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Theater Fri Oct 03 2014

Steppenwolf Unveils Expansion Plan, Announces New Leadership

steppenwolf theatre halsted view
Halsted Street view of New Steppenwolf Theatre.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Chicago's 40-year-old theater famous for its in-your-face style and pugnacious representation of contemporary American theater, is growing again. The company has announced a $50 million expansion plan that involves new theater spaces and a parklike southern area. The company also announced changes in its top administrative and creative positions, to take effect in 2015.

Some of the expansion plans were already known but the leadership changes came as a surprise announcement. Steppenwolf, famously founded in a church basement in Highland Park in 1974, is probably Chicago's best-known theater beyond our borders and a major contributor to Chicago's reputation as a hot theater town.

Anna Shapiro, an award-winning director of Chicago and Broadway productions, will become artistic director next year, replacing Martha Lavey, who has held that post since 1995. David Schmitz, a 10-year Steppenwolf administrative veteran, will replace David Hawkanson as executive director. Both Lavey and Hawkanson will be involved in Steppenwolf's expansion project.

The company presented comprehensive plans for expanding the Steppenwolf campus, which the company has outgrown in the 23 years since it moved into its location at 1650 N. Halsted St. The plan will demolish the current parking garage and add facilities on both the north and south sides of the current 500-seat theater space.

The design team is made up of Gordon Gill, of Chicago-based Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, assisted in theater design by London-based Charcoalblue, a theater and acoustics consultancy. The Charcoalblue team, headed by managing partner Andy Hayles, is already working with Gill's firm on a project for Astana, Kazakstan. Charcoalblue also is working on a project for Chicago Shakespeare Theatre on Navy Pier. The firm has a design studio in New York, where they are working on a new Film & Media Center at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

Steppenwolf announced its plans at a media conference Thursday morning and emailed a brief announcement about the changes to friends and subscribers that afternoon. The company will hold an open house Nov. 13 to further discuss its plans.

The expansion at 1700 N. Halsted, formerly a furniture store, has already begun. That will become a new Lab at Steppenwolf, including a new black-box performance space, which will be flexible enough to also handle smaller, funkier works, according to architect Gill. That building also will provide flexible space for community and teen programs and offices for artistic, production and administrative staff. South of the current theater will be a new 400-seat theater space to replace the current 300-seat Upstairs Theatre, an alley-style space with the stage in the center. That venue will revert to its original intended use as rehearsal space. The second or southern phase of the plan will be built once funding is achieved, probably at least two years from now.

Steppenwolf atrium
View of the "public square atrium."

The lobby of the current theater will expand north and south to create a "public square atrium" spanning all three performance areas. South of the new theater will be a landscaped area and surface parking lot.

The change in artistic leadership is an important one for Steppenwolf. Lavey is known for her work in new play development and cultivating creative relationships with playwrights such as Bruce Norris, and for developing new works for presentation in the current Garage Theatre. She also is credited with creating Steppenwolf for Young Adults and the First Look Rep of New Work, and is considered to be a major force in enhancing Steppenwolf's reputation.

Shapiro, affiliated with Steppenwolf since 1995 and an ensemble member since 2005, is known for directing plays such as Tracy Letts' August: Osage County and Stephen Adly Guirgis' Motherfucker with a Hat, both here and on Broadway. Both productions were award winners. Shapiro also directed the Steppenwolf production of Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth, which recently transferred to Broadway. She heads the graduate directing program at Northwestern University, but said she would relinquish that role, although she will continue to teach in the program. She said she expects to focus on work in Chicago rather than on Broadway productions. "I'm delighted about that," she said.

Renderings by Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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