While the pandemic created turbulence for every cultural organization, few faced as many at once as the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Last May, three days before the murder of George Floyd, the company announced that executive director David Schmitz was leaving for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, to be replaced by E. Brooke Flanagan, the first woman in that role in the company’s forty-five-year history. And then this May, artistic director Anna Shapiro, who took over from the legendary Martha Lavey in 2014, announced she was stepping down, and in late July, the ensemble announced that she would be replaced by co-artistic directors Audrey Francis and Glenn Davis, who were both relatively new to the ensemble.
So Steppenwolf, closed since March of 2020, would have to make its comeback with an entirely new leadership team. And all of this was taking place while the construction of a new building as well as the capital campaign to pay for it was underway.
I met the three new leaders on a rainy Monday morning in August for a tour of the nearly finished Arts and Education Center. Designed by Gordon Gill of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, it features a 400-seat theater-in-the-round, replacing the old upstairs theater and its 300 seats, boasts an entire top floor dedicated to education—”we gave them the best piece of real estate in the new building,” Flanagan says—and two new watering holes, a taproom and a wine bar, to join its very successful 2016 Front Bar. A Tony Fitzpatrick mural devoted to Lavey, who died in 2017, adorns a prominent exterior wall overlooking a patio space connected to the taproom.
The new Round Theater—naming rights are in the works—is a handsome space that recalls Chicago Shakespeare’s Courtyard Theater, but on a much more intimate scale, though I was surprised to learn that the Navy Pier theater has only 515 seats, the same size as Steppenwolf’s downstairs theater. Flanagan says the gain of one hundred seats “means that if we have a show that hits, from an economic model, it’s about a half-million-dollar upside that we didn’t have upstairs. And then, from a service perspective, we anticipate that we will serve about 10,000 more students annually.”
The new theater will debut in February 2022 with an adaptation for teens of Eve L. Ewing’s book of poetry, “1919,” followed by ensemble member Yasen Peyankov’s adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” in which he’ll direct “a whole slew of ensemble members,” Flanagan says. “And it’s a multigenerational piece, which is really exciting, because we now have an ensemble that numbers fifty, and it’s every age range imaginable.”
From an actor’s perspective, Davis says that “knowing that I can be in a space where the audience is—however far away the furthest seat is—so close. It feels so close that the nature of ensemble work is, we’re just in the space, working. There’s no sort of dynamic architecture that comes between us and the audience. It’s just literally, someone’s two feet away from you.”
The original building is undergoing a major transformation as well. The upstairs theater has been replaced with rehearsal spaces that, when finished, will match the spatial footprints of the two theaters, allowing them to block to scale, which is a major gain in efficiency. Up until now, rehearsing was done at the historic Yondorf Hall across the street. And the main lobby, which will now serve as the box office for all shows, with concessions moved into the bars, has been dramatically transformed from its original somber, austere mood into a brighter, more open and inviting space.
“During Martha’s time,” Flanagan says, “she was envisioning a campus that would be a public square, where audiences can come and be in discourse around shows. When Anna came in, the ensemble met with leadership and the board, and evolved that a little bit further, this idea of collision. A space where artists, audiences, teams and staff could all be creating and convening together.”
The entire campus is oriented around this idea of creative collisions, so the rehearsal spaces connect directly into the education spaces next door, encouraging cast and students to casually engage. And the bars are designed to facilitate informal connections between ensemble members and audiences.
This idea of collision is pervasive in the way the spaces are designed and connected, but it’s also been given an architectural interpretation by Gill in sculptural wall designs that come together at angles. And since the desire to collide is one of theater and audience, or even neighbors—Lavey’s idea of the public square—the spaces are designed to allow ample light and “to embrace the neighborhood,” Flanagan says, as we look out through large interior windows. “You can count the houses that surround us, a very different gesture than when we were first built in 1991. Right? A concrete fortress. The idea is that we want to invite everyone now.”
