Anna Shapiro resigns as artistic director of Steppenwolf Theatre

Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune
·6 min read

Anna D. Shapiro, the artistic director of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company since 2015, is resigning her post effective at the end of August.

The decision, one of many such wholesale changes as the Chicago theater slowly emerges from the COVID-19 crisis of closures, is not unexpected by close observers: Shapiro long ago signaled her intention to leave at the end of her current contract and the ensemble and board of directors has been engaged in succession planning.

Shapiro said Saturday that she had always intended to serve only two three-year terms as artistic director and that, especially given the strong ticket sales after Steppenwolf announced the fall reopening, she now felt like she could leave having achieved two of her key goals: “to secure the future of the theater and to diversify the company so that is more like the city in which we live.”

She said she expects to remain based in the Chicago and will continue to be an ensemble member at the theater and to teach at Northwestern University.

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The 55-year-old director also has a strong reputation on Broadway, where she directed such high-profile shows as Larry David’s “Fish in the Dark,” Kenneth Lonergan’s “This is Our Youth” (starring Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin and Tavi Gevinson) and “The Motherf***er with the Hat,” starring Bobby Cannavale, Chris Rock and Annabella Sciorra, all for the producer Scott Rudin, now sidelined following allegations of mistreatment of employees. Shapiro’s latest project is the much-anticipated new musical version of the 2006 movie “The Devil Wears Prada” for the producer Kevin McCollum; a pre-Broadway tryout is slated for Chicago in the spring of 2022.

Shapiro’s announcement comes at a time when the famous Chicago theater company, like many of its peers, has seen intense online criticism for the treatment of some of its workers, especially artists of color. Most recently, an artist-led theater website, Rescripted.org, offered a lengthy excerpt of comments by a playwright, Isaac Gomez, who has worked at the theater and who described it a “an (artistic) home that also causes me great pain.” The site also quoted an editor and videographer, Lowell Thomas, who said that he had chosen to “step away from the company” because Steppenwolf had “committed itself to inequity” and claimed that its leadership “buries claims of harassment, racism, and sexism to avoid accountability and real change.”

“There’s not a theater in this country worth its salt that is not dealing with these questions of systemic racism and trying to look at its culture and Steppenwolf is no different,” Shapiro said, when asked about these allegations. She also said the timing of her announcement was not related to those charges: “I am not stepping down from this work that needs to be done just because I am leaving as artistic director,” she said.

Artistically, Shapiro’s tenure at Steppenwolf, which followed that of the late Martha Lavey, will likely be most remembered for her premiere production of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “August: Osage County,” a stunningly successful show that reintroduced Steppenwolf to a new generation of international fans, bringing its signature style of intense acting to Broadway and the road, London’s National Theatre and the Sydney Theatre Company in Australia. Shapiro also successfully shepherded the construction of a new, $54 million addition to its Lincoln Park campus, a bold act at the best of times, let alone during a pandemic. The new theater in the round will now also allow for a major expansion of the theater’s educational programs.

As the leader of a historically passionate, frequently brilliant and perennially contentious group of actors, Shapiro was faced with numerous difficult artistic decisions that often not always sit well with such long-standing ensemble members as John Malkovich, Martha Plimpton and Rondi Reed, causing them to retreat from the ensemble, although some members were already busy with other projects. And Shapiro, who is married to the ensemble member Ian Barford, also added several new and highly successful ensemble members during her tenure, focusing on younger actors of color such as Glenn Davis, Sandra Marquez, Celeste M. Cooper and Namir Smallwood, the star of the Letts play “Bug,” returning to the theater this fall. Shapiro also added playwrights and directors to an ensemble historically dominated by actors.

“Anna’s additions to the ensemble were transformative,” said Jeff Perry, the co-founder of Steppenwolf.

And, especially in recent years, Shapiro championed the work of many up-and-coming writers of color, including, but hardly limited to, Antoinette Nwandu and Aziza Barnes.

“I am a new-play director,” Shapiro said. “I am most proud of how we have been able to champion these younger voices, to give them the platform that Steppenwolf has, and then watch them fly. That is what I will miss the most.”

Shapiro was charged by her board of directors with the oft-difficult task of offering work that would sell tickets to the theater’s core, urbane, affluent audience of old-school liberal pluralists, many of whom are baby boomers long attracted by its reputation for edgy, exciting shows featuring actors both famous and long beloved, balanced with the growing call among its younger artistic constituency for an emphasis on progressive works championing themes of racial equity and social justice. Those artists are often now sharply critical of the theater’s truth-at-all-costs past and the cornerstones on which it had built its formidable reputation; even if relativist, non-ideological and intellectually sophisticated moral dramas, penned by authors like Bruce Norris and first championed in the Lavey era, drive revenue and remain what many people see as the Steppenwolf brand.

As such, the debate during the last part of Shapiro’s tenure at Steppenwolf mirrored many of the arguments in the American theater and in left-of-center America itself.

Unusually, the artistic ensemble, rather than the board of directors, is charged with identifying Steppenwolf’s next artistic leader, which typically comes from one of their own number. That process is ongoing.

Perry said he was “thrilled by the challenge to reinvent the company,” as it decides on its new leader.

“We have to decide what we want the artistic director to be, he said, “and what we want the ensemble to be.” Perry noted that the artistic director has historically come from the ensemble, but he also said that other options are on the table.

“A new generation of ensemble members are bringing a new conversation,” Perry said, praising Shapiro “for putting her foot on gas when it comes to diversification.”

“Being part of the leadership of this organization has been the greatest honor of my professional life,” Shapiro said.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@chicagotribune.com