Steppenwolf Theatre Company said Thursday that two of its ensemble members, Glenn Davis and Audrey Francis, are to become joint artistic directors of the famed Chicago theater.
Davis, 40, and Francis, 42, will succeed Anna D. Shapiro, who announced her departure in May, effective at the end of August, and after six years in the high-visibility and inevitably contentious job.
“We were a package deal,” Davis said in a Zoom interview with the Tribune, noting that the pair had presented themselves that way to their fellow ensemble members, who then voted on the outcome. “It was an incredibly democratic process,” Francis said on the call.
This will be the first time in its history that Steppenwolf has had more than one artistic director, still an unusual model in nonprofit American theater. But both of the incomers are actors, and they said that the pairing will allow them to ensure “there is always somebody tending the garden,” without forcing either of them to give up national acting careers. Davis is already scheduled to appear in the Steppenwolf production of “King James” early next year.
“As an actor-centered theater company, moving to a new, co-artistic leadership model is aligned with the entrepreneurial spirit of its founders, ensemble members and leadership team who have all shaped Steppenwolf,” said Eric Lefkofsky, the chair of Steppenwolf’s board of trustees. “The different life experiences Glenn and Audrey bring to the role will provide a more comprehensive worldview in decision-making that will benefit Steppenwolf actors, staff, the company and our audiences.”
Both will be based in Chicago, although Davis, who grew up on the South Side in the Chatham neighborhood and graduated from DePaul University, also has close ties to the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, where his bespoke production company, Cast Iron Entertainment, is in residence.
Davis, whose TV work includes “Billions,” shares that developmental endeavor with his close friend, the Oscar-winning writer and Steppenwolf ensemble member Tarell Alvin McCraney (”Moonlight”), Sterling K. Brown (”This is Us”), André Holland (”Selma”) and the prolific Steppenwolf ensemble member Jon Michael Hill.
Francis, who grew up in Boulder, Colorado, has emerged from Chicago’s storefront scene to a respected berth as one of the city’s leading (and liveliest) stage actors, appearing in around a dozen Steppenwolf productions over the last few years. She previously served as artistic director of Chicago’s Pine Box Theatre and ran a teaching studio known as Black Box Acting.
“I feel supported, very aware of the challenges ahead and very excited for what Glenn and I can do as a team,” Francis said.
“Steppenwolf,” says Davis, “was my artistic home before I even knew what that meant.”
Although most artistic directors in the nation are recruited from stage directors, a previous Steppenwolf artistic director, the late Martha Lavey, has provided a model for actors moving into the role.
“To be an actor means you know how to be a collaborator,” Francis said. “And we hope that is what will happen at Steppenwolf going forward.”
Both of the newcomers to the top artistic job say they initially bonded backstage at Steppenwolf when both happened to get small roles in the same show, leaving a lot of time to dream about changes they would like to see in the theater. Self-evidently, many challenges await, including the need to reopen the Steppenwolf campus to live performances this fall, and then fill a bold, new, $54-million theater space with audience members who will have been away for more than 18 months.
“We’re both hustlers, we both really love Chicago, and we’re cut from the same cloth,” Francis said, “and yet we have two lenses and two worldviews.
“We want the best idea to win,” Davis said.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.