Steppenwolf Theatre is set to expand in Lincoln Park

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Four decades ago, Jeff Perry spent his days toiling at an egg roll joint in the Northbrook Court shopping mall. His pal, Gary Sinise, worked at a loading dock 200 or so yards away.

Nights and weekends, they could be found in the basement of a nearby Catholic school — on a makeshift stage.

“We sometimes outnumbered the audience,” Perry, now 63, recalled fondly Tuesday. “We made nary a ha’penny.”

Those were the humble beginnings of Steppenwolf Theatre. On Tuesday, as well-heeled donors, actors and others sipped cocktails and nibbled posh hors d’oeuvres, the Lincoln Park acting company offered a glimpse of the future: A $54 million glistening glass-metal-and-concrete building that will feature an “intimate” 400-seat theater-in-the-round, a wine bar, sidewalk lounge and an airy, two-story atrium.

The new theater, which is expected to open in summer 2021, would replace Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre, allowing it to resume its original purpose as a rehearsal space.

The new facility, just south of the theater on North Halsted, is part of a multiyear expansion costing a total of $73 million, company officials said. The project began in 2016, with the completion of the 1700 Theatre and Front Bar. To date, the company said it has raised $46 million.

Steppenwolf’s artistic director, Anna D. Shapiro, said the project isn’t expecting to receive money from the city, but will likely seek some state funding.

“The state is normally very supportive of the arts,” Shapiro said. “It’s why we are all here. But we’ve really been depending on our support from our individual givers.”

With its curtain-of-glass facade and jutting stair tower clad in a metal mesh, the new building is distinctly different from the brick-and-concrete face of the company’s existing theater.

“Back in the day when we made this building, this was a really crappy neighborhood — perceived as a very dangerous neighborhood,” Shapiro said. “People wanted the experience of coming in, shutting the door, seeing the play, running into their car and getting the hell of out of here.”

But as the years have passed, the neighborhood has become more affluent and more pedestrian friendly.

“We want people who are walking by to say, ‘Oh, what is that?’ And walk in the door,” Shapiro said. “It’s really about taking the whole front of the theater, literally, and busting it open and having it say: ‘Walk in the door.’ ”

Perry, who now lives in Los Angeles and has been on such TV shows as “Scandal” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” says the new theater-in-the-round stage will be thrilling for audiences and actors alike.

“Maybe it’s what boxers feel and circus performers feel,” Perry said. “There’s something interesting and tangible — people are on all sides of me and I want to invite them all in, as many times as I can. . . . And there’s no hiding from them, there’s no turning upstage.”

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