This is the sixth of an 11-part, weekly series in which the students in my theatre history class at the University of North Carolina at Asheville respond to articles in Todd London’s anthology An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art. You can read the series announcement here.
In today’s essay, Stacie Stewart expresses her admiration for the originating impulse and values of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, but wonders whether the costs of success were too high. As always, I encourage you to engage with Stacie in the comments. — Scott Walters
I was destined for a career as a performer. I spent my childhood putting on private concerts for every guest that entered our home. There is a home video of me singing “Dreaming of You” by Selena Y Los Dinos in our living room when I was a toddler. Then in third grade, my parents enrolled me in dance classes. Naturally, musical theatre was the next step. Broadway has always been my dream since the first time I heard about it as a child.
Then I came to a liberal arts university.
I still appreciate musical theatre, but I have come to the realization that Broadway and knock-off spectacle shows are not the only version of theatre in this world. I know now that reproducing shows, either musical or straight, is not nearly as fun and artistically fulfilling as producing original shows. Seeing a work go from an idea to a production in front of an audience is so much more satisfying than imitating Kristin Chenoweth or Sutton Foster. Having a group of friends to do it all on a regular basis is better than going to audition after audition, possibly getting a part occasionally if the stars are aligned just right. I want to perform. I want to perform all the time. I don’t care if I am in front of an audience of 500 or 5, I want to perform. That is why I connected so much to the Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
An argument that I have encountered a lot lately is whether the ultimate purpose of theatre is to entertain the audience or to allow the artist to express themselves. Is theatre a business or an art showcase? It is up for each person/company to decide that for themselves, but I stand on the side of the art. I perform because I love the feeling it gives me. For the founders of Steppenwolf, the show would go on even if only one person was in the audience. On the nights when not a single person came, they would perform for each other. It wasn’t about money or fame, it was about being in the moment, doing what they loved.
One problem with Steppenwolf, however, is that they grew. Most call this success, but for me, it’s not that simple. When you are in a small theatre company, you can do the shows and genres and designs that you want. You have an idea, you present it to the rest of the company, you start working on your idea, and then you perform the show relatively quickly. When the theatre becomes larger, that process has many more steps. A theatre that is bringing in hundreds of ticket sales per night cannot be operated in the same way that a small theatre can. For starters, it takes a huge building to hold that many people. Huge buildings have huge rents. To afford the building, you have to do what it takes to get that many people there; you have to take into consideration what shows would attract butts to seats. You may want to do a particular show, but the community has shown that it doesn’t like that type of show. You can’t do it.
Also, with fame comes prestige, and with prestige comes inflated ticket prices. The audience is cut down significantly because not everyone can afford $65+ per ticket.
There is a trade-off. It’s the same as working a “normal” job. You can either work for a big company and make more money starting off, but you are forced to operate on set hours and policies. If you own your own business, you might not be as stable, but you have more personal freedom.
I do not think there is anything wrong with Broadway or large companies like regional theaters that reproduce big name shows. Those companies know which side of the argument they stand on, and they act accordingly. I do not think there is anything wrong with small theatre companies growing until they are hugely popular, if that is the side that they stand on. As for Steppenwolf, I think they got too popular and don’t have the same values they once were founded on. I call this the American Dream Effect. You get caught up in getting “bigger and better” that you forget that bigger isn’t always better. Had Steppenwolf never moved to Chicago, they would never have made it big. However, they also would have the artistic freedom that most performers dream of. It’s okay to have a business that is a theatre. But that is not real art. I perform for the art. If you care about the art too, don’t be a capitalistic sell-out and sacrifice the art of theatre when you start making money.