Michael Vinson produced this video for Steppenwolf Theatre Company about director Tina Landau.
Performing Arts Archive
Performing arts institutions across the nation are reeling from weak ticket sales and a slump in donations as the effects of the recession continue.
Madison Repertory Theatre in Wisconsin shut down last March, canceling its 40th season. And Apple Tree Theatre in Highland Park, Ill., closed its doors in September after 26 years.
But at Chicago’s iconic Steppenwolf Theatre Co., in Lincoln Park, the show goes on.
“We’re doing alright,” Steppenwolf Executive Director David Hawkanson says, exhaling a sigh of relief. Despite blockbuster box office sales, up 14 percent over the previous year, the company faced a staggering $1.4 million budget shortfall in 2009.
After a salary freeze and months of aggressive cost cutting, the non-profit theater managed to break even last year, meeting a $15 million operating budget without eliminating any of its 80 full-time positions. In fact, Steppenwolf even added a few part-time jobs.
But with revenue from fundraising activities, corporate donations and endowment payouts in free fall, the story could have ended differently: less like “All’s Well That End’s Well” and more like “Macbeth” — in tragedy.
Unlike commercial theater companies on Broadway and in the Loop, non-profit theaters do not build their operating budgets exclusively on revenue from ticket sales and merchandising. Even at Steppenwolf, the second-highest grossing non-profit theatre company in Chicago, box office revenues account for only 46 percent of the budget.
For decades Steppenwolf, which was founded in 1976, has filled that gap with a menu of fundraising activities, including a celebrity golf classic and a star-studded annual gala held on its Lincoln Park campus.
But what were once cash cows for the company have begun to wither under the weight of a sluggish economy.
After losing money in 2008, the golf tournament was eliminated. As Hawkanson admits with his trademark dry wit, “People don’t want to pay $6,000 to play golf.”
And the annual gala, Steppenwolf’s fundraising showpiece, has started to sputter as well.
For years, the ensemble-based theatre company found success trotting out superstar company members like John Mahoney (“Frasier”), Joan Allen (“The Crucible”) and John Malvokich (“Burn After Reading”) to rub elbows with Chicago’s most prominent philanthropists and socialites at its gala for $1,500 a ticket. Additional ensemble members have auctioned opportunities to visit them on the sets of their television shows. And co-founder Gary Sinise (“CSI: NY”) and his rock group, the Lt. Dan Band, always capped the glamorous evening with a live concert.
But in 2009, the once-bankable gala showed signs of weakness, with proceeds down more than $300,000 from the previous year. The fundraising situation was made worse by a 22 percent plunge in the company’s endowment and a 10 percent slide in corporate donations.
Despite these setbacks, Hawkanson and General Manager David Schmitz were able to offset the impending budget gap without cutting a single job or changing benefit packages for its full-time employees. Department leaders slashed discretionary spending and junior staffers were asked to contribute ideas for saving money. Funds for break-room coffee and spontaneous birthday celebrations were among the first to go.
The company’s fortunes were buoyed by touring productions of ensemble member Tracy Letts‘s play “August: Osage County,” which showed in London and Sydney after winning the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and five Tony awards, including Best Play.
Steppenwolf also raked in revenue from a few unexpected hits at home, like Conor McPherson‘s plays “The Seafarer,” starring John Mahoney, and “Dublin Carol,” featuring the company’s newest ensemble member, William Petersen, former star of the popular television show, “CSI.” Box office receipts soared $900,000 above previous year totals.
And while corporate donations slipped, donations from individual donors held steady. Roughly 3,500 households contributed to the theater’s annual fund, each giving $150. Another 500 households gave even more, upwards of $10,000 a piece.
Donations from the board of trustees, led by Nora Daley Conroy, daughter of Chicago’s mayor, were comparable with 2008 figures as well.
With continuing initiatives to target potential donors like the Auxiliary Council, which supports Steppenwolf for Young Adults, and the Visionary Circle, which recognizes donors who include Steppenwolf in their estate plans, the company aims “to be among the top priorities” for donors, Hawkanson says, right up there with children, churches and alma maters.
