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Building the Next Generation of Chicago Theater in Steppenwolf's Garage

Buzz22, Bailiwick Chicago, and Theatre Seven of Chicago enter the Garage at Steppenwolf as separate companies, but emerge as a community.

The cast of She Kills Monsters.
© Jake Pollack
When you're a young aspiring rock star, you start out in your parents' garage. Why should it be any different if you're an aspiring theater artist?

Chicago's Steppenwolf doesn't think it should be. The company, which firmly established itself as a major voice in American theater with the 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama August: Osage County and an impressive roster of alumni -- including John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf, and Amy Morton -- has decided to open its garage to the kids. Steppenwolf's Garage Rep series is a ten-week rotating repertory of three plays (meaning they switch off every night) from small Chicago theater companies, running February 15 through April 21 in Steppenwolf's Garage Theatre. But why exactly would a company with its own brick-and-mortar space give room to these small nomadic companies when it could be using that space to produce its own work?

"We felt that we had a real responsibility to continue to support the Chicago theater ecology by bringing these companies in, giving them space, and giving them production support," said Associate Producer Jacob Padrón, who curates the Garage Rep.

Fifty local Chicago theater companies applied for a space in the rep this time around, in the fourth year of the program. It was Padrón's job (with help from the rest of the Steppenwolf staff) to whittle that number down to three. This year's rep will feature Christina Anderson's BlackTop Sky, a three-person play about a larger urban housing project from Theatre Seven Chicago; Qui Nguyen's She Kills Monsters, a tale of loss and grief through the lens of Dungeons & Dragons, presented by Buzz22; and Michael John La Chiusa's See What I Wanna See, a wide-ranging musical about murder and love and God, ambitiously mounted by Bailiwick Chicago.

Putting It Together

Cassy Sanders in rehearsal for BlackTop Sky.
While the three plays couldn't be more different, Padrón makes it clear that he's less interested in cohesive content than he is finding three companies that work well together. "We wanted companies that really want to be in deep conversation with two other companies," he said. "We selected companies that really value community, because that's how repertory really works. You have to understand the value of collaboration."

Theatre Seven's Cassy Sanders, director of BlackTop Sky is totally on board with collaboration, but she's not naive about the problems that can arise in a shared space. "We have to share space: That's not easy," Sanders said. "We have three different stories to tell and three design teams... It's all been talking about each other's needs and figuring out how we can all work in the same room." Sanders has opted to perform her play in the round, with the audience playing the role of four oppressive high rises that surround the blacktop courtyard where the action of the play takes place. The other two teams had a different vision of the space.

"Buzz22 and Theatre Seven had strong ideas of how they wanted the stage," said See What I Wanna See director Lili-Anne Brown. "I said, ‘you can have whatever you want, as long as I can have an orchestra pit in the back of the stage.' You know, you have to pick your battles and know what's important to you."

A veteran of four previous theater companies, Brown is the most seasoned of the three directors, which is why she's been tapped to helm the Garage Rep's first ever musical. "This is a company that really knows their shit when it comes to musicals," says Padrón of Brown's company, Bailiwick Chicago.

Lili-Anne Brown in rehearsal for See What I Wanna See.
Bailiwick Chicago was born out of the ashes of the now-defunct Bailiwick Repertory Theatre, which shuttered in 2009 in the wake of the financial crash. This is a group of artists who have been staging great musicals for years. "There's a great core group of theater-makers in Chicago and we were all on Belmont in the late nineties," she said. "It was basically a party. You were either doing something at Theatre Building or Bailiwick or you were hanging out at Joey's Brickhouse and it was this kind of wonderful crucible of talent. Bailiwick was a huge part of that."

Stage Trek: The Next Generation

If Brown and Bailiwick represent the last generation of young theater artists in Chicago (the Generation X of the Chicago stage, if you will), Scott Weinstein and his company, Buzz22, might just represent the next. "Part of what we were attracted to was the fact that they were millennials [Americans born after 1982, before 2004]," Padrón said of the decision to include Buzz22 and their production of She Kills Monsters in the Rep. "They haven't done a whole lot, but we were inspired by their infectious energy and their ability to galvanize their constituency."

She Kills Monsters is the story of Agnes, whose younger sister Tilly has died tragically in a car crash with the rest of Agnes' family. Tilly left few possessions except a Dungeons and Dragons module that was actually a highly fantastical diary substitute. Agnes decides to play the game and goes on a journey of discovery, both of her late sister and herself. "Our mission as a company is to produce work that deals with coming of age no matter what age that happens," said Weinstein, who is directing the production. "This play...takes the ideas of growing up and loss and moving on, and handles them in a way that's totally unique and really funny and also incredibly moving and theatrical. It uses the world of Dungeons & Dragons to do that."

Of course, fitting a play that could easily call for a cast of hundreds of orcs and elves and demon warriors into a theater with three other plays offers its own challenges, but Weinstein is unperturbed. "Those challenges have been really beneficial in that they force us to be really creative with this world in the way that Qui writes," Weinstein said. "A lot of it feels really homemade. Expertly done, but home made. Dungeons & Dragons is a game about people coming together and creating together and we wanted to keep that vibe, finding cool ways to take everyday objects and use them in surprising ways to create this fantasy world." Essentially, the limitations of playing in the Garage in repertory have helped Buzz22 get closer to the style of the playwright.

"I call them low-budget spectacles," said playwright Qui Nguyen, who staged She Kills Monsters and several other geek-driven action-adventure plays in New York with his company Vampire Cowboys. They have become known for their elaborate fight scenes and special effects produced on a shoestring budget. "It came from necessity," he said. "We had whatever money was in our pocket. I got addicted to seeing how far I can push it."

Pay It Forward

Unlike the earliest days of Vampire Cowboys in New York, these three Chicago companies are lucky enough to receive shelter and production support from a much larger and older company with a three-stage performance complex, all while maintaining their own unique artistic visions. "We're providing the space and support, but these are their productions," Padrón said. "It's outside the aesthetic of Steppenwolf, but that is the point."

He hopes that in this space, these three companies will be able to spawn new relationships and collaborations, bringing together the knowledge and experience of the Bailiwick crew with the freshness and spunk of younger ensembles like Buzz22 and Theatre Seven. "I'm sure we'll all stay in touch and keep supporting each other's work," Sanders said.

In that respect, Steppenwolf could be building the next incarnation of the Belmont party that Lili-Anne Brown remembers so fondly, and they're doing it in their garage.

For tickets to any of the productions at the Garage Rep, click here.