Chicago theaters are on a building binge at the moment, increasing both performance space and programming, while at the same time trying to adapt to the changing patterns of ticket buyers.
Steppenwolf Theatre’s announcement of its 2016-2017 season is a perfect example of this phenomenon, with signs of change and expansion as Anna D. Shapiro — who has been affiliated with the company since 1995, and was named artistic director in 2015 — is putting her first full stamp on the company.
The subtle shifts involve the choice and number of plays produced, with an expanded six-play (as opposed to the previous five-play) subscription season, in a new format that features four plays in the 515-seat Downstairs Theatre, with the opportunity for subscribers to choose between two productions in the 299-seat Upstairs Theatre.
The lineup will include four world premieres by David Rabe, Erika Sheffer and, for the second season in a row, Tracy Letts, with another, by Antoinette Nwandu, as an extra summertime offering. Also planned is the addition of “multidisciplinary” programming, and the design of more flexible subscriptions.
In May, Steppenwolf’s new 80-seat black box at 1700 N. Halsted will open under the name 1700 Theatre, replacing the Merle Reskin Garage Theatre, although this new casual, intimate, flexible space will continue to showcase the work of the Steppenwolf ensemble and emerging local theater companies. It will also be the home of Lookout, a new performance series that will extend beyond traditional theater to present a wide variety of genres and shows, from dance to live music, spoken word and more.
Kicking off the Lookout series will be the Chicago premiere of Justin Tanner’s “Voice Lessons” (May 31-June 12, 2016), a one-act touring comedy starring ensemble member Laurie Metcalf. It’s about the unlikely romance between a deluded community theater actress (Metcalf) and the overeducated vocal coach (French Stewart, “3rd Rock From the Sun”) she hires to make her a star.
The same 1700 Theatre stage will continue Steppenwolf’s commitment to local visiting company engagements by hosting a remount of Definition Theatre Company and the New Colony’s hit production of Evan Linder’s “Byhalia, Mississippi” (July 22-Aug 21, 2016). The complete summer lineup for the new Lookout series will be announced in April.
“The learning curve in my new job has been quite steep,” said Shapiro, the Tony Award-winning director of “August: Osage County,” who is currently in rehearsal for Letts’ newest grand-scale play, “Mary Page Marlowe,” which begins performances March 31. “The biggest surprise is how differently people see you. I have to be far more mindful of how I talk, and how I listen. And I often joke that the places I now feel most comfortable in are the rehearsal room, and my kids’ bedroom when they are sick in the middle of the night.
“I came to this job very familiar with [former artistic director] Martha Lavey’s challenges,” Shapiro added. “Our goal is to put members of the ensemble on stage as often as possible. But since so many of them are now tied up with film and television schedules, we need to disentangle ourselves from a model that doesn’t work. So we’ve tried to figure out how we can get more of what we need on stage, and more of what our audiences want: more diversity, and more opportunities for the younger artists of the next generation.”
“We’ll now have a total of seven shows, including a new summer slot. And although we will still offer our traditional subscription series, we are introducing the Steppenwolf Black Card [on sale as of Aug. 1], a membership model similar to that used by Lincoln Center Theater and the Public Theater in New York. It frees you from getting locked into certain dates, while letting you get a foot in the door for shows you want to be sure to see.”
The Black Card, good for six ticket credits, will offer three different options: “Anytime” ($70 a credit to use any way, any day of the week); “Weeknight” ($50 a credit to use Sunday evening to Thursday evening) and “Preview” ($30 a credit to use towards early performances in the run).
And there is this good news: The 1700 Theatre building will include a new cafe and bar slated to open this spring. With artisanal coffee, espresso and tea service by day, it will move to traditional bar service for the evening hours. The opening date and menu for the cafe (to be curated by chef Chris Pandel of Swift & Sons and Balena) will be announced at a later date.
For Steppenwolf subscriptions call (312) 335-1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org.
Here is a closer look at the plays in the 2016-2017 season:
• “Visiting Edna” (Sept. 15-Nov. 6 in the Downstairs Theatre), a world premiere by David Rabe, directed by Shapiro and featuring ensemble members Ian Barford, K. Todd Freeman and Sally Murphy, with the title character still to be cast. A look at a woman who has suffered a number of losses as she has aged, and now, with her son home for a visit, “faces the stealthy advance of cancer embodied by an intimate figure that she could do without.” Rabe, the Tony Award-winning playwright known for “Streamers,” “Hurlyburly” and “Sticks and Bones,” recently received raves for The Gift Theatre’s world premiere production of “Good for Otto.”
• “The Fundamentals” (Nov. 10-Dec. 23 in the Upstairs Theatre), a world premiere by Erika Sheffer, directed by Yasen Peyankov, and featuring Alana Arenas and Alan Wilder. Millie is a smart, resourceful young mother who works as a housekeeper in one of New York’s premiere luxury hotels. When an opportunity to move into management gives her the chance to leave behind her blue-collar life, Millie must decide how much, and who, she’s willing to sacrifice to secure her family’s future. Sheffer and Peyankov last teamed up in 2014 for Steppenwolf’s production of “Russian Transport.”
• “The Christians” (Dec. 1, 2016-Jan. 29, 2017, in the Downstairs Theatre), the Chicago premiere of a play by Lucas Hnath, directed by K. Todd Freeman. This exploration of faith in modern America is set in motion as Pastor Paul, who has spent 20 years successfully growing his church from a small storefront to a gleaming mega-church, shares his new belief in the nature of salvation. The message is met with surprise and growing trepidation, threatening to create a schism within the church.
• “Straight White Men” (Feb. 2-March 19, 2017, in the Upstairs Theatre), the Chicago premiere of a play written and directed by Young Jean Lee, featuring ensemble members Tim Hopper and Alan Wilder. As Ed, a widower, prepares to celebrate Christmas, he calls his three grown sons back to the family home. Games are played, Chinese food is ordered, and brotherly pranks and trash talk distract them from the ongoing issue that threatens to ruin the festivities. The question (asked by this Korean-American female playwright) is this: When personal identity is essential, and privilege is a problem, what is a straight white man to do?
• “Linda Vista” (March 3-May 21, 2017, in the Downstairs Theatre), a world premiere by Tracy Letts, with a director to be announced, featuring ensemble members Ian Barford and Tim Hopper. Wheeler is 50. His marriage is over, his job is mundane, and the best years of his life appear to be behind him. A move from the cot in his ex-wife’s garage to his own apartment opens up new possibilities for love and sex — complicated, painful and hilarious.
• “Hir” (June 29-Aug. 20, 2017, in the Downstairs Theatre), a Chicago premiere by Taylor Mac, with the director to be announced, featuring Francis Guinan and Amy Morton. In this twist on the classic dysfunctional American family drama we meet Paige, a wife and mother liberated from an oppressive and abusive marriage; Max, her newly out transgender son; and Isaac, Max’s PTSD-addled older brother, home from Afghanistan.
• “Pass Over” (scheduled as an additional summer show, running May 25-July 2, 2017, in the Upstairs Theatre), the world premiere of a play by Antoinette Nwandu, a winner of the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award, with a director to be announced and featuring Jon Michael Hill. A riff on Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” it features two young black men standing around on the corner — talking, killing time and hoping today will be different. When a white man wanders into their space, an escalating crisis threatens to prevent their escape from the block in this play that is a meditation on manhood, race and the cycle of violence. (Note: “Pass Over” is not part of the subscription season, but subscribers and Steppenwolf Black Card members will have the option to purchase tickets before the general public.)