Steppenwolf also enjoys a strong subscriber base, much stronger than comparable theaters in Chicago and across the country. The company boasts renewal rates as high as 80 percent, Hawkanson says, in an industry that usually hits around 70 percent annually, according to a Theatre Communications Group Inc. survey.
Importantly, subscriptions to its five-play season account for 60 percent of its box office and subscribers make up 85 percent of its donor pool.
Steppenwolf is also retooling its fundraising activities by introducing new events, Hawkanson says, acknowledging that the company may have exhausted its potential donor pool with pricey golf outings and ritzy dinners. In February, Artistic Director Martha Lavey will headline an event at the Chicago Cultural Center with Joan Allen priced at $200 per ticket.
As the company looks to the year ahead and beyond, Hawkanson says the theater is well positioned to maintain its loyal subscriber base and has the resources to “reach out to new audiences.”
In 2009, Steppenwolf won multimillion-dollar grants from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to study ways to bring younger, more diverse audiences to the theater. If Steppenwolf can capitalize on these opportunities, Hawkanson says, the company should be able to weather the recession intact.
STEPPENWOLF 2009 –
by Michael Vinson
Working with a director he calls “a visionary, a master musician in her own right,” Josh Schmidt has been charged with a nearly impossible task. As composer and sound designer for The Tempest, he must create a soundscape that makes Tina Landau say, “I have never heard something like that before!” And he must do it by harvesting musical styles and genres of her choosing, bending and breaking sounds with which she is intimately familiar.
“Never is there a production where she does not come armed with a bevy of music and images that inspire her and speak to her,” he says. “The music is what it is. The challenge for me is to take the elements that make it music and reconstitute them. [I need] to take what we know and physically transform it or allow something or someone or some idea to transform some aspect of us from something we know to something different.”
Change permeates Tina Landau’s production of The Tempest, echoing the major themes of this story about a tempest (or “disturbance in the soul”) that causes “sea change” (or radical transformation). Each of the characters experiences profound change wrought in a world where nothing is static; where things appear and disappear; where reality and fantasy collude. In Steppenwolf’s production, the character of that change is primal, disorienting, raw and messy. Landau envisions a “dreamscape of Prospero’s creative imagination,” an industrial fantasy focused through a 21st century consciousness. And that mythic, illusory world, rich with strange transformations, erupts from a naked stage: exposed rigging, exposed pipes, exposed everything. It is what she calls Prospero’s “studio for exploring the human mind, soul, and morality.”
Birthing this fantastical world from a bare stage will necessitate considerable theatrical wizardry. Prospero uses Ariel to work his magic; Landau relies on a team of designers (and your imagination) to work hers.
The set is critical to establishing tone. In her directives to the scenic designer, Takeshi Kata, Landau reiterates, “The design cannot be too square, too solid, too geometric for this play about sea change, rupture and transformation. The alignment of the space should not be clean. Work against straight lines.” The set, she explains, needs to be “immersive,” creating an “explosive and disorienting experience.” Kata, who also designed the set of The Seafarer at Steppenwolf earlier this season, begins by using the architecture in the room, leveraging material native to the space: catwalks, railings, booms, battens, poles, cables. “My work for this show,” he says, “is to create a blank canvas the actors, the other elements of design and the imagination of the audience can fill in. I hope it will feel as though the images are being conjured up by Prospero and the audience.”
But this is also a place of sound. Sounds that are “nowhere and everywhere.” Sounds that “lure, compel, threaten, calm, induce sleep or madness.” Landau wants Josh Schmidt to build an aural architecture in which “sounds, voices, and music come from unexpected or unidentifiable sources.” The primary generator of sound in the production is Ariel, played by ensemble member Jon Michael Hill. Landau refers to Ariel as a “kind of DJ” who “can produce effects, create ambiences, spin tunes, and make remixes” of music that has elements of alternative rock, electronica, techno, trip-hop, dub and more.
