Tony-Winning Director Anna D. Shapiro Talks Running the Country’s Largest Ensemble Theatre

Interview   Tony-Winning Director Anna D. Shapiro Talks Running the Country’s Largest Ensemble Theatre
 
The challenges—and joys—of leading Chicago's legendary Steppenwolf Theatre Company, home to artists like Tina Landau, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, and more.
Anna D. Shapiro
Anna D. Shapiro Frank Ishman

On the first day of production on a Steppenwolf Theatre Company show, the entire company gathers—the theatre’s staff, the cast, and the creative team—in the large, beautiful old hall where rehearsals are held. There to officially kick things off is Artistic Director Anna D. Shapiro, and every time, without fail, she starts to cry. Two-and-a-half years into her tenure, she’s still amazed that this is what she gets to call “work.”

Steppenwolf Marquee

But it is hard work. A Tony-winning director in her own right, Shapiro had big shoes to fill, not only because she was succeeding longtime leader, and stalwart of Chicago’s theatre scene, Martha Lavey, but because Steppenwolf Theatre Company remains the country’s premiere ensemble theatre. Formed by a small but ambitious collective of actors in 1976, Steppenwolf is now an acclaimed three-theatre institution recognized throughout the world. Its ever-expanding ensemble, 50-members strong, features a cross-section of actors, playwrights, and directors, many of whom are at the forefront of the industry: Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney, two-time Tony-winning playwright and actor Tracy Letts, and acclaimed stage and screen actors John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf, Martha Plimpton, and Lois Smith—just to name a few.

So how do you even begin to program a season with a roster of so many prominent ensemble members?

“When programming at Steppenwolf, the spine of your thinking is the artists that are going to be involved,” says Shapiro. “We’re always trying to maximize the ensemble’s participation.” What that means, logistically, is maintaining a number of ongoing conversations with ensemble members, who are often working all over the country. It’s not a “normal,” artistic directorship, explains Shapiro—something former artistic director Randall Arney told her prior to her starting work there in 1995 (her first job at the theatre theatre was as the director of Steppenwolf’s New Plays Lab). “I don’t ever close the door and make a decision… When you’re a part of an ensemble company, the conversation is always more than two voices.”

It’s also important to her—and the lifeblood of the theatre—that the participation of ensemble members in any production is an “authentic” one—“something special or owned by them that gets them involved in the project,” she explains. “I believe that the audience can feel that, and as an organization, we can feel that.”

“So the first thing we’re doing is looking at the artists who are available or who have raised their hands,” continues Shapiro, “and alongside that, we’re looking at the work that we feel like would not only appeal to them, but speaks to the moment that the world is in.” Her job is to make both things happen at once: personal, holistic connections between the productions and the Steppenwolf ensemble, and plays that are vital and contemporary in thought—plays that are of “the moment.”

But holding up a mirror to the current moment is a complex task, especially in the face of a fast-changing, largely unpredictable social and political climate. “You’re programming a season 18 months ahead of time,” explains Shapiro. “When I planned the season of the election, there was nothing in my mind that told me that Donald Trump was going to be the president—so there was a bit of a face-slap on that one.

“After my first season, I realized that there was an essential volatility in the community at large,” explains Shapiro. “It made me re-think the way that I look at plays. For me, every single play that we’ve picked for next season speaks to the conditions around volatility… Some of them deal with the volatility of politics… but they also deal with volatility in its opposite—there are plays that speak to the hope for stability.”

The recently announced 43rd season will include a world premiere by Pulitzer Prize-winning ensemble member Bruce Norris (Clybourne Park), a new production of Danai Gurira’s Off-Broadway hit Familiar; a remounting of McCraney’s acclaimed Wig Out! (starring the playwright himself in a rare return to the stage); Lucas Hnath’s Tony-nominated play A Doll’s House, Part 2; and a revival of Sam Shepard’s True West. The season is a melting pot with subjects that range from the assimilation of immigrants to the way society treats sex offenders. “Their narratives and forms are all really different, but they’re emotionally connected,” says Shapiro.

Tracy Letts and Anna D. Shapiro in rehearsal for<i> August: Osage County</i> at Steppenwolf Theatre
Tracy Letts and Anna D. Shapiro in rehearsal for August: Osage County at Steppenwolf Theatre Michael Brosilow

Several ensemble members have already been cast in the slated productions, with others tapped to direct; however, like every year, there aren’t enough spots for everyone. This is probably the hardest part of Shapiro’s job as the leader of such a large ensemble company, but it’s not something she’ll complain about. “There will be years when ensemble members think you’re the bee’s knees, and then others when they’re basically burning you in effigy,” she says. “And they should get to do that. Part of the deal with sitting in this chair is that you have to be okay with disappointing people. Artists don’t get to work very much. And they don’t have any control over their lives. They get to be frustrated.”

At the end of the day, Shapiro says that she still has “the greatest job in the whole wide world.” Steppenwolf has been a part of her identity, both as an artist and since she was a young, theatre-loving Chicago local. She’s now worked with the theatre in various capacities for over two decades, and while this may be her most challenging role yet, it’s also the most fulfilling. That’s something she’s reminded of every time she welcomes a new show on the first day of rehearsal in that great, big rehearsal studio just down the street from the theatre.

“I get to welcome everybody and start the process,” says Shapiro. “To be the person that gets to do that, even just by my title, to be the person [metaphorically] holding the bottle and breaking it against the ship as it launches—I haven’t not cried once. I’m so happy for everyone in that room. I’m so excited for our audiences. And I can’t believe I get to be the host.”

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