By Brian Hieggelke
Last October, Steppenwolf surprised the theater world by announcing a double-barreled transition in leadership: long-term artistic director Martha Lavey would give way to Anna Shapiro at the end of the current season, and David Hawkanson would retire even sooner as executive director—his protégé David Schmitz would step into the top administrative job as managing director on January 1. Schmitz might have the highest-profile new job in Chicago theater, but even for his first press interview, a week and a half into the gig, he’s calm and confident. That’s because, I imagine, he’s been at Steppenwolf for a decade already, and his big near-term challenge, the expansion of the theater’s “campus” to include a new building, new lobby and two theater spaces, is an undertaking he approaches with confidence. He was downtown last week to meet with a board member, and we grabbed a few minutes in a bustling Loop coffee shop.
What brought you to this point?
I’m a theater person from the start. I was involved as an actor as a kid and actually have an undergraduate degree in directing and sound design. I moved to Chicago in ‘98 to get an MFA in directing from Roosevelt University. And the nice thing about that program, beyond being a good program where I learned a lot, was that it didn’t pay me to go to school, so I had to get a job. I got a job as a business manager for a for-profit company called Adair Performance which was, literally, clowns. Like birthday-party clowns. And that’s why I have the advantage of being able to say I worked for clowns and really meaning it. But the great thing about that opportunity was it taught me contracts and budgeting and the fundamentals of business, which I didn’t get in any of my schooling. Then I was hired as the bookkeeper at Lookingglass about two months before they broke ground on the space on Michigan Avenue. I walked into a really great opportunity—there was a lot of need for financial work, for analysis, and there wasn’t really anybody to do it. I was hired as a bookkeeper. By the end of the summer, I was director of finance. By the end of three years, general manager, helping to run the theater while we were looking for an executive director. We eventually hired the current executive director, Rachel Kraft. At that point, I was still directing. I was an ensemble member at Stage Left Theatre from 2002 to 2008, when my first kid was born and I stopped directing. And then I was hired at Steppenwolf in 2005, and walked into, again, a great situation. David Hawkanson, the executive director, took me under his wing, along with certain members of the board, and the rest is history I guess. The funny story that my wife tells is that when she first moved here in 2001, after we’d been dating long distance, we were going by the old Steppenwolf administrative offices at North and Halsted, that beautiful brick building, and I said, “That’s where they have their offices! Wouldn’t it be amazing if I could work in a building like that?”
So the new leadership of Steppenwolf is not just one director, Anna Shapiro; it’s actually two directors.
Anna likes to remind me of that, actually. The nice thing is, and I think you need this at Steppenwolf, is you have to come from an artist-centered perspective. Steppenwolf is an artist-centered place, as all theaters are. But because we are an ensemble, and our job is to try to fulfill the ambitions and dreams of our ensemble, you can’t walk into that job with a lot of ideas about what you want to do without understanding A) what artistry means and how the process goes, and B) with a lot of opinions about what you want to do. My job is not to have a giant vision that we’re pushing forward. My job is to push forward the ensemble. If you look at all the theaters I’ve worked at, they’ve all been ensemble. I’ve never not worked for an ensemble theater. And I think that gives me an advantage in this world. It’s a different place to produce plays, when the actor is the most important voice in the room.
Talk a little bit about the campus project, which was also announced at the same time, and what that’s going to entail.
It entails a number of things. The first is that we are replacing the upstairs theater, which is a temporary space that was a rehearsal space converted into a theater, with a 400-seat flexible space. Slightly smaller than the 515-seat downstairs theater, but larger than the three-hundred-seat theater, which is the upstairs theater. So right in a sweet spot for us that allows us to be flexible. At five-hundred seats, given the space, we couldn’t really find a way to make it flexible. And because we have a lovely sort of proscenium space, we didn’t want another space that was the same. We wanted a space that could be in the round, so Tina Landau can come in and have her vision for say, “The Wheel,” that’s much more surrounding… the audience is really surrounding it. And we’re replacing the garage theater, which was a temporary space, a former bank that never was built. It’s got low ceilings and a bunch of problems. Having a larger second theater allows us to produce plays over two venues so we can take advantage of hits. Right now we can’t extend anything more than a week, and plays like ‘Virginia Woolf” could probably run for four or five weeks longer, so it opens up some air for that kind of advantage.
The big picture is making a world-class theater where there were temporary theaters, replacing those and creating a public space that is the kind of space people want to hang out in. As you probably have experienced in our theater, it was built in the early nineties, and the point of coming to theater at that time was to go to the theater. You got in, you got your tickets, you got your drink. There was no thought given to what might you do at intermission. It’s not a comfortable space to be in. So the new vision makes all three theaters have a much more comfortable place for the audience to be both before and after performance. And then the other piece of it was getting our staff into the same building as where the art happens. I mean, we were only a half block away, but it’s so important to have the staff in with the heart of what we do. We’re an artist-driven company, and you could go for months without seeing an artist unless they came to you.
Speaking of which, what’s the culture of Steppenwolf as an organization?
