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Expanded Steppenwolf campus a cultural nexus for Chicago New state-of-the-art theater and dedicated education center

Earlier this month, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the nation’s premier ensemble theater company, opened its trailblazing new 50,000-square-foot Liz and Eric Lefkofsky Arts and Education Center. Designed by world-renowned architect Gordon Gill FAIA of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, with theater design and acoustics by Charcoalblue and construction by Norcon, the expanded Steppenwolf campus is a cultural nexus for Chicago—offering bold and ambitious opportunities for creative expression, social exchange, unparalleled accessibility, and arts-driven learning for Chicago youth in The Loft, Steppenwolf’s first-ever dedicated education space.

Completed in three phases, Steppenwolf Theatre Company now has an intimate, highly experimental cultural campus that doubles down on education, enhances audience engagement, and invites all of Chicago to experience its cutting-edge theater.

“This new building is a love letter to Chicago that will allow us to expand our reach across this great city as we operationalize our theater’s commitments to inclusion, diversity, equity, and access,” share Artistic Directors Glenn Davis and Audrey Francis.

THE ENSEMBLE THEATRE
THE ENSEMBLE THEATER in honor of Helen Zell, designed by Charcoalblue, is the centerpiece of Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Liz and Eric Lefkofsky Arts and Education Center, designed by architect Gordon Gill FAIA of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture. The intimate 400-seat theater in the round is one of its kind in Chicago. Photo credit James Steinkamp Photography.

Steppenwolf was founded more than 45 years ago by a circle of students who craved a space to call their own. The $54 million Arts and Education Center is the largest new permanent cultural asset to open in Chicago in 2021 and will increase Steppenwolf’s education programming.

At the heart of the Center is an intimate, state-of-the-art, 400-seat theater in the round, which will open to audiences in 2022 with a Steppenwolf for Young Adults world premiere and grand public opening of the theatre.

Co-Artistic Director Davis talked with the Crusader about the importance of this new expansion. “This new Arts & Education Center allows us to serve 10,000 more students each year. It also houses our new in-the-round Ensemble Theater that enables us to establish a more intimate connection with our audiences,” he said.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
STEPPENWOLF THEATRE COMPANY Executive Director E. Brooke Flanagan and Artistic Directors Glenn Davis and Audrey Francis at the dedication ceremony for Steppenwolf’s new Liz and Eric Lefkofsky Arts and Education Center on November 2. Photo credit Kyle Flubacker, courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

Arts education is so important and has been proven to enrich the lives of youth throughout Chicago, and Steppenwolf is right in line with adding to those experiences. “The best part of the new building is knowing that it will be an entry point for many of the marginalized and historically underrepresented communities in the city of Chicago,” Davis added.

“This multi-phase campus expansion is a manifestation of Steppenwolf’s core values of ensemble, innovation and cultural citizenship. We are investing in this expansion of our artistic home in Chicago to serve our extraordinary city and support the work of generative and diverse theater artists for generations to come,” shares Executive Director E. Brooke Flanagan.

15 Steppenwolf Theatre Companys new upstairs bar
A VIEW OF the new upstairs bar at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, designed by FC STUDIO, Inc., as part of Steppenwolf’s campus expansion and renovation. Credit James Steinkamp Photography.

Gill has been deeply involved in the project since 2007 and talked about the commitment of the entire team. “It’s rare to find a group of people who are so invested in not just the function of the building, but the emotional life and equity of the space,” he said.

“To the young people of Chicago, we want to give an especially big welcome back to Steppenwolf. To the teens of our city, we know the toll this forced closure has taken on you and we want you to feel, now more than ever, that this new theater is yours with an entire education floor created for you. When you come to Steppenwolf, you don’t need to bring anything other than yourself. We can’t wait to see you,” shares Director of Education Megan Shuchman.

In the meantime, the theatre was thrilled to invite the community back for in-person performances for the first time in 20 months with its acclaimed and extraordinary revival production of “Bug” earlier this month.

“Bug” is written by ensemble member Tracy Letts and is playing in the Downstairs Theater through December 12. Directed by David Cromer with ensemble members Randall Arney, Carrie Coon and Namir Smallwood, alongside Jennifer Engstrom and Steve Key reprising their roles, the production was shut down before the end of its run in March 2020 due to the pandemic, and the show’s return to stage is Steppenwolf’s bold refusal to let the disaster of COVID-19 rewrite its story.

ENSEMBLE MEMBER
ENSEMBLE MEMBER NAMIR SMALLWOOD (Peter Evans) and ensemble member Carrie Coon (Agnes White) in Steppenwolf’s production of ‘Bug’ by ensemble member Tracy Letts, directed by David Cromer. The critically acclaimed production returns to the Downstairs Theater, 1650 N. Halsted St., through December 12. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

In a seedy Oklahoma motel room, a lonely waitress begins an unexpected love affair with a young drifter. And then they see the first bugs. Letts’ mind-bending cult classic is a luridly funny tale of love, paranoia and government conspiracy.

I saw this play last year before it closed, and it addresses folie à deux, which, according to Letts, is a psychological term that means the madness of two—it’s when one person literally catches another person’s psychosis, which also seemed to me kind of like love.

I enjoy Smallwood’s work— I’ve seen him in “True West” and “Pass Over,” which Spike Lee recorded with an audience from Saint Sabina Church and made into an Amazon Prime movie. In “Bug,” he plays a complicated, eccentric man who is suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and believes that, while he was in a military hospital, the government had implanted a bug inside his body.

This play is fascinating in that you feel for Agnes (Coon) who got more than she bargained for by fancying up to Peter (Smallwood). But you are really drawn into the fraught world of paranoia as Peter—through his words, actions and physical movements—endear you to his plight; all the while hoping that he gets some relief before he self-destructs while dragging Agnes into his morass of conspiracy theories and hallucinations.

Take a look at the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7vxHXPjUjfk.

Single tickets for “Bug” ($20 – $110) are on sale now. Discounts available, including new Artists & Essential Workers discounts, expanded 20-for-$20 program, Pay-Your-Age performances, $5 teen tickets through the Teen Arts Pass, and more. Classic and Flex Memberships to the 21/22 Comeback Season are currently available and offer first access to seats and easy exchanges.

For more information about the new, expanded Steppenwolf campus, Steppenwolf’s Loft Teen Arts Project, the two full-service bars and renovated lobbies, and tickets for “Bug,” visit www.steppenwolf.org.

ElaineElaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader. She is a National Newspaper Publishers Association ‘Entertainment Writing’ award winner, contributor to “Rust Belt Chicago” and the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood: South Side of Chicago.” For info, Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago (lulu.com) or email: [email protected].

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