Schmidt worked with both Landau and Hill at Seattle Repertory Theater on The Cure at Troy last spring. He is “in awe of Jon’s ability to hold the stage, to captivate audiences with his performances.” Schmidt says that he needs to “fuse” what Shakespeare reveals about Ariel, what Landau wants of Ariel, and what Hill brings to the character. He readily admits the difficulty of creating something new for The Tempest. “This is not my first time sound designing,” he says, “yet there is something to the notion that I should approach every experience as my first and last—never assume I know the answer, listen to those around me and don’t allow past experience to impede me in doing something wholly unfamiliar.”
In creating this world, several of the design elements must rely on others. Schmidt recognizes the collaborative nature of his work, which is “one of service and support to any and all other design elements that need to be reinforced or augmented.” He feels a responsibility to “glue all the ideas together sonically,” to “assemble them anew.” Lighting designer Jane Cox says that good lighting design tries to harness the energy in the rehearsal room, which is why she wants to see as many rehearsals as possible. Costume and scenic designers spend a great deal of time in their studios creating alone; she doesn’t. Most of her work happens in the theatre itself. She uses the work of the other designers to develop a viable tool palette, but she usually finds that “the look and feel of the production is inherent in what the company is doing, in what the actors are doing. They’ll discover something in the rehearsal process and a huge part of my job is to reveal the essence.”
That’s why, Cox says, it’s so exciting to work with Landau again. (She assisted Landau’s play Dream True in 1998, right out of college). “Tina’s way of working is very creative; she’s so much about working in the room with the actors. She’s so unbelievably invested and she’s so in the moment. She’s quite inspiring to work with because she’s got so much energy. She picks people up and drags them along with her.” Sylvia Hernandez DiStasi, aerial choreographer, and Stephan Mazurek, projections designer, agree. Mazurek says that Landau is “a very acute listener. She responds immediately. She’s not a director that recedes into gray matter. She’s very kinetic. She talks so that you really know where she stands and what her ideas are, what she’s excited about and what needs constructive problem-solving.”
Hernandez DiStasi says she felt an immediate connection with Landau, something that rarely happens to her. She has worked on a production of The Tempest before, which makes her “a little bit nervous.” She doesn’t want to steal from herself. However, Landau’s production feels “totally different.” With Landau’s heavy accent on change, Steppenwolf’s Tempest “feels a little angrier. It’s a little more raw,” she says, which appeals to Jane Cox. “There’s a Mardi Gras quality to it in an aggressive sort of way. There’s something harsh about the magic [Prospero] uses. It’s not intended to be–certainly not in this production–pretty or ethereal in any way. I think the industrial, raw aesthetic emphasizes the humanity of [Prospero's] magic,” she says.
In the last act of the play, Prospero refers to his art as “rough magic,” a phrase Landau has used to describe her production’s aesthetic. Takeshi Kata observes, “The Tempest is about the process of becoming human. Pain in life is necessary and the notion of the unchanging self is an illusion. To me, the play is about cathartic experiences we all go through that force us to give up our old notions of the self in order to find something new.”
To forge something new; to take something familiar and make it strange; to undergo immutable transformation. When the designs are finished, the rehearsals are over, and you are in your seat, this team will have arrived at something not even Landau fully anticipated, something that will continue to change with each performance. Through whatever means of creation and imagination, however rough or messy or elemental, they will have taken this classic play and turned it into something else, something that has never existed before. How fitting that in designing a play about the creative use of the imagination (more pointedly, a play about making plays), everyone involved must exercise his or her imagination with greater rigor than ever before. As Josh Schmidt notes, the process has taught him that he is “capable of much more than I thought.”
STEPPENWOLF 2008 –
There’s a mural in Uptown. Have you seen it?