I’ve known Francis for more than five years; we’ve made two movies together, “Signature Move” and “Knives and Skin.” While I had not met Davis in person, I’d seen him onstage several times. When we met, we talked about Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “The Brother/Sister Plays,” which I reviewed in 2010 when Steppenwolf produced the trilogy. Davis had performed in it, but I could not remember if I’d written anything about him. I looked it up and saw that I described him as “marvelous,” an update that I shared with him when we reconvened later that day via Zoom. Davis and Francis entered the ensemble in 2017, and they exhibit the playful camaraderie that classmates do, teasing each other about who had less stage time in the single Steppenwolf show they’ve done together, 2018’s “You Got Older.” While Flanagan is an executive, not an ensemble member, the three together exude an easygoing vibe that portends a good working relationship.
Each of you briefly describe what brought you to this point.
Glenn Davis: I’ll give you the abridged version. I am from the South Side of Chicago in the Chatham area. And I knew I wanted to be an actor coming out of high school. My grandfather, who was one of the biggest inspirations of my life, said, “If you want to act, you need to go to Steppenwolf.” So, I went to Steppenwolf and took my first acting class with Austin Pendleton. And after that, I was hooked. I knew I wanted to do this for a living, and I went to drama school. Austin, funnily enough, wrote me a recommendation to the drama school I went to, The Theatre School at DePaul University. And he wrote me a recommendation for the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and I went there and studied as a young artist. At DePaul, I met Tarell [Alvin McCraney] and Alana [Arenas], who are both ensemble members; my two best friends in the world. And then I went to the Stratford Festival. Was there for a couple years, and then I moved to New York, L.A. and I did a play in New York with Tina Landau, who’s an ensemble member. She brought me back to Chicago to do a play, a couple years later, “The Brother/Sister Plays,” where you saw me, and where you described me as “marvelous.”
Glenn: So, that worked out. Since then, I’ve come back; I’ve lived in New York and L.A., but often come back to Chicago to do plays, until more recently, in recent years, I’ve moved back to Chicago, and have been an ensemble member since 2017. So, yeah, that’s my abridged version, and I will pitch it to Audrey.
Since you’re a local, which high school did you go to?
Glenn: I went to Thornwood High School.
Okay. Alright, Audrey?
Audrey Francis: My journey started quite a bit later, when I had a college professor who I told that I had an interview at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, and he said, “You’re not supposed to go to L.A., you’re supposed to go to Chicago, and you should try to be an actor, and you should try to do that at Steppenwolf.” And so, my first acting training was at the School at Steppenwolf in 2004, and it was Amy Morton and K. Todd Freeman, the ensemble members, who taught in a way that spoke to my soul, and it felt like divine intervention.
I saw my first professional, I guess, I’m not sure that I like this word, but it’s the word that they use—the first professional, straight play/non-musical, at Steppenwolf. It was “Frankie and Johnny [in the Clair de Lune].” I saw that when I was a student at the School at Steppenwolf, and I thought, “Holy shit! Is this what theater can be?” Because that’s not what I thought it was. I was hooked.
My road to here is—I’ve had such a weird career, Brian, and a really weird path, and I think that I found my way because there were a lot of times that I was failing at the thing that I thought I was supposed to do, and then beautifully, another avenue opened up. So, I was a really bad actor when I started, and I couldn’t get work. Then I realized that I wished that Chicago had a place that was safe to develop a healthy relationship with failure. And that’s how I created Black Box [Acting]. And then, in creating a space for artists to learn to fail spectacularly, that’s also where I was able to continue my Steppenwolf training. And somewhere in there, I became an artist and an administrator. That’s my favorite combination of things.
When this opportunity came along to be able to partner with Glenn and Brooke, at this moment, at this time, it felt like yeah, those are two people who I really admire and respect, and I see the work that they do onstage. Brooke used to be an actor. I’ve never seen her act, but I see the work that she does offstage, as well, and Glenn, too, offstage, it was like, I think this is my dream job, at the dream moment where I believe it can fulfill a lot of the dreams that Chicago deserves to have fulfilled.
