Steppenwolf's Anna D. Shapiro and Leelai Demoz Take the Chicago Theater Virtual

”Steppenwolf Now” launches this month with a slate of new film and audio theater works created by members of their legendary ensemble.

Anna D. Shapiro and Leelai Demoz
Anna D. Shapiro and Leelai Demoz
(images provided by Steppenwolf Theatre)

Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theatre is about to introduce the whole world — and not just the Midwest and occasionally New York and London — to its fierce brand of rock-and-roll ensemble theater. This month, the legendary company will introduce Steppenwolf Now, a streaming theater platform showcasing mostly new work created during the pandemic, in defiance of limitations like not being able to perform together in the same room.

"If you're a theater fan," says artistic director Anna D. Shapiro, "you've got to move from mourning to opportunity really fast. We knew we were in trouble if we didn't start thinking about what we could do virtually, and we didn't want to be caught on our back foot. We turned this moment of missing each other really badly and not being able to be in the same room together into an examination of what theater does in people's lives. You can't replicate a live-theater experience this way. It's not possible. But what you can do is interrogate what theater does for people and then try to replicate that."

For help in doing so, the Tony-winning director turned to her Oscar-nominated associate artistic director, Leelai Demoz. Demoz began his career at Steppenwolf as an actor, but has spent much of his adult life working in film. "I keep saying, I moved to Chicago to take this dream job and make theater, and now I'm still making films," he says with a laugh. "Anna was really smart in saying, 'Let's just start.' How do you make a movie when you don't know how? You just start. That first step was really important because it sent a message to the organization, and it's unbelievable the way that they have embraced this. You start on your back foot, but pretty soon, we were on our toes and starting to think beyond what we can see."

Since the platform was announced, Steppenwolf Now has gotten sign-ups from 300 cities, 41 states, and 12 countries — before there was even any content. Here, Shapiro and Demoz preview the season and tell international audiences what to expect.

K. Todd Freeman and Jon Michael Hill in What Is Left, Burns
K. Todd Freeman and Jon Michael Hill in What Is Left, Burns
(© Lowell Thomas)

What Is Left, Burns
Written by James Ijames
Directed by Whitney White
Featuring K. Todd Freeman and Jon Michael Hill
Plot: Two poets, one moving toward retirement and the other, his younger lover, engage in a video call after 15 years.
Streaming: November 2020

Leelai Demoz: Whitney and James were in the middle of rehearsing The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington when we had to shut the theater down in March. When we were developing Steppenwolf Now, we asked James and Whitney to come up with something, and James wrote a complete 25-minute play. It just came out. Our actors, K. Todd Freeman and Jon Michael Hill, have always wanted to work together, and Whitney made something that was just great with all these limitations. We figured out a way to film it on the computer, she sent equipment to the actors, and she got everyone in the same place telling the same story with the same aesthetic. I've never seen rehearsals this close. In a rehearsal room, you're far away. Watching the discovery process of K. Todd and Jon Michael was amazing, and the final product is really beautiful.

Isaac Gómez
Isaac Gómez
(© David Gordon)

Wally World
Written by Isaac Gómez
Directed by Isaac Gómez and Lili-Anne Brown
Featuring: Danny Bernardo, Cliff Chamberlain, Sydney Charles, Kevin Curtis, Audrey Francis, Sandra Marquez, Leslie Sophia Perez, Karen Rodriguez, Marvin Quijada, and Jacqueline Williams
Plot: Ten employees struggle to find their purpose on Christmas Eve at a big-box store.
Streaming: December 2020

Anna D. Shapiro: Any room that Isaac Gómez wants to create in is one I want to be in. He calls Wally World his "Walmart Chekhov," and it's the perfect ensemble piece for us. I've become really enamored with being told stories in different ways, and I listen to things more than watch them now. Theater ignites people's imaginations and in this, we create the Walmart experience aurally, as opposed to physically. The big box store is a character itself. You can't extract the box store. We will do this show live when we are financially able to do this show, but for this moment, it couldn't have a better delivery system than as an audio play.

Rajiv Joseph and Carrie Coon
Rajiv Joseph and Carrie Coon
(© David Gordon)

Red Folder
Written and directed by Rajiv Joseph
Featuring: Carrie Coon
Plot: "The red folder belongs to a first grader. It is the source of all his woes. Years later, he seeks vengeance."
Streaming: January 2021

Leelai: Red Folder is a story taken from Rajiv's childhood.

Anna: He refuses in every way, shape, and form to talk about it. But it's not what you think it is.

Leelai: It's also his first time directing, and he's been so specific in what he wants. It's like watching a musician deal with melodies and pacing. And Carrie came in and they worked really well together.

Anna: Leelai texted me during the recording session and told me she crushed it. Our director of education just watched it before a meeting the other day and she could not stop crying. It's very special, and we never would have done something like it were it not for this situation.

Vivian J.O. Barnes
Vivian J.O. Barnes
(handout image)

Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!
Written by Vivian J.O. Barnes
Directed by Weyni Mengesa
Featuring Celeste M. Cooper and Sydney Charles
Plot: A Duchess and soon-to-be Duchess meet face to face to go over the rules before a Royal Wedding.
Streaming: February 2021

Anna: I always say that the reason Steppenwolf always seems to resist the "regional theater" label is because we make so much new work. We are constantly creating and have an incredible audience that is game for it. When we read this piece, it was pretty inarguable for all of us. Vivian isn't even done with grad school yet, and that made it even more special. When you talk to an artist about their work and you start to hear what they need, and you don't have that, you go get it. That's the most fun part of my job. Weyni is a person I met through Leelai and I thought she was super cool. We hooked them up and it was absolutely thrilling. And the play is so good.

Donnetta Lavinia Grays in Where We Stand
Donnetta Lavinia Grays in Where We Stand
(© Joan Marcus)

Where We Stand
Written by and featuring Donnetta Lavinia Grays
Directed by Tamilla Woodard
Plot: A man who has been shunned by his town makes a deal on behalf of it with a mysterious stranger, and then must ask for forgiveness as his community determines his fate.
Streaming: April 2021

Leelai: The plan is to eventually capture Where We Stand live in one of our spaces.

Anna: I fell madly in love with this piece when I saw it at the New Harmony Project. We had another show of Donnetta's on the season, and as it grew less and less likely that we would be having a full season, I couldn't bear the thought of losing her voice at this time. We have so many artists in our company who do everything well, and she's one of those people. There are certain pieces written specifically for the Steppenwolf Now platform, and certain pieces like Where We Stand that aren't, but that I think everyone on the planet should see.

Ian Barford
Ian Barford
(© David Gordon)

Ages of the Moon
Written by Sam Shepard
Directed by Ian Barford
Featuring Randall Arney and William Petersen
Plot: Two old friends reflect on their 50-year friendship and rivalry on a hot summer day.

Anna: The economics of this situation throw everyone back to the old Steppenwolf ethos of "storefront scrappy." The problem is just a little different: before, it was that you have no money and no one knows you're there. Now, you can't be in the same room together and can't have any physical contact. OK, go. I don't remember the last time that Billy Petersen and Randall Arney and Ian Barford had to get scrappy. That's not their jam anymore. But, oh, my god, you get the three of them in there and it's like they're young theater artists again trying to figure it out. It's cool.