It’s easy to miss. Hidden by freshly planted evergreen brush, it is positioned along on the western wall of the Red Line’s Wilson station platform, facing the northeast corner of Harry S. Truman College in metaphoric repose. The faces have faded since it was first painted, but each represents one of the many ethnic groups that have made Uptown one of Chicago’s most culturally and socio-economically diverse communities.
Smoothed away by the inexorable march of time’s uneasy progress, this mural (and its leafy obstruction) proffers silent testimony to Uptown’s inadvertent marriage of disparate traditions, aspirations and values. That marriage, birthed in hope for renewal and forged in the clash of competing and contradictory interests, has given shape to a community unlike any other in the ethnically enclaved City of Big Shoulders. And yet, the evolution of that very diversity, that colorful texture of parallel universes, unfolded in a decidedly Chicago kind of way. Today’s Uptown is the product of the persistent resolve by some to reinvent the neighborhood and the equally determined resistance of others to those efforts.
In his Uptown residence at 4646 N. Hermitage Avenue, poet Carl Sandburg wrote in his 1916 poem Chicago:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
So proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning…
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning
as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
If this is Chicago, then Uptown is the most Chicago place on earth. Since its earliest days, Uptown has been fueled by never-ending (and, perhaps, never fully realized) dreams of revivification and resurgence. The community was originally developed in the late nineteenth century as a summer resort for Chicago elites desperate for lakefront property, hoping to escape the congestion of downtown’s commercial district. Later, after the turn of the century, ambitious entrepreneurs drew plans to pit Uptown in direct competition with the Loop as the “real center of Chicago.”
These grand visions aimed to make the area that once sprawled from Irving Park northward to Devon Avenue the epicenter of Chicago nightlife. This “long boom” took hold in a decisive way as construction began in earnest. Between 1915 and 1930, land values at the intersection of Broadway and Lawrence soared 800% as singles and young couples flocked to the area to enjoy its bustling entertainment sector, filling the seemingly endless multitude of small apartment units that were being built at a dizzying pace.
These urbanites joined 18,000 fellow fun- seekers at weekly live music dances held at the Aragon Ballroom on Lawrence Avenue in the heart of Uptown. A block west, the Green Mill Jazz Club and the Riviera Theatre constantly buzzed with likes of John Dillinger, Al Capone and even a young Frank Sinatra. Farther north at Argyle Street, Charlie Chaplin and ingénue Gloria Svensson (soon thereafter restyled as Gloria Swanson) tinkered with emerging media at Essanay Studios where Chaplin filmed His New Job in 1915. And in 1925, Balaban and Katz opened America’s largest movie palace, the Uptown Theatre. Larger than New York’s Radio City Music Hall, it was promoted as “an acre of seats in a Magic City.”
But the magic soon faded. With the end of World War II, job opportunities in Chicago’s defense sector began to dry up and those once-young couples moved out to the suburbs while few moved in to replace them. Landlords responded by dramatically reducing rent prices, which attracted a cacophony of European refugees, indigenous Blacks and poor Southern migrants.
The Daley Administration decided that Uptown’s diminishing population made it a useful site for building subsidized housing for Chicagoans displaced by new gentrification efforts in Lincoln Park, Hyde Park and Lakeview. Displeased with what they saw as the potential “pauperization” of their neighborhood, business leaders banded together to “revitalize” Uptown. The proponents of this newest renaissance established community conservation organizations like the Uptown Chamber of Commerce and the Uptown Chicago Commission.
A 1961 declaration by the Commission stated, “If we are to strengthen the health and vitality of this community for all, we must retain and attract middle-class families, while providing housing for those of low income…to serve diverse occupation, racial, socio-economic and age groups.”Despite the Commission’s professed desire to invest in the economic well-being of the entire community, many in Uptown viewed calls for “urban renewal” with deep suspicion. These activists rejected many of the conservationists’ proposals, including the building of Truman College, which meant demolishing several housing units. A highly vocal activist coalition formed in response to such reforms, decrying what they believed would necessarily involve the calamitous displacement of thousands.
