Steppenwolf Theater Company, an ensemble in Chicago with a track record of premiering critically acclaimed works that land on Broadway, announced its new artistic leadership on Thursday, and for the first time in the company’s decades-long history, that means two people, not one.
The ensemble members Glenn Davis, who is best known in New York for starring in “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” alongside Robin Williams on Broadway, and Audrey Francis, who co-founded a Chicago acting conservatory, will both serve as artistic directors, the company said. Davis, who is Black, is the first person of color in the company’s history to be in the role.
In an unusual process for a theater company, the ensemble voted to appoint Davis and Francis in an election, after the pair put themselves forward as a team.
The new leadership structure comes at a transitional time for Steppenwolf: This fall, it plans to open a new $54 million addition to the company’s headquarters in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, which will include a 400-seat theater-in-the-round and a floor dedicated to education. The debut will coincide with the company’s return to live performance — with Tracy Letts’s “Bug” in November — after a 20-month pandemic shutdown.
“The ensemble has always been the heart and soul of Steppenwolf,” Davis said in a statement accompanying the announcement. “As the company has grown so, too, has the ensemble, now reflecting a diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and passions.”
The current artistic director, Anna D. Shapiro, who has led the ensemble since 2015, announced in May that she would be resigning at the end of August, which coincides with the completion of her second three-year contract. Shapiro’s resignation came shortly after two people of color who have worked with the theater shared grievances about the institution that were published on the website Rescripted.
Lowell Thomas, a video producer at Steppenwolf, resigned in April, accusing the company of burying “claims of harassment, racism, and sexism to avoid accountability and real change.” And Isaac Gomez, a playwright who worked with the theater, said he considered pulling one of his plays from the company’s programming because of Thomas’s departure.
At the time of her resignation, Shapiro told The Chicago Tribune that the timing of her announcement was unrelated to the published accounts, saying, “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.”
In a statement about the new leadership, Eric Lefkofsky, the chairman of Steppenwolf’s board of trustees, said that Davis and Francis’s different backgrounds would lead to a “more comprehensive worldview in decision making.”
Steppenwolf — which employs a 49-person ensemble and operates programming for teenagers and educators — has a history of producing works that draw national recognition and transfer to New York stages.
In 2007, Shapiro directed the premiere of Letts’s play “August: Osage County.” Letts, who is a Steppenwolf ensemble member, also debuted a recent play, “The Minutes,” at the Chicago theater; the show’s Broadway run was interrupted by the pandemic. And the second Broadway show to reopen this summer, “Pass Over,” a play about two Black men trapped by existential dread, had its premiere at Steppenwolf, and two of the company’s ensemble members will appear in the Broadway version.
Davis, an actor and producer, joined the ensemble in 2017, appearing in plays like Bruce Norris’s “Downstate” and Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “The Brother/Sister Plays.” In February, he will star in Steppenwolf’s “King James,” a play by Rajiv Joseph about LeBron James that was scheduled to have its debut in June 2020, then was delayed.
Francis, who also joined the ensemble in 2017 after attending its acting residency in 2004, has performed in 10 productions with the company, including Clare Barron’s “You Got Older” and Rory Kinnear’s “The Herd.” Francis co-founded the conservatory Black Box Acting and works as an acting coach for entertainment companies like Showtime and NBC.
In a statement, Francis said that one of their objectives as leaders will be to “re-examine how we support artists on and off stage.”
“We are inspired by the changes we see in our industry,” she said, “and aim to redefine how artists are valued in America.”