Where did you grow up?
Audrey: Boulder, Colorado.
All right Brooke, you’ve got to top those two.
E. Brooke Flanagan: Oh gosh. Can’t do that, but I’ll share my story, and try and make it tight. I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. Every once in a while, you’ll hear a little twang, or a “y’all” come out of my mouth. I had a really unconventional childhood. I moved around a lot, and theater actually was the thing that saved me. In high school, my theater teacher, Mama Reeves, was the reason why I stayed in school, was off the truancy list, and graduated.
I was an actress and a director, and knew that theater not only was my passion, but was my calling. So, I went to school in Santa Fe, at the College of Santa Fe, which was a small liberal arts college—the theater department was founded by Greer Garson, who had moved out there and had married a rancher. We had a pretty cool program, and along the way, I met Jane Alexander when she was heading up the NEA, and she shared with me that you can have an impact beyond being on stage as an actor, or as a director. She talked about the advocacy work that she was doing as the head of the NEA. I realized there was a path ahead of me that I didn’t quite know how to get to, but that I sort of needed to find my way toward.
I finished up in London, studying abroad through a program that Ithaca ran in classical theater, and moved back to the States, and realized I needed to cut my teeth in a way that I could one day lead a major regional American theater.
So I moved, after working at the Santa Fe Opera, in New Mexico, for a year, I moved to the greatest theater town in the U.S., Chicago, Illinois. Yeah! I moved here in 1999; it was a great time. The Goodman was getting ready to move to the Loop from the Art Institute building. Criss and Barbara [Henderson and Gaines, the leaders of Chicago Shakespeare] were building their new theater on Navy Pier, and Martha [Lavey] was really hitting her stride as artistic director here.
I worked for The League of Chicago Theatres for my first year to get to the lay of the land. It was the year that we had the embezzlement crisis, and we all retreated to Ten Chimneys to try to figure out how to save the league. I got to know a lot of the players, and really invested in, not only theater, but Chicago theater, and knew that I had found my home.
I made my way through figuring out how I could get the muscles to lead a theater. I worked at the Ravinia Festival under Welz Kauffman for his first four years, and then made my way back to Steppenwolf. I was here with Martha and David [Hawkanson] from 2004 to 2010. We were turning our tide to be a launching place for new work at Steppenwolf. And I spent my last decade with Criss and Barbara at Chicago Shakespeare, and my mandate there was to solidify their brand and to expand our home with the art. Along the way, I headed up the Arts Alliance of Illinois, where I was board chair for four years. And now I’m here. I’ve been here since July of 2020. A great year to make a transition.
What do you all want to accomplish here?
Audrey: I’ll start. And I’ll say something big. We have a really big dream of changing the way that artists are valued in America, and in particular, Chicago. And I think there’s a million different ways that we can do that. And Brooke is already working on changing the way artists who work offstage and who are still artists can approach and live their lives in a way that they can do something that they’re passionate about and make a living. And Glenn and I are absolutely committed to exploring the ways that American theater has been made and innovating new ways that it can be made, both on and offstage. I’ll just start by saying, we have a wild success dream of changing the narrative of how artists are actually valued in America.
Anyone want to add to that, disagree or embellish?
Glenn: I’ll disagree with—ah, no, can’t disagree with Audrey. I never disagree with Audrey. I would say, maybe the most obvious right now is getting folks back into the theater, safely. We’re at a very precarious point in theater, in general, but in performance. And finding a way back is hugely important, not just for us, but for every cultural institution, to find a way to get back on stage. Get back to being in community with one another. Because that’s what we all miss. As an actor, you know, it’s been, what, two years now since I was on stage, doing something, and I feel it. I feel it in my body; I feel it in my bones; and so do my cohort. So, I think that’s first and foremost, number one.
