Small Theater Survival Stories

Published October 18, 2004

Steppenwolf goes to the ball

Steppenwolf Theater photoBringing optimism to stubborn small theater owners who yearn for a steady venue and a bigger bottom line is the fairytale success story of the now popular, and quite large, Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The theater company, with roots back to its 1974 debut in a small church basement in Highland Park, was officially founded in 1976. Beginning with only nine actors and a handful of patrons, Steppenwolf has now expanded to include 33 theater artists, a subscription base of 25,000, and room in its Mainstage Theatre to seat over 500. In fact, no other theater has lived as long or thrived as well as the famous theater company.

"Steppenwolf celebrates the intelligence of the actor, the vision of the director, the works of the playwright and the power of the theater," the theater's Web site boasts of itself and the over 200 works it has produced. Going so far as to compare itself with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Moscow Art Theatre "in vision and quality," the theater company rose to fame through a combination of talent, community support and unity, described Cathy Taylor, Steppenwolf publicist. "This was a 26-year process," she said. "Its success came about partly because it started in Chicago. It was a family working together. And certainly their talents played a factor."

Now rubbing elbows regularly with playwright bigwigs like Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson and Steven Jeffreys, Steppenwolf has the audience following, budget and prestige many theaters envy. "I think smaller theaters quite often do use us as a model," Taylor said. "A play recently came out called The Terrible Tragedy of Peter Pan in the House Theater, and people compare them to Steppenwolf, saying their so much like Steppenwolf when it first started. Along with the support and nurture we give to the small theater by allowing the spaced to perform, I'd say many do look to us as a model."

But a purist at heart, Hall now looks to for inspiration among those theaters that remain untainted by the poisonous corporate dollar. "My inspiration now comes from places like the Group Theatre, from NYC 1930s and the Wooster Group. These groups never had a $3 million parking garage; they influenced how we view ourselves and the American theater in general.

"A theater like Steppenwolf suffers from the money the way an individual does — too much 'stuff,' and too much focus on keeping that stuff overwhelms the art. No matter what they say in the commercials, a Lexus is not a work of art."