(L to R) Audrey Francis, Glenn Davis, and Caroline Neff | Photo by Brian McConkey

By Brynn Frauenhoffer

In between rehearsal and a preview for YOU GOT OLDER, the newest performers chosen to join Steppenwolf’s renowned ensemble lounge together in the theater’s hip yet cozy Front Bar. Glenn Davis, Caroline Neff, and Audrey Francis have each worked on several productions at the company, but this will be the first show featuring the three acting together.

Interviewing everyone at once is a treat. Their dialogue offers a glimpse of their relationships as both scene partners and fellow company members, as they fill in the gaps in each other’s stories, praise each other’s work, and learn new things about each other’s backgrounds.

The first question I ask is, of course, what drew each of them initially to theater as their chosen career path.

CAROLINE NEFF: I moved around a lot as a kid. I went to three different middle schools, three different elementary schools, three different high schools, in a bunch of different states. So I would say I sort of came to [acting] because there was some sort of…stasis in it?

AUDREY FRANCIS: Stability.

NEFF: Stability is exactly the word I was looking for…That ended up for me, in middle school, being in a theatre classroom…It was an important touchstone for me to be able to walk into an unfamiliar place but walk into a familiar atmosphere. So that’s kind of how I found myself there.

GLENN DAVIS: I got into acting my senior year in high school…I started doing speech, forensics…and went to state in dramatic duet acting. I remember my coach at the time was like, “You could DO this–”

NEFF: Do you remember what the scene was?

DAVIS: It was THE PIANO LESSON. He said, “You could actually make a living doing this.” And I went, “Oh wow.” I thought it was just a hobby, I thought it was just fun, because I was actually set to go to the Marines. But once they (it was two [acting] coaches) told me this was something I could do for a living, I thought, “Well, I want to try that.” So the summer that I was supposed to go to boot camp for the Marines, I asked my recruiting officer if he would let me out of my contract — because I’d already signed — and let me go to pursue acting. So he did. Then I came to Steppenwolf to take classes.

Acting came later for Francis, who studied journalism with an editing emphasis for her undergrad with the goal of editing documentary films. Her senior year, she wanted to make a narrative film for a change. Her advisors pushed her to take an acting class so that she could learn how to talk to actors as a director.

FRANCIS: You’ve heard this story so many times—

NEFF: I like it though.

FRANCIS:…The person who taught [the acting class] was also a football coach, and so I think that that was divine intervention because I always hated acting and theatre, and hated the theatre people in my high school. But this person spoke about it in a way and taught it in a way that made it really accessible and fun. Then that teacher cast me in a play, and I had my 21st birthday in the curtain call of that play.

Like Davis, training at Steppenwolf also played a part in bringing Francis to Chicago.

FRANCIS: Because I was going to go to AFI for video editing in L.A., [my teacher] said, “Don’t go to L.A. It’s going to eat you alive. Go to Chicago, try to study at the School at Steppenwolf, get your acting chops there. No one’s going to take you seriously as a director until you get older.” Which sounds really mean, but he said it with compassion and love, and he was totally right. So I did exactly what he said.

Francis and Glenn both studied at Steppenwolf in different formats. Both came away with an appreciation for the company, strong mentorship from its members, and a sense of purpose in their acting.

DAVIS: I took a class with Austin Pendleton, a scene study class, and he was the first person to tell me that I was talented. I just thought, if he’s telling me that, maybe I can do this.

FRANCIS: The two people who changed my life that summer were K. Todd Freeman and Amy Morton. They were two of my teachers and, much like Glenn spoke of Austin, it was those two — there was the first teacher in college who believed in me, and sent me on my way — but it was Amy and K. Todd who were like, “You can do this, you should do this, here’s how you’re gonna do this.” Those two still to this day are my mentors, so they’re the reason why I’m here.

For Neff, the move to Chicago was more serendipitous.

NEFF: It was a little bit of a lark, honestly. I was surprised that Chicago is in Illinois, that’s about how much I knew about it before I moved here.

