New Steppenwolf Theatre co-artistic directors Audrey Francis and Glenn Davis prepare to take the storied stage troupe to an exciting new era.
Change is in the air at Steppenwolf Theatre, from this fall’s opening of the new 50,000-square-foot Arts and Education Center (complete with 400-seat Round Theater) to the hotly anticipated November return of live theater with company fave Bug by Tracy Letts. Shepherding the nearly 50-year-old Steppenwolf Theatre? Audrey Francis and Glenn Davis, the company’s new co-artistic directors, both stage veterans and Steppenwold ensemble members. As the X-Tony-winning company embarks on a new cultural season, we caught up with the two leaders to get their thoughts on what’s to come.
What does it mean to be taking the helm at one of the greatest U.S. institutions of theater?
AF: It’s an honor and a great responsibility. The American theatre is in a pivotal moment. And so is Steppenwolf. We have always been fearless not only in the stories we tell but the way we tell them. For us to be taking the helm at this time allows us to double down on what Steppenwolf does best—innovate, create, and challenge. We have the opportunity to explore how things have been done, imagine new ways to create, and challenge ourselves to lead by example.
GD: The world is a very different place than it was just 18 months ago. The pandemic and the racial unrest that have defined the past year and a half remain at the top of mind. As we reintroduce ourselves to Chicago audiences after such a long layoff, it’s important that we keep that in mind. We do so by taking stock of where we are in this current moment and where it is that we want to be. Cultural institutions have an obligation to be at the forefront of these important conversations. It’s critical that Steppenwolf be leading such dialogue.
What excites you most about working with each other?
AF: It’s easy to like someone or call them a friend. But to truly respect someone is unique. I have immense respect for Glenn. The two of us just being in conversation with each other about all things Steppenwolf is exciting to me. We are an ensemble theatre and this is ensemble leadership. Everything starts with a conversation that leads to ensemble-centric collaboration.
GD: Audrey is a great friend and wonderful collaborator. She is also a natural leader. She leaves her ego at the door, and that makes for a dynamic partnership. She is someone that will never ask anything of you that she doesn’t ask of herself and I am supremely fortunate to have her as my co-AD. This journey is one that we are charting together and her vision, artistry, leadership, intelligence, and humor will all make for such a thrilling ride.
What show made you decide that theater life was for you?
GD: It was two shows. I saw Jeffrey Wright and Don Cheadle in Topdog/Underdog. That production changed my life. I knew then that I was in the right profession. Never had I ever been so deeply affected by art. The other play was Peter Brooke’s Hamlet starring Adrian Lester. That production convinced me that I wanted to be classically trained. That is when I fell in love with Shakespeare’s words.
AF: I was in a play called Recent Tragic Events in Chicago’s storefront Chopin Theatre. I played a role where 90% of my body was Nancy (a stoner next-door neighbor) and 10% of my body was Joyce Carol Oates (played by a sock puppet on my left hand). It was one of the most physically, emotionally, and mentally demanding performances I’ve done to this day. That was when I realized theatre could be an extreme sport—and I was hooked.
What do you hope to bring to Steppenwolf in your new role?
AF: The courage to try, fail, and try again. To push the envelope while maintaining compassion, generosity, and always a sense of humor. Gathering and telling stories breeds connection and joy. At the end of the day, that is what I hope to bring: connection, compassion, and joy.
GD: I hope to break down barriers—around equity and inclusion in theater at large, but also barriers at Steppenwolf itself. I want to create more symmetry between the board, staff and ensemble. I am interested in the conversation we can engage in together. Historically, these entities have been siloed off from one another. In the past this has been done for good reason and to great effect. I think we are now in a moment when we all need to come together. We need to lean in and be a part of the greater conversation that this moment is demanding of us.
What are you most looking forward to for the upcoming season?
AF: Experiencing live art with a multitude of histories, perspectives, and experiences all in the same room. Gathering in a safe space to have challenging conversations that inspire change.
GD: We have been away from our audiences for about 18 months. I am looking forward to us all congregating in the lobby, then being ushered to our seats, watching the lights go down, and waiting in the darkness again as we prepare ourselves to bear witness to the magic of live theater. I miss it and I know our audiences miss it too.
Photography by: FRANK ISHMAN