Photo credit: Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture.
by Jason Epperson
Steppenwolf Theatre Company will break ground today on the next phase of its multi-year campus expansion on Halsted Street.
Slated to open in the summer of 2021, the new 50,000 sq. ft building will be located at 1646 N Halsted between the existing parking garage (which will remain) and the main theater building. It features a 400-seat in-the-round theater only six rows deep—the only such space in Chicago—a dedicated education floor, an open two-story atrium lobby, and a wine bar and a sidewalk lounge. The new building will also house Steppenwolf’s costume shop and other updated production amenities. The lobbies of the Downstairs Theatre (which is probably due for a new name) will also undergo major renovations.
“This is a monumental moment for us that is more than two decades in the making—built on the shoulders of the former leaders, the ensemble, the board, and the staff who have touched this project and together have made this vision a reality,” said Artistic Director Anna D. Shapiro. “Steppenwolf is first and foremost a Chicago theatre and that understanding has guided the design of every inch of the building. Our company’s role is to create experiences that are in conversation with the diverse life of our hometown and that motivate youth and adults toward participating in a future that is aware, connected and inclusive. As the home for an ensemble of theatre artists who are widely talented and working throughout the world, we must be a place that cultivates the range of their voices and makes it exciting for them to come back to do their best, most important work. We must be able to provide that through not just the art that we make but the spaces we create: brave, beautiful, compassionate, inclusive.”
The new theater space will boast just six rows of seats, and no audience member will be more than 20 ft from the stage, bringing people as close as possible to the world-class Steppenwolf Ensemble. It’s a return to the company’s church-basement roots, in a way—albiet with a $54-million-dollar price tag. As Steppenwolf ensemble member Tracy Letts explains, “I want the audience to see me sweat.” A modular staging system will allow for designers and directors to control the architecture and adjust the capacity for a variety of audience relationships.
Accessibility was a key focus in the design, with 20 wheelchair accessible locations and companion seats (versus the six that are required by law with the ability to offer up to 36 accessible seats), as well as an induction hearing loop and improved sight lines for performances featuring ASL Interpretation and Open Captioning.
The Upstairs Theatre, which was originally built as a rehearsal space, will return to its original purpose and house two rehearsal spaces, after the new building is complete. Economically, that means 100 more seats, allowing for a growth in attendance from 180,000 to 225,000 annually. Steppenwolf also plans to use the space to capitalize on increased revenue from hit productions by adding some flexibility into the calendar for extended runs.
“Similar to how you wouldn’t want to use the same frame for every painting in your house, we want Steppenwolf to offer three different exchanges with our audiences—the classic proscenium experience in the Downstairs Theatre, the cabaret experience in the 1700 Theatre, and now an intimate in-the-round experience with the new theater,” added Shapiro.
“It is so exciting to have an additional artistic home that enables the ensemble to have a closer connection to the audience, something the ensemble has wanted to return to since our days playing in small venues,” said ensemble member Amy Morton. I think this theater will also be a great place for students to see our work in an up-close and personal way. A chance for them to feel a part of the whole experience.”
More public spaces
The expansion project began in 2016 with the completion of the 1700 Theatre and Front Bar: Coffee & Drinks—a resounding success. Steppenwolf plans to continue the “Front Bar” experiment through to the new building, adding more spaces for the public to interact with the campus, whether they’re attending a show or not. On the first floor of the new building, patrons and artists will be able to enjoy a stylish wine bar before and after shows cradled by the windowed facade facing Halsted Street on the southernmost side of the building, along with an outdoor lounge with the building’s striking architecture as a backdrop. The company will also add a bar and lounge on the second floor of the main building, where the main entrance to the new theater will be.
The parking garage at 1624 N. Halsted will remain as-is, with cosmetic changes to its façade to create symmetry across the campus. Increased valet service will be offered to continue to make parking easy, and accessible parking will be available next to Front Bar at 1700 N Halsted. During construction, the parking garage will continue to be available to patrons.
An achievement for education
Executive Director David Schmitz, while excited about everything the new theater will mean for the company, says the crowning jewel of the building is the a purpose-built learning space. The new 4th-floor education center “will allow us to place education at the heart of our mission,” he said. The immersive learning space, with skyline views of Chicago boasts three classroom, workshop and event spaces. The School at Steppenwolf for aspiring actors will also be housed in this space. Sharing the fourth floor with Steppenwolf’s new mainstage rehearsal spaces, emerging career professionals will be able to connect with Steppenwolf artists and leaders.
Steppenwolf’s Young Audiences program will also benefit from the increased capacity of the new theater. The company is one of the few nationwide to commission work from major playwrights specifically for teens, and present them in full-productions with the first-class treatment Steppenwolf gives all of its shows. Schmitz says the impact of the company’s education initiatives will increase from 15,000 to 40,000 students annually.
Steppenwolf broke ground on the new facility in a ceremony today. “When Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney and I started this theater more than four decades ago we were just a bunch of kids with a dream,” said co-founder Jeff Perry. “To stand here today—next to the spot where we first broke ground in 1989—about to once again dig shovels into Steppenwolf’s next chapter is a truly humbling experience. The new building profoundly expands our ability to achieve what we have always been most passionate about—intimate performance spaces that magnify our artists connection with our audience, lobby spaces that truly invite our patrons, and perhaps most importantly, the classroom and audience space to dramatically increase our bond with the youth and student community that are the lifeblood of our future.”
The new building is designed by architect Gordon Gill of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, and London-based theater design team Charcoalblue (led by John Owens with theatre designer Ben Hanson and acoustic designer Byron Harrison), and built by Chicago-based Norcon Construction (led by Jeff Jozwiak).
The final phase of the expansion, to be completed after the construction of the new theater, will be an accessibility-focused renovation to the Downstairs Theatre.