Sharpening the Creative Edge
From its modest start, Chicago's innovative Steppenwolf company has now launched some of the finest American actors
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.' ''
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.''