Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago

John Mayer
Bloomsbury Methuen Drama

Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago

One of the most exciting theatrical experiences that this reviewer can ever remember was the London transfer of Burn This by Lanford Wilson.

Although the name did not mean much at the time, this staggering drama starring John Malkovich and Juliet Stevenson bore all of the trademarks of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company at its very best.

John Mayer has been drafted in to write a biography of this wonderful company to celebrate its first 40 years of existence.

The early years are remarkable, in that the story literally started with a bunch of high school kids and an inspirational drama teacher.

Like so many others around the world, the youngsters tried putting on their own shows. Unlike just about every one of their peers throughout history, they and their successors are still doing exactly the same thing 40 years on. Even better, they have become world-renowned as a company, while the cream of their ensemble have achieved fame and fortune on stage and screen.

From the start, the company has worked on cooperative lines, never being particularly choosy about whether a member of what has practically become an extended family is an actor, a writer, a director or even all three.

In the early days, it was the trio of Jeff Perry, Gary Sinise and Terry Kinney who started the ball rolling but swiftly they picked up friends and began to take things a little more seriously.

In no time, Steppenwolf had small successes on the outskirts of Chicago, moving into town for the start of something much bigger by the late 1970s.

From there, the company continued from strength to strength, inducting new members on a regular basis and producing magical stage productions including some that have become the stuff of legend.

The family atmosphere might have started out with hippie overtones, but determined artistic direction and a devil-may-care attitude ensured that their productions had the kind of commitment that can only come from individuals whose understanding of their work and each other is close to perfection.

John Mayer structures this volume as a history but it explores various periods in the company’s development through the medium of a series of ground-breaking productions, first Balm in Gilead, then The Grapes of Wrath and lastly August: Osage County.

In addition to his own investigative work, the writer includes extracts from interviews with literally dozens of those that have helped the company to become one of the best and best-known in the world today.

Reading about a theatre company that started out in school then conquered the world while retaining its aesthetic in the teeth of fame on its own account and for so many of its members is fascinating. It should persuade readers to do their damnedest to find a Steppenwolf production on stage or screen in the near future and also prove an inspiration to any youngsters considering starting out on the road to a career as an actor, director, writer or conceivably, all three.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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