But then, as Audrey alluded, innovating within the theater space in general. Being a beacon of hope in the world is something that’s very important to me. The first time I saw a play that really changed me, I remember the effect that it caused on me. I wasn’t into theater at all growing up. So I want to be that for generations of artists coming after us.
And then, along with innovating, education. We have this arts and education building that Brooke took us on a tour of earlier in the day. I often say it’s a welcome mat to the city of Chicago, and hopefully for folks who don’t normally get a chance to come to theaters like Steppenwolf, having that be their entry point I think could be really life-changing for a lot of folks.
And last thing, continuing to center the ensemble. The thing that makes Steppenwolf so, so much different than other regional theaters around the country is we have this dynamic group of artists who we have this intimate relationship with, in which they come back, repeatedly, and have known each other over time. I’ve now known Alana and Tarell for twenty years, so when we get back up on stage together, or I’m doing one of Tarell’s plays, I know the cadence of his work. You know? Alana has seen all my tricks, so, you know, she goes, “Oh Glenn, you’re doing that thing.” And I’m like, “Oh yeah. To other people it’s new, but to you, I’ve been doing it for twenty years.” There’s something about that you can’t duplicate when you’re meeting someone for the first time. You’re putting on a play in six to seven weeks’ time. Those are the things that are really important to me.
Brooke: And I’ll just jump in by saying—Brian, we talked about this a little bit on-site. We are walking into the physical manifestation of Steppenwolf’s mission and vision and future. We’ve created this campus that deepens our commitment to Chicago artists through our 1700 Studio space that reaffirms the sort of muscular, raw, expansive, ensemble theatrical pieces that we’re known for with the downstairs theater. And now, we’re adding this incredibly intimate round space that will remind us of the connection between artist and audience, and be able to really refine that work that the ensemble has been known for over these forty-five years. And to have it all knit together with an arts and education center that recommits to our founding days, and to the next generation of artists and leaders and the pathways that theater can provide to them. It’s super-exciting for the three of us to come in, in this moment where the world has been reminded of what the absence of art can yield, to reignite that flame on a campus that is ready to roll for us.
Steppenwolf is a company with an amazing tradition and artistic success story. What will stay the same under your leadership, and what’s going to be different?
Audrey: You know what I think is going to stay the same, and I think the three of us, Glenn and Brooke and I take really seriously, is the power of the ensemble. When I wasn’t an ensemble member and I watched ensemble members work onstage, it was like watching lightning in a bottle. And it made me feel alive in a room, in a way that I think is spiritual. And then when I got to be an ensemble member, and I got to develop that language, and start to feel that vocabulary with other ensemble members, onstage or even sitting offstage, when Glenn and I were in a play, and we were each only in one scene, and then we’d sit backstage, and we talked about our dreams of the theater, it’s like, what theater can do.
The thing that is not only going to stay the same, but we’re going to double down on is that ensemble mentality, that ensemble ethos and that, like Brooke was talking about, that muscular rawness that we can bring to the work that is so intimate that I think can only be achieved when you truly trust each other. And that’s what I’m going to say is for sure going to stay the same, and that we’ll double-down on.
Who wants to tell me what’s going to be different?
Glenn: I can’t tell you what’s going to be different, because I don’t know how things were going before I showed up. As an ensemble member, you’re not involved in the day-to-day, so I can’t speak to that. But I will say that the fact that there’s two of us now as artistic directors that’s a huge change from any previous artistic leadership. That, in and of itself, is a departure. I think that this moment really calls for it.
The fact that we have each other to lean on, that the ensemble is so vast now, fifty of us, I think at this moment, particularly because we’re coming back from a pandemic, and a lot of the things that have happened over the last year, in terms of the racial injustices happening across America, a lot of the things that will continue to be addressed by all theaters around the country, I think that the sort of holistic nature of all of this really pointed to myself and Audrey raising our hands together, saying let’s take this on.