Groups like Organization of the North-East (ONE) voiced concerns about the sterilization of Uptown’s authenticity, troubled that Uptown could indeed become the “next Lincoln Park.” The most vivifying source of that authenticity was the unique ethnic and cultural diversity that had developed slowly across Uptown in the decades following World War II. From Sheridan Park to North Chinatown and Little Saigon, this diversity was and continues to be far more substantive than the mere absence of homogeneity.
Today, the community includes Poles, Irish and Russians; Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Koreans, Filipinos and Asian Indians; Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Salvadorians, Guatemalans and Chileans. Even the Black population is varied as native-born African-Americans find common and sometimes uncomfortable ground with recent immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean. Because of its multicultural make up, Uptown has also become an attractive home for gays, lesbians and interracial couples who were met with antipathy and even hostility elsewhere in town. ONE’s mission is to “build and sustain a successful mixed economic, multi-ethnic community” in Uptown.
The concern of groups like ONE continues to be that Uptown’s uniqueness will be washed away by efforts to “revitalize” the community, causing it to look like many other parts of Chicago, and America for that matter. Most tellingly, the original Uptown Store, for which the community was named in 1905, is now home to a two-story Borders Bookstore. The building, breaking and rebuilding of resort and slum, commerce and community, past and present have defined Uptown’s history, and continues to stir up intense passions.
There’s a mural in Uptown. Have you seen it?
Please visit www.steppenwolf.org
STEPPENWOLF 2008 –
In the spring of 1935, the setting of Carter’s Way, Kansas City’s African-American community mourned the loss of respected jazz band leader Bennie Moten. One of the most prominent members of his community, Moten was given the largest, most elaborate funeral the city had seen in twenty years. As the Kansas City Call reported, “Many who were unable to gain entrance into the church formed a line on both sides of the street for blocks to view the procession as it passed. Many who stood on the sidewalks as the funeral cortege crawled by wept openly.” During Moten’s tenure, Kansas City had grown from a small, dusty town into a swinging artistic hotbed, home to talented performers who would later become dominant, iconic forces synonymous with the Kansas City jazz brand. Jay McShann, Walter Page, Count Basie and Charlie Parker all found their voices in “Kay Cee.”
Situated outside of the cultural mainstream, both figuratively and literally, Kansas City was well positioned to have a distinctive musical style evolve and mature organically, unfettered by artistic proclivities prevalent in New York and Los Angeles. The convergence of three significant socio-economic and geo-political factors led to the cultivation Kansas City jazz: the expansion of a muscular, manipulative (and, ultimately, corrupt) political power structure, the emergence of a large, unified African-American community rooted in Southern mores and the systematic development of young, innovative artists.
Throughout the twenty years prior to Moten’s death, Kansas City was able to avoid many of the economic calamities wrought by the Great Depression on the rest of the nation. The chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Club, Thomas J. “Boss” Pendergast, maintained his powerful political base by openly tolerating, even enabling, the gangsters, gamblers and pimps who relied on nightclubs, taverns and dance halls for their livelihood – venues that regularly hired promising, inventive musicians to keep the crowds entertained. During Pendergast’s regime, there were at least 120 nightclubs and over 300 bars in the “wide-open” city but there was not one felony conviction for violation of prohibition statutes.
Though Pendergast had no discernible active interest in or engagement with Kansas City’s burgeoning jazz culture, the economic vitality his corrupt regime afforded Kansas City provided the incubation necessary for the development of its vibrant artistic community. Jazz culture, particularly within African-American community, was able to flourish because the political and socio-economic conditions supported and sustained it.
Kansas City’s African-American community experienced a series of paradigmatic shifts during this period, as well. From 1910 to 1930, the Black population nearly doubled, swelling from 25,000 to almost 50,000. Cities throughout the North and Midwest experienced similar population booms as millions of African-Americans fled the Deep South, a phenomenon known as the Great Migration. Many Blacks were eager to escape both de facto and legal Jim Crow practices while still more, mostly sharecroppers, were compelled to migrate due to a boll weevil infestation of cotton fields. Others found themselves homeless after the 1927’s Great Mississippi Flood.