 

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All three actors speak to the strong sense of collaboration unique to their chosen city.

NEFF: Our playwright [Clare Barron] talked about something that I thought was really interesting just as we were doing table work for this play — she was like, “You’re all a lot faster than the New York actors were.” And that’s — we’ve slowed down, and settled into moments — but I think there’s a real desire to lift your scene partner up, and that means giving them every opportunity to shine. I think when everyone’s doing that, it’s what creates a really great ensemble to watch. No one’s doing it for themselves, they’re doing it for everyone else — selflessness, the thing that creates really strong ensemble, which I would say is Chicago’s hallmark.

FRANCIS: I think so, 100%, and something I’ve noticed is that the majority of people that I have come into contact with are really excited about doing the work, and being open to inspiration from those around them who are doing the work. It’s less about money and fame and more about the actual work. That’s not to discredit other cities, and Glenn — who hops around —

NEFF: Lives everywhere —

FRANCIS: But just from the experiences that I’ve had…[Chicago] feels very ensemble-based.

Davis, who also works frequently in New York and Los Angeles, agrees with this summation of the city to which he so often returns. His earliest memories of professional theater, when Austin Pendleton invited him sit in on Steppenwolf’s rehearsals for ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, impressed upon him the company’s deep sense of community and lack of ego.

DAVIS: I remember watching this group of actors who were all so awesome, and so giving to one another…You didn’t know Gary Sinise was Gary Sinise…They were all the same.

This receptive dynamic extended even to the relationship between actors and director.

DAVIS: [The cast] had a healthy respect for Terry [Kinney], but he wasn’t domineering at all or inappropriately directorial. He was like, “Yo, we’re all on the same team, we’re going to make the best choices possible.” And I love that. Because I’ve been in rooms where the director is like God, and if you don’t do exactly what they say — or a lot of times they don’t want to hear what you have to say — and that’s not always the best experience.

Davis has also noticed Chicago theater’s sense of remaining in the present of a production, rather than regarding it as a vehicle for future endeavors.

DAVIS: For example, in New York, whenever I’m doing a show…or talking to people about a show, the conversation always comes to, “Okay, does this show have legs? Is it going to go on to have another life?”…Whereas in Chicago, for the most part, you’re doing a play and the experience is the thing I’m here for. It’d be great if it did something else, but that’s not always the endgame. Sometimes I just want to get into a room with like-minded artists and have an experience.

Neff expounds on the importance of this mentality, this appreciation for a unique artistic moment shared by artists as well as with an audience.

NEFF: My dad took me to see PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and it was a magical experience…I think that the experience of walking into a big theater and watching people be really moved by something collectively is something that has always stayed with me — not just as a performer, but also as an audience member. It’s one of the things I hope for any time I go to the theater, is to have a collective experience with a group of strangers…and to be able to provide that for people feels like a real gift.

Francis’s memories of working on Steppenwolf’s production of THE HERD reveal how her personal approach and that of other ensemble members align with this goal.

FRANCIS: [Ensemble members] John Mahoney, Lois Smith, Francis Guinan, Frank Galati, and Molly Regan were all sitting around a table, and they started to talk about how theater is their church…They were talking about how this is where they come to be able to communicate things in a more spiritual way, to bigger groups, and how it was their version of church. And I was just sitting there, like, they were saying things that I felt about what this work is capable of doing and what it has the potential to do. I just remember thinking, if I could be in a group of artists like that for the rest of my career, that would be success [Mahoney passed away on Monday, after this interview took place].

And of course, now she is part of that group.

Each actor’s story of being asked to join the company shows the joy and camaraderie present amongst the ensemble.

Davis, the most recent addition to the team, had flown out from Los Angeles to attend a Steppenwolf gala when Artistic Director Anna D. Shapiro asked him to join, in Front Bar, surrounded by other ensemble members.

DAVIS: Everybody in the bar was clapping. It was the best.