Audrey said it correctly. Doubling down on the nature of ensemble. Just the fact that there’s two of us now, I think ensemble leadership is a real thing at this moment, and the thing that really speaks to me about the way Steppenwolf has governed itself over the years is that, because there’s always an ensemble member leading the artistic life of the community, there’s a continuity, and I hope to strengthen and continue to build on what Martha did and what Anna [Shapiro] did, after her. That continuity being in place is really important. Staying the same is really vital to the health of the institution.
Brooke: There are a couple of things that we talked about in our walk-through, but maybe to expand a little bit: Audrey and Glenn having built their lives and their practice in Chicago, all three of us are so committed to Steppenwolf being a cultural citizen, right? We’ve built this arts and education center so that we can increase the number of teens who come through our doors, not only to see our work, but also to find themselves and their voices, and to empower themselves to be the leaders of the next generation.
One of the things that we’ve talked about is really a true desire and commitment to making sure that we are also being of service to the seventy-seven neighborhoods that live beyond our doors. And so, I think we’re really interested in being in communication with what, not only the leadership of the city, but what artists across Chicago are doing, and how we can, not only host people here, but also bring Steppenwolf’s partnerships out across Chicago.
We’ve started that in our work with Stepp Ed, and some of our deep partnership programs with the Chicago Park District and juvenile detention facilities, etcetera, but I think in this moment, as we’re coming back from the pandemic, we have a responsibility to really listen to how the assets we hold as a cultural organization can be of service to our city.
You’re all taking over one of the largest and most important cultural organizations in the city. You’re roughly coming in at the same time—Brooke, you’ve had a little bit of a head start—and leading it out of a pandemic, and expanding it in the biggest physical change that the organization’s probably ever undertaken. Can you just talk about that a little bit?
Glenn: I’ll just say, and I think I speak for Audrey when I say this, because we have Brooke as a partner, that has been supremely comforting in a moment like this. Coming into leadership of any kind at a cultural institution, like a Steppenwolf, you like to feel prepared. You want to feel like you have a lot of support in something like this, in a venture like this, particularly because we have, along with the staff and the leadership team, we also have the board, we have the ensemble, this incredible ensemble. But for us, having Brooke lead the way and walk us through a lot of the things that are happening in the city, because she’s been around, doing this, like she said, when we heard her bio a second ago, she’s been doing this for a long time. So, she knows things that we don’t know, and we’re learning. To have her support has been hugely, hugely meaningful.
As I was talking before, we’re in a moment like none other, none other than any of us have ever seen. So, as we’re getting information on a daily, weekly, hourly basis as to what we’re going to be able to do in the coming months, I think we’re having to stay nimble, which has been, for Audrey and me, there’s a natural cadence to that for us, because we’re actors. We never know where our next job is going to be, so it’s sort of natural for us to go, “Okay, great.” What was true yesterday is not true tomorrow, so we’ll just figure it out. And I think that as Brooke was at one time an actor, she also understands that too. So as the information is coming to us, we’re just remaining open. And remaining fluid as to what we’re going to be able to do and what we’re not.
Brooke: I’ll echo that. It’s a challenging time to lead any organization, much less a performing arts organization, much less a theater, right? We were the first to close; we’ll be among the last to open. And what we do is so quintessential to the human experience, we are the glue that knits together a society. For all three of us, we have referred to theater as a sacred place. This is not a job to us. This is a calling. The three of us are approaching the road ahead with reckless abandon, and fierce commitment to being in that room again, with an audience hush, and the lights coming up, and that suspension of disbelief in unity. There is a sacredness to that, and everything that we encounter is unexpected. It’s the most Sisyphean of times to be in leadership. Everything is this constant uphill slog, for all of us in the world. But we are comforted—I am comforted, I’ll say it for me—by the fact that as theater makers, we also study history. And throughout times there have been other pandemics, and every time, we have come back on the other side, united and together and telling our stories again.
