams Hull House Center on North Broadway in Chicago. The move brought with it more spotlights, a bigger audience, more press, and more plays. With Gary Sinise named artistic director, the ensemble produced True West in 1982. The production would wind up in New York and Malkovich would wind up a star who drew attention to himself and the ensemble.

John Malkovich in the early years of Steppenwolf
John Malkovich in the early years of Steppenwolf (1977)

Throughout the 1980s, word of mouth spread about the intensity of the acting, the stark set design, and the unique nature of the plays. In 1982, the company moved to a theater on North Halstead, creeping closer and closer to downtown. In 1985, the company won a Tony Award for Regional Theatre Excellence. In 1988, the company broke open the doors and made itself a nationally recognized company for its production of Grapes of Wrath. Reinterpreting Steinbeck made a national name out of Sinise and brought name recognition for the entire ensemble.

In 1991, the company built its current theater, also on North Halstead. Sinise and Malkovich began to do movies and became stars in their own right on the big screen but they never left the ensemble. Joan Allen, Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne), and John Mahoney (Frasier) saw steady work as well in the movies and on TV. In 1998, President Clinton awarded the company the 1998 National Medal of Arts.

Here founding member Jeff Perry and Ensemble Members Laurie Metcalf, Amy Morton and Rondi Reed talk about the early years. It is a very interesting and funny interview and gives a lot of details of what it took to get the company off the ground.

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