Our core values are ensemble, innovation and citizenship. Artistic excellence plays into excellence across the board, and I think anybody that works with Steppenwolf considers themselves to be and generally are at the top of their game. We have very high expectations of every single person from the receptionist up to my position. But at the same time, we recognize that we are a theater company. We’re not doing brain surgeries. Nobody’s life is on the line, so we try to make it fun. And I particularly value people very highly, so we try to make it a good place to work. When we received that recognition in 2009 of being a great Top Small Workplace from the Wall Street Journal, that was a really big moment. The new office space is an open-office, bullpen kind of scenario. The people at the top of the organization have desks that are only like a foot bigger than the people at the bottom of the organization. We try to put in place policies that are really supportive of families. And we try to be very thoughtful about how do we support people in a way they want to work now as opposed to the way they worked in the past. I think if we have challenges, it’s in that. In my prior role, I did all the exit interviews with everybody who was leaving. And my last question would always be, “What is it that makes Steppenwolf so great? What made working here so great?” And every single person said the people. The people are just fantastic. So we try to provide a culture in which we foster that. We do an event like every other week for the staff, whether it’s a casual happy hour, a picnic, or a giant party. We try to bring people together from a variety of different backgrounds to have fun together.
Beyond the campus expansion, what do you see as your challenges and priorities and goals now?
I think we have a real opportunity around diversity. And ensuring we’re both a great place to work and also we’re an inclusive place to work. A place that everybody feels comfortable working and a place that everybody wants to work. I think we have a lot of work to do there, and that also applies to the audience. In 2043, this will be a majority-minority country, meaning more people in our country will be minorities than not. And that’s something I’ve got my sights on, that we need to prepare for.
The other big challenge, I think, for us is the changing business model for theater. It used to be that subscribers represented seventy-percent of our audience. And now they represent about forty-five-percent of our audience. That’s a huge difference. So we’re a lot more focused on single tickets and trying to figure out how, for every production, we have to build a new audience. Don’t get me wrong, we have an incredibly strong subscription base. We have sixteen-thousand subscribers. And, in fact, Goodman has an incredibly strong subscription base, Chicago Shakespeare… Chicago is a subscription town. That is not going to go away. But we still have the challenge of we have to fill a lot more seats on a nightly basis. And how do we do that? So figuring that out is probably the most pressing issue for the next, say, five years. And part of that is thinking generationally. We’ve done a lot of work in attracting the millennial generation. We’re starting now to realize that while we’ve been focusing on the millennial generation, we’ve kind of lost our focus a little bit on the next generation, the GenX generation, so now we’re figuring out how to get those people back into the audience. The interesting thing about focusing on generations is those generations get older. They’re not a static thing. They’re moving. So how do we find a way to tap the people who are twenty-five now and in ten years make sure they’re still coming to the theater even though they just had two young kids. You know how it is. It’s hard to see the theater when you’ve two young kids. I have a three-year-old and a six-year-old. I see a lot of theater, but it’s mostly at Steppenwolf.
How do you work with the artistic side?
We try very hard to not make any artistic decisions based on any business assumptions. Partly because we’re an ensemble. We need to be doing the work that our ensemble wants to do. If you think about that “August: Osage County” season, I think it’s sort of a story. That was a big, risky thing to do at that time for Steppenwolf. A thirteen-character play, no stars—or our own stars, the ensemble. But we looked at that play in the course of our season and said that play could give us a deficit. That’s a risk. But we have to do it. And our board said, “Absolutely, we have to do it.” That year we had a deficit budget, and it obviously worked out very well. I wouldn’t say we are risk-seeking, but comfort with risk is very important. And we’re looking at some really exciting plays next year that, if we were just looking from the business side, one might say that’s not necessarily a great idea. But they’re all driven by the passions of our ensemble which in the end is what we are about, so we have to find ways to do them. My fundamental job is to create opportunity for our ensemble to do the work they want to do. And that means working with our board to raise resources to be able to do what they want to do, working within our staff to make sure that we are flexible enough to respond to their changing ideas and vision. We sit in a very particular city which is supportive of that kind of thing. I don’t know that Steppenwolf could exist in any other city. We live in a city that is supportive of that kind of risk-taking and interested in that kind of risk-taking.
“August: Osage County” was not the first, but that marked the beginning of what has now become a frequent Chicago-to-New York path for you and others. What does that do for you and what risks does that create?
Well, it’s a little complicated but it’s a fantastic thing. I think that the unique thing about Steppenwolf is that we have an international brand. Producers in New York and London and Sydney and across the world want to have our name associated with their production, because it actually helps them sell tickets. And that’s important for us because it strengthens us in Chicago. It’s very important to be out in the world, I think, but it’s also really important to ensure that that is always coming from home. The real challenge becomes, because we’re an artist-driven company, those opportunities take our artists away from the things they were planning on doing at home.
How big is Steppenwolf right now and how big will you be five years from now after the campus is built?
The budget right now is fifteen-million. We have eighty full-time employees. Another forty permanent part-time employees. Because we are one of the few theaters that owns everything that we have, it’s actually like a twenty-percent increase in physical plant growth. It’s a giant statement, but from an operational perspective, it’s not a giant increase. So we project the staff will grow by maybe ten or fifteen percent. And I expect the budget to grow similarly, to around sixteen and a half, seventeen million.
So not a quantum leap.
It’s not a quantum leap. That’s a kind of base-case scenario. I think there’s a best-case scenario that may be a kind of quantum leap. But we don’t necessarily want to plan for that.
When will you have your fiftieth anniversary?
Next season, 2016, is our fortieth. So 2026.
That’s amazing to think about, isn’t it? And you’ll be around most likely.
I’ll be around, yes. Part of the thing for me is it’s such an honor to have this opportunity, and here I am at thirty-nine-years-old running an organization that’s about to turn forty. The organization that I’ve admired and wanted to be a part of since I moved here. It’s a really cool moment.