I think it does give me comfort, and Glenn and Audrey talk a lot about being two, and having support there. I think that there is a magic in three. So, I am really thrilled to be partnering with Audrey and Glenn who are so fiercely intelligent, like brilliant entrepreneurs willing to take risks, and they love this place like nothing else, and understand its importance to Chicago and to the American theater as a whole.
So, we’re all in, Brian, and we don’t know what’s in front of us, but we’re excited, because on the other side, it’s community and art making.
Audrey, anything from you on that? Or shall we move on?
Audrey: Brooke always just drops the mic, so I don’t want to say anything after.
Brooke, Can you talk about your specific transition into the role last year? You came in at a volatile time in America and in the culture, beyond the pandemic, in the wake of the George Floyd murder. Did you know at that point that this artistic leadership change was in the offing, as well?
Brooke: You know, the initial conversations that I had with Anna and David [Schmitz] and the executive committee of the board were really about the fact that we were on the precipice of a pandemic; we didn’t know the extent of the shutdown; we had $18 million to raise for our campaign, and a building project that was in a critical phase of development that couldn’t be slowed down. And given my recent history with Chicago Shakespeare and my knowledge of Steppenwolf, it felt like it was a match that could ensure that we could make it through the next series of months to the other side.
After the George Floyd murder and the release of “We See You, White American Theater,” it was a moment of racial reckoning that we haven’t seen in America, and it was a pivotal moment for the American regional theater, and we were really honored that many members of our ensemble, including Glenn, signed onto that document, as a generous gesture, and a wake-up call, so that we could get to work and look at our practices and figure out how we could mitigate harm, whether you were an employee, a board member or an artist. And I’ve been really lucky to be in some very productive and forward-moving conversations with all three of the sides of our organization, our ensemble, our board and our staff, as we’re moving forward with this, together.
Relative to Anna’s decision to leave, as I think Audrey and Glenn have mentioned, those conversations started in the fall with the ensemble. Her contract was up in August, and so the group started those discussions then. And while I wasn’t aware that the transition was in front of us, we’re really excited that, at the end of her six-year term, after expanding the ensemble and our artistic offerings, and helping to architect and build this beautiful building, that I now get to work with Audrey and Glenn on this next chapter together.
It’s been an unforeseen adventure, but I wouldn’t make any different decisions if it were put in front of me again.
Let’s think about the next year, 2022. At that point, you’ve got the campus that’s fully open; Steppenwolf’s back in business; what’s the company look like?
Brooke: Yeah, we hope to be back to pre-pandemic-levels at the time we’re going into the ’22-’23 season. It’s going to be a ramp-up for all of us. We’ve been so dependent on funds like the Shuttered Venue Operator Grants; the Paycheck Protection Program; the Employee Retention Tax Credit; funds from the State of Illinois and the City of Chicago. Our board and donors have been extraordinary, Brian. They have stepped up in ways that we never imagined. And we’ve had to make some difficult decisions, like every other company, but we, our organization, were hit really hard, like everyone else.
Before the pandemic, we were producing seven shows, plus two for young adults. And we hope to be at that level again by ’22-’23, and this year definitely will be a ramp-up. But it’s going to take audience members coming back. You know, if there is one thing that you could do as a Chicagoan to show your civic pride, it would be to go see a play. We need people now, more than ever, to come and see our work.
I’m guessing your challenge, Brooke, has largely been about getting the campus open. When that’s done, what’s next for you, in terms of priorities? Given your background in fundraising, is that going to continue to be a big priority for you moving forward?
Brooke: I’ve articulated three priorities for the season ahead: The first is always going to be the work, right? Making sure that we are staying true to our mission in creating a season of work that is of caliber and engagement of our ensemble as we have done for the past forty-five years.