Francis had just finished a run of a show and was washing off her makeup when Shapiro and Amy Morton entered her dressing room and offered her the position.

FRANCIS: Amy handed me a Steppenwolf mug and said, “Here, you get this mug,” and then Caroline came in and was taping the whole thing on Amy’s phone, and I basically started screaming and crying. It was one of the best moments of my life.

In her dressing room between performances of THE FLICK, Neff recalls that she was expecting to be fired when Shapiro approached her and instead asked her to join the company.

NEFF: I think I said, “Are you sure?” a lot of times, after I yelled, “WHAT!” in her face.

Neff, Davis, and Francis have all known each other personally and seen each other perform, but YOU GOT OLDER is their debut together.

Neff recalls reading the script years before being offered a role in the play at Steppenwolf. Its story left a strong impression.

NEFF: It was unlike anything I’d ever read before, because it was naturalism and true and what felt like very authentic relationships with the family and with the love interest, but then peppering in real moments of theatricality. And also, really sort of ugly parts of ourselves as well as the sweet. That’s what drew me to it first. But now I think this is important to anybody who is still trying to figure out what it means to be an adult, which is everybody that I know.

Francis’s strong connection to Neff played a part in her excitement about joining YOU GOT OLDER. Neff and Francis first worked for Steppenwolf in 2011 as part of the Next Up series production of WHERE WE’RE BORN.

FRANCIS: I hold [WHERE WE’RE BORN] very dear for two reasons, one because it was my first time at Steppenwolf, and second because it was my first time working with Caroline. This is our third play together. You want to know the truth? When I first met Caroline I was super intimidated and jealous because she was so talented.

DAVIS: I’m still intimidated and super jealous.

FRANCIS: And then, when we were in rehearsals, I was like, She’s the real deal….And then I kind of fell in love with her.

NEFF: And then in the play.

FRANCIS: And we fell in love in the play too. I’m pretty sure she left me, if I remember correctly.

So when Francis was offered her role in YOU GOT OLDER with Caroline and director Jonathan Berry already attached, it was an easy decision.

FRANCIS: I just really love them both so I was like, “Yes!”

For Davis, after reading the script, he realized the role presented to him offered a welcome deviation from his typical characters.

DAVIS: I thought, wow, I would not cast myself in this play! I would not in a million years think “Glenn” for this. And usually when that happens I say yes. Because…what do actors complain about most of the time? Being typecast, being pegged as a certain thing and not being able to break out of that. So when I read [YOU GOT OLDER] I saw who this character was, I thought, this would be very interesting for me to try to get inside of. And I was up for the challenge.

Surrounded by fellows in her new theater family, Francis speaks to the excitement of working with and being counted among several ensemble members who joined the company at the same time.

FRANCIS: I feel like I’m in a group of people that I look up to but we’re peers…There is this element of a new class year that’s coming in that makes me feel like, okay, I’m not alone, maybe we are the next generation. I feel a great sense of inspiration, responsibility, and friendship in that. Also, I look at these people and think, we’re going to do some amazing things in our careers together as a team.

DAVIS: I thought to myself when we were in rehearsals, we’re going to look up one day and have done twenty plays together. Oh yeah, I know Caroline! I know Audrey!

NEFF: (laughing) She’s doing that thing!

DAVIS: (laughing) Not she’s doing that thing, but like that’s where she lives or that’s where she starts, that’s how she works…and being able to relate to one or both of them based on the experience that we’ve had.

From this perspective, YOU GOT OLDER provides a chance for these actors — and for audiences — to glimpse the exciting beginning of a lifelong partnership.

About author

Brynne Frauenhoffer

Brynne spent most of her childhood performing The Lion King as a one-woman show and writing spec scripts for Pokemon. As an adult, she has decided to basically keep doing things like that forever. After graduating with a BFA in Drama from The University of Oklahoma, she moved to Chicago, where she now pursues playwriting, acting, and comedy.

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