Additionally, factories in the North and Midwest heavily recruited African-Americans to relocate in order to supplement the labor force following the passage of post-World War I anti-immigration laws, which limited the number of European workers.
Many Black musicians found their way to Kansas City by way of the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA), the largest Black vaudeville circuit in the county, of which Kansas City was the stop. Due to the steady work that could be found, countless TOBA musicians decided to stay, including William Basie, who later became known as “Count” Basie while serving as the pianist in Moten’s band.
Despite the move from the Jim Crow South, Blacks were still confronted with segregation and widespread discrimination in Kansas City. Threats of violence and political maneuvering forced African-Americans to live exclusively in one area. Bomb threats against African-Americans attempting to move into White neighborhoods were routinely reported to the Call and there was at least one proposal to tear down 62 African-American homes in order to build a park that would serve as a buffer zone between Black and White neighborhoods.
The situation was not unlike what was occurring at the time in Chicago, where African-Americans were restricted to live in the so-called “Black Belt.” In Kansas City, separate meant anything but equal; the economic disparities between the Black and White neighborhoods were striking. In 1912, the White per capita real-estate wealth was $543.69. For Blacks it was $59.40.
As a result, the African-American community developed a strong sense of racial pride and unity in the face of this discrimination. Blacks built their own civic organizations, businesses, and institutions, such as the NAACP, the Young Negro GOP Club, the Homer Roberts car dealership and the Kansas City Monarchs, the Negro League baseball team from which a young short-stop named Jackie Robinson would emerge mid-century. The most important of these institutions was the church. It was the center of all activity, from the political to the financial to the artistic.
Music was, and remains, an integral part of the Black church experience. Hip-hop, R&B, the Blues and Jazz all find their roots in the spirituals, sorrow songs, and gospels of the church. Kansas City churches nurtured and developed young musical talent during Sunday morning worship and also at church socials (usually picnics and dances) at which there was always live musical entertainment. Not surprisingly, it was the same music that could be heard at the nightclubs down the street on Saturday evening.
Kansas City’s taste in music and dance was greatly influenced by the characteristics and cultural sensibilities of the Southern migrants who moved in. These poor migrants preferred the uniquely African-American, Southern styles of music and dance, which relied heavily on improvisation and call-and-response, whereas the Black elites rejected these “core cultural forms” in favor of Euro-American ones. Migrants brought with them a penchant for the “rural blues,” which often featured a male singer accompanying himself on the guitar. This music was introduced in Kansas City at the “rent-parties” tenants would organize in order to pay rent. These rent parties are an amalgam of two distinctly rural Southern traditions: the jook joint (where one could find live music, gambling and liquor) and the church social, where funds for the minister’s salary were raised.
The music at these rent parties soon found its way into the nightclubs, saloons and taverns, such as the Panama Club, the Sunset Club and the Yellow Front. Black and White jazz artists would frequent the clubs along 12th Street and 18th Street after getting off their primary jobs and hold “jam sessions.” These nightly sessions were a proving ground for young artists. Innovation and improvisation were crucial to success. These “informal conservatories” would last all night, testing the skills of Kansas City’s most competent and creative musicians. One musician recalled, “I came to a session at ten o’clock… I came back a little after one o’clock and they were playing the same song,” offering a vivid testimony to the sheer physical and creative vigor needed to participate in these jam sessions.
Bennie Moten’s genius was to take the jam session to the stage. The 4/4 meter, riffs, and extended, improvised solos were established as the staples of Kansas City Jazz. With the advent of the “race records,” recordings of Black jazz artists distributed to predominantly Black consumers by Okeh, Paramount and Columbia records, the Kansas City sound was disseminated throughout the country, leaving an indelible stamp on America’s rich musical heritage – an influence that continues to be felt today.