The second piece, as you mentioned, is getting back to campus and rebuilding our teams. Those employees who have been furloughed, or positions that have been eliminated, building that back up in a way that meets the business model that we’re going to be, next. And doing it in a way that also builds our culture in a different way. Audrey and Glenn and I are going to spend a lot of time talking about what kind of work culture we want to have at Steppenwolf, and making sure that we have the right team members working with us to ensure that it’s an exciting and safe and productive place to be.
And the third piece, as you mentioned, the priority will be the campaign. It was a $73 million initiative, the three phases of our campus expansion. And we now are seventy-seven percent of the way there. We have about $17 million to raise, and we have one-hundred-percent of our board participating; fifteen people who’ve given over a million dollars. We’re really going to be looking to our broader community and other Chicago civic leaders to invest in creating this permanent home for America’s premiere ensemble, right here in Lincoln Park.
Audrey and Glenn, talk a little bit about the process of you becoming co-artistic directors.
Glenn: I’ll start, because Audrey always goes first. Let me start at the beginning. Anna said, over a year ago, she was letting the ensemble know that we should start the conversation about who’s next to take over the leadership, because she pretty much let us know she would not be renewing her contract in a year.
The ensemble started, last fall, as Brooke’s alluded to, having conversations about what it would look like next. We went through a few ideas about what leadership should look like, and ultimately, we decided that as it has been in the past, the leadership should remain on the artistic side, an ensemble member.
Once that was decided, we all went into having a vote. It was a very democratic process, Brian. You would have been very proud of us. We held a vote, and coincidentally, Audrey and I got the most votes. So, Audrey and I, through conversations that we’ve had over the years about things that we would like to do, or initiatives we would like to start, we were like, hey, what if we just did this together? We’re very good friends—after we did that play, years ago, where I had two scenes, but she had one—we’ve been very tight since then. We would often talk about what this would look like and so, when we raised our hands together to do it, it very much felt like a no-brainer, at that point. Brooke often talks about this notion of ensemble leadership has always been there, just waiting for the two of us to take up the mantle.
I often say that Audrey is probably the only person I could have done this with, because of the way she’s so smart, so talented, she loves the theater so much, she’s an innovator. She’s led companies before, so it felt like a natural fit. We bring two very different things to the table in terms of our history, our way into theater, but—I’ll let Audrey talk a bit—but I think this co-AD model was a huge moment for Steppenwolf, and a sort of natural moment of evolution; an inflection point. I think it’s beneficial to the company. Someone will always be there. And it also allows for the two ensemble members to still maintain a career outside of Steppenwolf itself, which I think is also very important to the overall health of the institution.
Were those all Zoom meetings with fifty little squares? Or did you guys do some in-person stuff?
Glenn: No, no. All Zoom. All Zoom. Everything since March of 2020. Yes. Since March of 2020 has been via Zoom, which has been very helpful, I might add, because getting all, you know, forty-nine members of the company in the room together to vote is virtually impossible, because we all live in different places around the country, if not the world. But, we can all find time to jump on Zoom for an hour or two hours to discuss the machinations of the institution, so, no, it was all done via Zoom.
This decision to let the ensemble choose its own artistic director, was that something that you guys decided? Did the board have to approve?
Brooke: Actually, Steppenwolf’s unique history is that the ensemble selects the artistic director, or in this case, artistic directors, and then they are contracted by the board. So, it’s part of the ethos of the company. And what’s been cool this time, is following the democratic process, not only were Audrey and Glenn contracted by the board, but there’s actually an ensemble board committee that’s been working with Audrey and Glenn and myself on the transition, and will continue to do so, over the next year.
Are you guys contracted for a similar term?
Glenn: And I just want to take this moment to give a special shoutout to Jeff Perry, because he was very instrumental in this democratic process. He calls it the most democratic process the ensemble has ever undertaken. He was very much involved, as one of the founders, and his deep love for Steppenwolf, itself, but he very much led that process. So, he was fantastic in that.
