Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago: In Their Own Words. By John Mayer.
New York: Bloomsbury Methuen, 2016. ISBN 978-1-4742-3945-5.
The Steppenwolf Theatre Company mostly tells its own extraordinary story in John Mayer’s engaging book examining the methods, history, and overall mission of the company which, among other things, has created a much-imitated dynamic ensemble style. In the process, as Mayer’s book reveals, the Steppenwolf has brought an impressive numbers of actors, playwrights, directors, and designers to prominence within Chicago’s diverse theatre scene and beyond. Other than Victor Skrebneski’s Steppenwolf at 25: A Photographic Celebration of the Actor’s Theater (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2000) which, as its title makes clear, offers a visual record of the Steppenwolf company, Mayer’s book is the first to provide analysis of the workings of this essential company which, as Mayer asserts, has changed the face of the American stage.
Perhaps no modern theatre company has devoted itself as tirelessly to creating a true ensemble while working closely with established and emerging playwrights to address challenging contemporary themes by employing cutting-edge techniques. New works from playwrights like Tracy Letts, who is a member of and also acts with the company, predominate, but American classics are also given the Steppenwolf treatment, as in their now famous production of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in 1988, as well as such neglected works as Tina Landau’s astonishing staging of William Saroyan’s 1939 play The Time of Your Life in 2002. European dramas from Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler to Eugene Ionesco’s Exit the King have also been central to the Steppenwolf’s achievement.
Mayer’s is not a scholarly accounting of the Steppenwolf’s achievements, but focuses instead on the experiences of company members at work on a selection of representative productions. The history of the theatre, which is, in itself, as remarkable a story as that of any play produced there, began with a small band of high school students who combined their idealism with determination in 1974 to stage plays in a church basement. During the subsequent forty-plus years, this little experiment evolved into the most admired of America’s regional theatres, widely known outside of the borders of their home turf, Chicago, thanks to Broadway transfers of the finest Steppenwolf productions. The Steppenwolf’s impact has been felt on international stages, inspiring theatre artists with its ego-less ensemble approach and the communal management of the theatre by permanent company members.
Nearly 100 illustrations support Mayer’s vividly readable text, with the first chapter examining the company’s establishment and initial efforts, followed by three subsequent chapters exploring the most acclaimed Steppenwolf productions, Balm in Gilead, the aforementioned The Grapes of Wrath, and August: Osage County, as exemplars of their techniques and the evolution of the company’s orthodoxy. A final chapter ruminates on the future which, inspired by the Steppenwolf’s vaunted past, aims to recommit to its original intentions and to keep production standards high.
Though not perfect as a resource (a detailed listing of all Steppenwolf productions would have been a welcome inclusion, for example), Mayer’s book is otherwise seminal thanks to his access to company members, including Steppenwolf founders Gary Sinise, Jeff Perry, and Terry Kinney, who provide pithy, informative interviews revealing the inner workings of a regional theatre that has proven the worth of its ideals of communal and socially-conscious national theatre.
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro