“We weren’t thinking, ‘Oh God, we’re creating history here.’ We were entertaining ourselves and wanted to take audiences on the best ride we could. Some really talented people, through a lot of luck, came together at the same time, with a common sensibility, a commitment to truth and a very high level of irreverence.”
In John Mayer’s new book, “Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago: In Their Own Words,” those words are “spoken” by ensemble member Tom Irwin, who tries to encapsulate what drove the troupe from its earliest days. His is one of many voices of ensemble members, playwrights and directors including Gary Sinise, Jeff Perry, Terry Kinney, John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf, Joan Allen, Francis Guinan, Martha Lavey, Tracy Letts, Rondi Reed, Amy Morton and too many others to list here, who offer their timeline anecdotes about one of Chicago’s mightiest theater companies.
The book chronicles Steppenwolf from its humble beginnings as an idea cultivated by a group of Highland Park High School theater students in the 1970s, to an 88-seat theater in a church basement, to a tony Old Town state-of-the-art facility. Its author has been a lifelong friend to his high school classmates Sinise and Perry (who founded Steppenwolf, along with Terry Kinney). Mayer is currently the chair of the theater department at California State University, Stanislaus, but he also performed in several of Steppenwolf’s earliest productions.
Mayer spoke to me earlier this month about the book and the world-renowned theater company.
Q. Take us back to those high school days with Gary Sinise and Jeff Perry.
A. Back in early 1970s we were ahead of our time. There still aren’t many schools today that have what we had at [Highland Park High School]. All we did was theater. We’d do a musical and we’d have 120 people audition. We had acting class, directing class. It was like summer stock. Like New Trier [High School], we were very blessed to do what we did, to be taught by the people we were taught by. We were being taught not by theater teachers per se, but by teachers coming off the college campuses and the [cultural, social and political] movements of their day. Those experiences permeated the consciousness of our classes.
Q. What did you learn about your high school friends and subsequent Steppenwolf company members through the course of this book project?
A. That people don’t change. The qualities that drove us in high school are still there. Gary lived and breathed theater. Once he found theater it was his holy grail. And he was driven. He still is. And he’s determined. He lives with blinders on because he’s so focused on those objectives. That’s what drove the growth of the company. In many ways, it was his blind determination to achieve things. They all want that. Jeff was and is and remains the heart of the company. He’s incredibly empathetic human being. He keeps things grounded all the time. He puts all the other people in front of him all the time. He’s always concerned about how everyone will feel in any situation. And he’s just as driven as Jeff. They all are. I saw all these qualities in both of them when we were in high school, and they’re all still there.
Q&A, book signing with John Mayer
When: 7 p.m. August 11
Where: Highland Park Library, 494 Laurel Ave., Highland Park
Q&A, book signing with John Mayer
When: 6 p.m. Aug. 16
Where: Harold Washington Chicago Public Library, 400 S. State
Q. What was the genesis of this book project?
A. I wrote my dissertation in 1993 and it was the early history of the company. I always had it in my mind that I’d write a book one day but I just got busy doing other things like chairing this [theater] department for the last 16 years. Out of the blue a person from Bloomsbury, the folks that [publish] the “Harry Potter” books, asked if I wanted to do a book. So it was the time. But I didn’t want to do something unauthorized. I got in touch with Jeff and he got in touch with [longtime Steppenwolf artistic director] Martha Lavey and they sent out a letter to company members about me doing this book. I already knew a lot of them, and once the word spread it was all good. The book wasn’t supposed to come out until September 2017 but I wanted to turn it around for the company’s 40th anniversary.
Q. What was the most intriguing thing you learned about Steppenwolf in the course of writing the book?
A. One of the things they wanted when they started was to avoid the institutionalization of the theater. So they isolated themselves in Highland Park. They were an ensemble company had a healthy disregard for the institutionalization of theater, but they didn’t know what they were going to soon become. But in 40 years, that’s exactly what they have become despite the ideals that are still there and drive the company, the primary one being the concept of ensemble work. That’s what has always driven their work, the collaborative ensemble process. It’s an actor-based theater company. They took that collaborative approach to develop ensemble playwrights including Tracy Letts, perhaps the greatest American playwright working today.
Q. You have structured the book around three key productions in the history of the company. Why did you choose that as your framework?
A. The company has done 300 plays in the last 40 years. I thought there were three productions that were literally key moments in the development of Steppenwolf: their groundbreaking production, which is “Balm in Gilead,” because it put them on the world map; “Grapes of Wrath” because it won them a Tony [and led to the establishment of a permanent home], and “August: Osage County” because it is a pivotal moment in the company’s history and in American theater.
Q. Your path in life took you away from Steppenwolf and Chicago.
A. I was a part of it in the beginning, for a while. I was in the earliest shows but I was not ready at that moment in time to make the commitment. I think there might have been a short period of time where I harbored a little regret. But I ended up where I was supposed to be. One of the things I learned from my studies at Second City is that you’re at the end when you’re back at the beginning. I studied with [Second City’s] Del Close back in 1980. I literally walked in off the street one day and I ended up working with Del Close. It was a time when you could just walk in and if he liked what he saw you could study with him.
Q. What do you think sets Steppenwolf apart from other Chicago theater companies, from other national or international theater companies?
A. It’s just real people who want to do incredible work. There’s lots of that Midwestern work ethic at work there. It’s not about becoming a star in Chicago. When Steppenwolf started, and it’s still true of the best work in Chicago, it’s about the work and getting the highest quality out of the work. … I believe the company is a demonstration of what hard work and perseverance can achieve. They absolutely had trials and tribulations. Did they always love each other? No. But they were able to sustain what they started out to do. The analogy I like to make about Steppenwolf is that it’s what Apple is to computers. Apple started in a garage and look where they are. Steppenwolf started in a basement, and look where they are.