When I interviewed Martha Lavey ten years ago, we talked about how, once the decision was made to add ensemble members, she would then run the slate by the three founders, Gary Sinise, Jeff Perry and Terry Kinney. Can you talk about the role of the founders today?
Glenn: Go ahead, Audrey.
Audrey: I think what, when you’re talking about that, Brian, it’s ensemble additions. We’re in a moment right now of, like I said before, exploration and innovation of, “Hey, how have things always been done, and is that the way we want to continue doing it? Or are there ways that we can innovate now that Steppenwolf has grown? Are there different ways for us to do that?”
So, when talking about the founders’ involvement right now, I feel like they always are a bit of a guiding light, and we’re lucky enough to have the people that founded this company still be with us, be in contact with us, and genuinely care about the health of the institution and the artists and staff, and board that are all involved with the institution.
For example, I think Glenn and I, and probably Brooke, we all talk to Jeff Perry at least once a week. He’s always either like, hitting up our emails, or text, or whatever. And he really did help lead us through this next chapter of, hey, how can we have the entire ensemble have a voice in who the next artistic leaders are? And what does the ensemble truly crave right now, now that we’re fifty people, not just ten. I’ll say that from my perspective, the founders are always a phone call away, and are ready and willing to help and guide and support in any way that we need. And I have found that incredibly comforting.
How are the two of you going to divide things up? How do you anticipate making the bigger artistic decisions in the future: which shows you’re going to produce; who you’re going to invite into the ensemble?
Glenn: Rock, paper, scissors, Brian. It’s rock, paper, scissors. No, along with this process, these are questions that the ensemble board and leadership have to answer. These are things that we’ve been in conversation about, as well. And we feel like the model that we’ve created is something that we can uniformly use, going forward, if and when there are two others who are in leadership on the artistic side. And that is: we make all decisions together. So, Audrey and I are in conversation, with Brooke, about any and everything that we’re having to do with the institution, and what we have designed is this sort of marker, that’s emblematic of having a point person. Audrey is the point person on a series of things, and I’m point person on another series of things. That’s how we divide it. But ultimately, Audrey doesn’t make any decisions without being in consultation with me, and I don’t make any decisions without being in consultation with her. And the two of us don’t make any decisions without having weighed everything with Brooke, so, I think that this triumvirate, as Brooke calls us, is really setting us up for success, going forward.
Audrey: I just want to add one quick thing. It’s really funny watching some responses to the co-leadership model, of who’s going to take what? And the truth is that that’s actually—and I’m not saying this about you, Brian—this is a question we’ve actually come up against quite a bit, which is so interesting to me, because I think we can think in a new way. We don’t have to section everything off. As a matter of fact, we’ll be a better innovator, and leader in the artistic community if we have multiple voices on a horizontal power structure, all having an equal contribution. That is the actual way to change how art is being made, both on and off stage.
I want to highlight how grateful I am, even though a lot of people have said that that doesn’t work, or that you have to put it in this box. I think the three of us are saying, watch us. We’re going to do this as a team.
Brooke: It’s the way this company was founded. It’s the ensemble ethos, right? I mean, they did use the rock, paper, scissors over who would direct and who would be on stage, and who would be cleaning the bathrooms, right? It’s a natural evolution for this company at a time where, gosh, the more people around the table who can get us to the other side of this pandemic, the better.
Glenn: And also, not that the question itself isn’t warranted, but the answer doesn’t have to be so reductive on any of our parts in that, you know, Brian, if I asked you if you were partnered, married, or whatever, if I said, who makes decisions about the kids? Who makes decisions about what you’re going to eat tonight? Who makes decisions about this? You’d go, “No, we uniformly make those decisions together.” In any partnership, if two people are invested enough, and they have a love for the thing itself, you go, okay, what are the two or three options that we have in front of us, and who can make the best argument as to why this is the direction we should go. We want to be able to throw a bunch of things against the wall, and then say, okay, best idea wins, no matter who said it.