Steppenwolf Theatre Company had an ambitious 45th-anniversary season planned for 2020-2021 with six main stage productions, the opening of a brand-new, in-the-round theater, and lots of other activities, but the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying uncertainty have changed much of that.
But not all.
The “Reset Season,” reduced to four shows, still will kick off with the world premiere of “Good Night, and Good Luck,” Matt Charman's play about Edward R. Murrow based on the 2005 Academy Award-winning screenplay by George Clooney and Grant Heslov. But the debut has been moved from Oct. 22 to Dec. 2 with the official opening on Dec. 13.
Directed by Anna D. Shapiro, the highly charged political drama set in 1953 spotlights the conflict between veteran journalist Murrow, host of the CBS television program “See It Now,” and U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, whose anti-Communist crusade destroyed many lives and used fear to stifle political debate. Ian Barford heads the cast as Murrow, with Tom Irwin as his colleague and “See It Now” co-producer Fred W. Friendly, William Petersen as CBS exec William S. Paley, and ensemble members Audrey Francis and Alana Arenas among others
Although the Reset schedule means the deliberately timely work will open after the November 2020 national election rather than shortly before, Steppenwolf Associate Artistic Director Leelai Demoz doesn't think that should matter. “It's a great play and will speak to the moment and resonate with people no matter what,” he said.
Next up, though to maintain flexibility no specific dates have been set, is the return of last season’s Steppenwolf for Young Adults' hit, “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter,” based on the bestselling novel by Erika L. Sánchez, adapted by Isaac Gómez and directed by Sandra Marquez. This time around the Chicago-set, coming-of-age story with Karen Rodriguez reprising her role as Julia is doing double duty as part of SYA and as a main stage selection, the first time this has happened in the company's history.
“The original SYA world premiere last February was shut down early by the pandemic, so it seemed only fair to bring it back,” Demoz explained. “And that run attracted such a large number of multi-generational audiences that offering it as a main stage choice made perfect sense, as well as being a good use of our resources.” Replacing the usual second SYA play is an audio play of George Orwell's “Animal Farm” adapted by Steve Pickering from his stage adaptation (under his pseudonym Althos Low) and available only to teachers and students in October-November 2020.
The third Reset show is the Chicago premiere of “Last Night and the Night Before,” a complicated, heartbreaking portrait of a fractured Black family by Donnetta Lavinia Grays, directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton, who directed the world premiere in Denver. Closing out the main stage season is “Choir Boy” by Academy Award-winning (for “Moonlight”) ensemble member Tarell Alvin McCraney. Rising star Daniel Kyri plays Pharus Young, a senior at an elite Black prep school for boys who faces moral and ethical dilemmas. The gospel-infused play also features James Vincent Meredith and Austin Pendleton.
The other big event still on tap is the opening of the new theater, which has been pushed off from summer to fall of 2021, even though the actual construction is on track for completion. The world premiere of ensemble member Yasen Peyankov's translation and adaptation of Anton Chekhov's “Seagull,” also directed by Peyankov, showcases a large ensemble cast including Namir Smallwood, Francis Guinan, Caroline Neff, James Vincent Meredith, Sandra Marquez, Karen Rodriguez,Tim Hopper, Ian Barford, and Cliff Chamberlain as it grapples with timely—and timeless—questions about the meaning of art and even its necessity.
“We wanted to give members a season that is lush, broad, diverse, and had different styles of presentation,” said Demoz. “We also wanted programming that leans into the ensemble's strength. We do more great work when more of us are together, rather than doing smaller shows.”
These considerations influenced what was dropped from the shortened season, too. To allow for greater flexibility, Bess Wohl’s “Barcelona” has been canceled, and the world premiere of Vichet Chum’s “Bald Sisters” has been moved to the 2021/2022 season.
Steppenwolf also wanted a way to engage audiences more and to offer members alternatives to the shows that had been canceled because of the pandemic. They included “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington” by James Ijames, which was already in rehearsals; “Catch as Catch Can” by Mia Chung, and the world premiere of Rajiv Joseph's “King James” (as in LeBron James), a co-presentation with Center Theatre Group directed by Shapiro.
The result is a stream of virtual programming that launched in May with the ensemble cast's virtual reading of “Seagull,” followed in June by an epic audio play production of Arthur Miller’s “The American Clock” featuring more than 30 ensemble members including Jon Michael Hill, John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf, Jeff Perry, Molly Regan, and Lois Smith.
Later in the summer, members will receive an online version of McCraney’s “In the Red and Brown Water” directed by longtime collaborator and ensemble member Tina Landau. These virtual offerings have allowed Steppenwolf to bring together more ensemble members in one production and season than ever before in its 45-year history, and Demoz added that some of them have never worked together before.
Dubbed “Steppenwolf NOW,” the virtual programming continues into the 2020/2021 season with newly commissioned works by top playwrights such as ensemble members Joseph (“Guards at the Taj,” “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”) and Bruce Norris (“Downstate,” “Clybourne Park,” and many more), along with Chung, Gómez,, Grays, Ijames, and more.
The catch is that Steppenwolf NOW currently is available only to members, mostly because of complicated union rules. But Demoz said they're looking for ways to expand it to a wider audience. “We hope the time will come when we can offer a virtual membership to people all over the world.”