Steppenwolf is the most recognizable name in Chicago theater, synonymous with powerhouse acting talent and top-shelf—primarily kitchen-sink variety—plays. Since 2016 the venerable institution has become an incubator of multidisciplinary and experimental performance as well, presented in the intimate Steppenwolf 1700 black-box theater, tucked behind the venue’s Front Bar. In Steppenwolf’s annual LookOut Series, performing artists working across dance, puppetry, spoken word and music are invited to present their work in a friendly environment and on their own terms. Think Links Hall under a big, bright marquee. And with a fancier lobby bar.
This season’s recently announced lineup is dance-heavy—possibly due to LookOut’s growing reputation for presenting independent dance artists. Lauren Steinberg, associate producer of the series, says the plan wasn’t necessarily to focus on dance in 2024, but the majority of inquiries about this year’s program came from dancemakers. Clearly the need is great.
“This lineup feels really intentional, but we didn’t go into this season thinking it was all going to be movement makers,” Steinberg says. “We’re not curating the LookOut Series. We’re not gatekeeping. We’re not asking artists to pitch us some big idea. It’s a way more casual interaction. We take emails and have thirty minutes over coffee or virtual coffee and if the dates are right and we have the resources we think would serve the work, we try to get the artist in the space.”
The series includes five performances and a two-part curatorial residency running February 16 to April 6. The series kicks off with an autobiographical piece by voguer and b-boy Fabulous Freddie Leroy using fashion, video projection and dance to relay the artist’s coming-of-age story.
Next up is “Radiate,” a new piece by Maggie Bridger, an artist and scholar immersed in disability arts and culture. The theater will be cozified with pillows and blankets for audience members as Bridger explores pathways to warmth and relief. Sound and audio description is provided by sound artist Andy Slater and ASL interpretation is built into the piece.
“This is a piece I’m really excited about,” Steinberg says. “We have such short runs that we’re not able to offer one-hundred percent accessibility for a lot of our work—because of cost, transcribing an entire piece for it to run one night doesn’t feel feasible. But Maggie has done all this work to build in ASL, captioning and different access modes so it’s completely portable and accessible to everyone in a plug-and-play way. It’s really exciting because we’re serving that community in a way that we’re not always able to.”
Steinberg is also excited about Steppenwolf’s first collaboration with the MCA, presenting the culminating performance of Anjal Chande’s “Last Cup of Tea,” a project seven years in the making. Chande’s show was originally slated for the MCA last year, but postponed due to an injury. The timing for the LookOut Series lined up and the presenters teamed up to stage the work. “It was cool to come together to make sure this piece has the life it deserves,” Steinberg says. Bridger designed costumes for Chande’s piece and musician Sharon Udoh accompanies the otherwise solo work.
The series also includes “Worlds End…Worlds Begin” by spoken-word artist Kao Ra Zen; “The World After This One” by interdisciplinary artist Benji Hart; and “MERGE,” a two-part project curated by Helen Lee. Program one features solo performances by Hannah Marcus and Mitsu Salmon; program two is a solo work by Kinnari Vora and an iteration of Cristal Sabbagh’s dance-and-music-improv mashup “Freedom From Freedom To.” Udoh performs in this piece, as well as last year’s curators-in-residence Kara Brody and Amanda Maraist.
“We have all these artists that know each other, support each other, comingle with each other,” says Steinberg. “One goal is to try and see if audiences come back and see more of the LookOut Series. I feel like Chicago is really hurting right now for spaces to show work. Audrey Francis and Glenn Davis, the artistic directors at Steppenwolf, always talk about LookOut as this love letter to Chicago and local artists. You won’t see a lot of New York or L.A. artists coming to our space. We get inquiries, but we want to show what Chicago has to offer because we think Chicago artists are the best. I think this lineup really proves that. We are making some of the coolest work.”
LookOut at Steppenwolf 1700, 1700 North Halsted. February 16-April 6. $5-$35. Tickets and info at Steppenwolf.org.