Sharpening the Creative Edge

From its modest start, Chicago's innovative Steppenwolf company has now launched some of the finest American actors

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE Steppenwolf Theatre Company is an all-American original, and so is its artistic director, Randall Arney. The ensemble has originated some of the most exciting new American theater and launched the careers of some of the finest American actors - all out of the conspiracy-to-commit-theater of a few Illinois high school and college buddies back in 1974.

Steppenwolf has come a long way since the days of pooled meager resources and creative striving in the basement of a small church in Highland Park. The company sharpens the cutting edge of theater and embraces the classics.

``Steppenwolf has a reputation for innovative theater, yes,'' Mr. Arney asserted during a Monitor interview. His wholesome Midwestern good looks and affable manner defy all the clich'es about artists. ``But it resists easy categorization, too,'' he says. ``We've gravitated to new and kind of wild work. Sam Shepard's `True West' we took to New York; John Malkovich's career took off from there. We took Lanford Wilson's `Balm in Gilead' to New York, too. But we've also done Chekhov's `Three Sisters.' ''

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Highly regarded here in Chicago, Steppenwolf has also won accolades in New York, earning a Tony for regional excellence and two other Tonys - highly prestigious ones -for best new play and best director of 1990 for its powerhouse ``Grapes of Wrath'' production.

Now in its 15th season, Steppenwolf will soon enter its own home, built from scratch for a modest $8 million.

Steppenwolf has spawned a number of distinguished careers, with members of the company going on to film and television - John Malkovich (``Places in the Heart,'' ``Killing Fields,'' ``Dangerous Liaisons''), John Mahoney (``Say Anything,'' ``Moonstruck,'' ``The Russia House''), and Laurie Metcalf (``Roseanne''), among others. Some members work regularly in New York and Los Angeles on stage. But seven of the original nine members are still with the company. They stick with Steppenwolf because the company offers them something unavailable elsewhere.

Steppenwolf won its sterling reputation, longevity, and independence through a combination of comradery and perilous integrity in the craft.

``I think there has always been an element of danger, whether we are doing `The Three Sisters' or `True West,''' says Arney. ``We go at the characters with a certain voraciousness and commitment to them that creates this sense of danger. Yet we've always tried for total verisimilitude - to be true to the characters - as well.

``It's because we've worked together for 15 or 16 years that trust has grown up in the group with the knowledge of each other. You sit down to read a play together for the first time, and you're sitting around a table with people you've known half your life, in some cases. We start that much more ahead of the game than actors who are just introducing themselves to each other in a first reading.''

Working outside a company as a free-lance actor, Arney explains, can create an uncomfortable sense that the audition never ends: In six weeks this run will end, and you'll be out looking for work again. So the free-lancer has to be worried about pleasing these actors or this director. There's a sense of self-protection. Members of the Steppenwolf ensemble have been able to take away all those contextual worries - allowing the actors to focus in on the play in a way most actors are not free to do. Arney calls this ``on-the-edge acting.''

``The knowledge acquired of each other over the years,'' he says, ``has created a safety net under our work that allows us to do tricks on the high wire.''

It all started back in the early '70s. Gary Sinise and Jeff Perry went to high school together. When Mr. Perry went off to Illinois State University (ISU), he met Terry Kinney, and the three young men opened their first theater in the basement of a church in Highland Park in 1974. One of them had been reading Herman Hesse at the time, and the title of his book ``Steppenwolf'' sounded like a good name for a theater.

THE company reorganized in 1976, adding six new members from a pool of ISU compadres and dedicating itself to an ensemble approach to acting. Working as schoolbus drivers, waiters, and clerks during the day, the ``Steppenkids'' (as one critic affectionately dubbed them) made theater at night.

``We were isolated in a small basement and were doing nothing else - just doing theater,'' recalled founder Sinise when reached by phone on the set of TV's ``China Beach,'' where he is directing an episode. ``Working, and cleaning, and putting on shows, we got very close when we were young - bonded. We didn't care about anything else. There was a lot of struggle, and every battle we survived made us stronger.''

``It's like a marriage,'' affirmed Moira Harris, one of the original members. ``We've gone through hard times and we've hurt each other's feelings. But it's been worth it to us to work through the problems....

All of us are different, but we all respect each other and - yes, love each other. Sometimes we've had to work through jealousy - some members have been more successful than others. But you make your life choices and take responsibility for them. I love to work there. We've seen each other at our best and at our worst and still like each other. That's a freeing feeling.''

Sinise cites the constant series of challenges the ensemble sets for each other as a major factor in keeping the group together and in moving along individually in their careers.

``What we've always found is that the entity of the theater had to evolve as rapidly as the artists involved,'' he says. ``It's always looked forward to bigger things, bigger challenges....

``Like the new building - it's what I dreamed of 16 years ago as a high school kid. This is the evolution of a very idealistic, youthful dream.''

`WE believed then and now,'' echoes Arney, whose association with the ensemble began in 1980, ``that as we make ourselves better actors, we're bound to make each other better actors, and bound to raise the quality of the theater.''

From the beginning, the members held the ideal of a wholly democratic ensemble dedicated to the actor's art. They chose their plays according to what they thought would help them grow as actors.

``Someone would present a play and argue passionately for it,'' Ms. Harris says, ``because when the interest is passionate, the work is always better on stage.''

``We used to be totally democratic - we voted on everything from play choice to the color of next year's brochure,'' Arney remarks. ``But over the years, it has become imperative that the governing of this group of actors become more centralized. There are members who live in L.A. and New York. My job as artistic director is to cling to as much as I can of those democratic ideals. I think of myself as a consensus maker.

``I am in constant communication with all 23 members of the company. I spend a lot of time talking to members about what they might want to do. Most of the plays we consider doing may come from suggestions made by Terry Kinney in New York or John Mahoney in L.A. We like the impulse for the season to come from the actors; then I make the final choice. We read plays as often as we can.''

Arney sees the cultivation of new plays and the nurturing of new playwrights as a natural extension of actor-oriented theater. ``Many of the scripts we've transferred to New York we worked on with the playwright in residence.'' It's the way we did `The Grapes of Wrath' - our first genuinely ensemble-created work.

``The playwrights we work with are not generally ensemble members, but we commissioned an ensemble member [Frank Galatick spelling] to write and direct `Grapes of Wrath.' The actors were able to help develop the script as it was being developed. They were very interested in what John Steinbeck's story has to say to contemporary audiences - about the homeless and dispossessed of our own time.''

``Grapes of Wrath'' garnered much praise in New York, but it is by no means the only Steppenwolf production to stimulate national interest in the company. Steppenwolf productions have landed on New York stages: ``True West'' (1982), ``And a Nightingale Sang'' (1983), ``Balm in Gilead'' (1984), ``Orphans''

(1985), ``The Caretaker'' (1986), and ``Educating Rita'' (1987) - all sought out by New York producers.

Steppenwolf has become a force in its own right, and the ensemble feels no impetus to move en masse to New York or anywhere else. The company suits Chicago, and Chicago suits Steppenwolf. In 1974, says Arney, there were only about 15 theater companies in Chicago. Now, he says, there are well over 150.

Having recently closed David Hare's coal-dark drama, ``The Secret Rapture'' to mount its holiday-season offering, ``Harvey,'' by Mary Chase, Steppenwolf slices thick program contrasts. The ensemble will open its third play of its season, ``Another Time,'' by British playwright Ronald Harwood (``The Dresser'') in its new theater complex this spring. Harwood will also direct. Albert Finney will star, as he did in the London production.

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