Sunday, February 19, 2017

Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago (in their own words) a book by John Mayer

I am more than pleased to recommend this history of Steppenwolf, one of America’s preeminent theatre companies. The author,  John Mayer, is in a particularly apt position to tell the Steppenwolf story. He knew the initial founders and acted in a few of their early productions though he did not become a continuing company member.  This has given him a certain sense of objectivity and enabled him to be an honest broker rather than a publicist. Mayer went on to become a fine performer in his own right and an exceptional and thoughtful teacher.  Might I also say that anyone who was active in the theatre during the 60’s 70’s and 80’s will find that this volume will invoke plenty of personal  memories.  
Near the beginning Mayer cites the following passage from John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charlie.  “We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”   Most of us who have labored in the arts over the years will willingly and joyfully attest to that. 

This statement also leads us to one of the key points of the book. The founders of Steppenwolf were small town or suburban Midwesterners who had a consuming passion for theatre making.  They were stoked in their cause by dedicated mentors in high school and college theatre programs.  Once ignited, their passion and talent turned Chicago inside out and then quickly lit wildfires on both coasts.  One only has to mention a few of the recognizable names whose words grace the book--Gary Sinise, Jeff Perry, Joan Allen, John Malkovich, Amy Morton, Frank Galati, John Mahoney, Martha Lavey, Laurie Metcalf—to appreciate what the Steppenwolf  experience has meant to our country’s theatre and film community.

Frank Galati  continues this assertion when he notes that there was something in Midwestern high schools and colleges in general (not just at Illinois State) that  generated an atmosphere of theatre creativity and  “never ending in striving towards total honesty, committing oneself to taking risks, and being brave…”  A  few  pages later he states again that fiery creativity can be found on a Midwestern farm just as well as in a big city.   He goes on to note that the singular ethics of working class Midwesterners made for “uncompromising commitment to the value of honest labor.“  All of this is nicely put into context by Gary Sinise as he humorously tells of an early conversation with a New Yorker and says to her the company would like to bring the play  (Balm In Gilead) out there.  The woman replied sneeringly, “My dear man, this is New York.  You are out there!”  She, of course, had it wrong.  They weren’t out there; they were on the cutting edge and ready to move in and take over.

Mayer’s skillful melding of the pertinent company member’s stories hit home to me repeatedly as memories of my own experiences and career in the theatre appeared.   I had a mentor in a small Midwestern college, went to graduate school, and on to teach and direct plays in a small Midwestern college for forty years.  My labors never produced a Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, or Laurie Metcalf, but I would like to think that the light burned in a similar fashion if only more dimly.

Over the years I have been lucky enough to have seen a number of the productions mentioned in the text and have actually directed a couple of them myself. The story about how Sinise and Perry traveled to see the Guthrie Theatre’s production of Of Mice and Men brought up several memories for me. They were “overwhelmed” by the show and mentioned seeing Peter Michael Goetz at the curtain call.  Bingo  for me.  Peter was initially a McKnight fellow at the U. of Minnesota and I had several classes with him while I was working on my doctorate. One was called Movement for the Theatre and taught by Professor Robert Moulton.  We called it Prance and Dance and I still remember big grizzly Peter as we valiantly attempted to execute balletic interpretative movements to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I saw a lot of Guthrie shows in those years including The Cherry Orchard with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy and two of my Beloit College classmates worked at the Guthrie in the 70’s and 80’s.  In that sense the Guthrie was my Steppenwolf including a less than memorable appearance in Thornton Wilder’s Pullman Car Hiawatha directed by Sir Tyrone himself in a graduate class he taught at the University of Minnesota.  But this review is not of my career, but of how various elements of this book might stir the kind of emotional memories for you that they did for me.

At the very end Jeff Perry quoting from his eulogy for Sheldon Patinkin says of Patinkin and by extension to Steppenwolf itself that the key for them was to:

“throw the spotlight on the work not yourself.”

 What an ideal place to draw the curtain down. Find good work and do it with truth and passion to the best of your ability.  From a fellow laborer in the trenches thanks to John Mayer for creating this testament and to Steppenwolf for lighting a torch for so many of us.

Jim De Young


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