Jonathan Berry directs rehearsals of CONSTELLATIONS at Steppenwolf. Photo by Joel Moorman.
By Jason Epperson
I’d like to take you back to 2008. Eight years ago, 34-year-old director Johnathan Berry had major profiles in both Time Out Chicago and the Chicago Tribune, heralding him as the epitome of a Chicago theater director. Time Out called that upcoming season “A Berry Year,” and for good reason. The soft-voiced, genial craftsman was about to embark on four Chicago premieres, including his first Equity production at Remy Bumppo, The Marriage of Figaro. On the Shore of the Wide World at Griffin would mark the first of several plays by Olivier and Tony Award-winning British playwright Simon Stephens directed by Berry.
Alan Infinitum was supposed to be Berry’s first show at The House Theatre, and their first time hiring an outside director, but it was eventually shelved due to financial difficulties. Still, 2008 would become a microcosm for what Berry has become known for. He has the knack for finding (or getting attached to) incredible new plays, but not usually brand-new plays. If there’s a recent play that has had some acclaim elsewhere, there’s a good chance that Berry will be on the short list to helm the Chicago (and often American) premiere. That’s not to say that’s all he can do. You can catch his gritty, intimate production of Little Shop of Horrors at American Blues which has just been extended through the end of July.
But it’s hard to argue against the idea that Berry’s wheelhouse is putting the Chicago stamp on a particular type of theater, which often happens to be a recent British play. “I love some classic plays, but I think I have a preference right now to be in more direct conversation with what is happening in society today, and I think that line of conversation is more easily drawn when it’s been written in the last two or three years,” he said in a recent interview. Berry certainly has nothing against American playwrights. He directs quite a few of them. But, he says they are awash with these types of plays right now across the pond, perhaps because funding helps give playwrights a little more freedom in what they write, in terms of cast size, political bite, and the like. There’s less concern about whether a play is “producible.”
Eight years later, and Berry is still consistently directing at the theaters that have been his artistic home, particularly Steep and Griffin, who have both grown with Berry. He admittedly isn’t one to be on the phones shilling for work at the bigger theaters or across the country. In fact, he’s rarely directed outside of Chicago and doesn’t tend to leave town much to see new plays. He relies almost entirely on reading plays when choosing them, and that’s probably very influential on his work. It frees him from having seen anything that will taint his process, which any of his collaborators will tell you is very open and inclusive. Berry sees himself, somewhat humbly, as the managing editor of a production, which in reality is accurate only in the most grand sense of the title. He’s an expert at putting a cast and creative team together and giving them space to challenge themselves. He’s also adept at finding and fostering young, new talent. Much of that comes from his work as an educator at almost every college around town.
Berry studied under Anna Shapiro at Northwestern, who eventually brought him on to assistant direct for her Broadway productions of Of Mice and Men and This Is Our Youth. Earlier this year when Shapiro took over as Steppenwolf Artistic Director, one of her first moves was to appoint Berry as an “Artistic Producer,” and gave him the opportunity to direct his first Steppenwolf mainstage show and his biggest production to date. Berry has had a long relationship with Steppenwolf, first as an intern, then administrator for the School at Steppenwolf, and he has directed several productions for the Steppenwolf for Young Adults program.
Nick Payne’s Constellations opened last night in the upstairs space at Steppenwolf. The two-hander was a big hit last season on Broadway, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson. This iteration features Steppenwolf ensemble member Jon Michael Hill, known from the CBS series “Elementary” and the Broadway production of Tracy Letts’ “Superior Donuts,” as Roland, and Jessie Fisher (Once on Broadway, Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Othello) as Marianne. “Nick Payne is a playwright who I really love. He gets excited about an idea and then he does a big deep dive into research.” Berry says. Constellations is an exploration of string theory, multiple universes, and the like—imposed on a relationship over seven different slices of time.
The show marks a new direction for Steppenwolf, one that’s been a long time in the making. With the addition of the new “1700 Theatre” space, the new Front Bar (which will have performances), and an expanded mainstage season, some Steppenwolf shows are bound to be a little more intimate, particularly when it comes to cast size and budget. Berry says one of the biggest learning curves for him was that with Constellations being an add-on to the end of the season, the scenery had to be shopped out to an outside source, and that big budget that you may see on paper goes quickly.
I can only hope that Steppenwolf, and the other big theaters in town, continue to see the value of a director like Berry, but I also hope he’ll continue to work in these excellent sandbox environments like Steep and Griffin. In a time where Chicago theater is splintering in many wonderful different directions, here’s a guy saying let’s put together a crack design team and give them the space to do service to the play. Let’s foster the Chicago ideals of the ensemble. Let’s not impose too much of our own vision, let’s support the ideas already present in the play in conversation with the audience. Jonathan Berry is truly still the epitome of a Chicago director.