Since its founding in 2001, Steep Theatre has spent most of its institutional life in the shadow of the Red Line—from its first long-term venue by the Sheridan stop (where the honky-tonk music from the bar next door would bleed through the theater's walls on the weekends) to its current home nestled next to the Berwyn station.
But last month, the company announced that they were losing the space they've occupied since 2008; the owner has sold the building housing both Steep's flexible 60-seat black-box theater and the adjoining cozy Boxcar bar and cabaret space that they opened in 2018.
The news came in the midst of a flurry of announcements about other Chicago theaters—namely Mercury and iO—closing their doors permanently. But those were for-profit enterprises and Steep, as a nonprofit, does have some cushion from foundation grants not available to their commercial counterparts.
Last year, Steep, along with Porchlight Music Theatre and Albany Park Theater Project, received an inaugural "stepping stone" grant from Rick Bayless's Bayless Foundation, giving them each $150,000, spread over three years. The grant enabled Steep to make the leap to Actors' Equity union contracts for their productions of Lucy Kirkwood's Mosquitoes in October of 2019 and for their world premiere of Isaac Gomez's The Leopard Play, or Sad Songs for Lost Boys this past January. The company's operating budget for the 2019-20 season, pre-COVID, was just under $500,000.
For Steep's artistic director Peter Moore and executive director Kate Piatt-Eckert, the announcement was not completely unexpected. "We've known for a little while that it could be sold at some point, but didn't find out until it had," Piatt-Eckert says. For now, both she and Moore are choosing to view the search for a new home in the midst of a citywide performing arts shutdown as a way to reimagine what their theater can be in a post-COVID world, while taking with them the best of what they've learned over the past two decades.
"If it were any other year, any other moment when this happened, we would have been scrambling to find a home for already-scheduled shows and been really in a crunch," says Piatt-Eckert. "This gave us the breathing room to explore our options but also to be really thoughtful about next steps." Though they haven't zeroed in on a new venue yet, the company hopes to stay in the Edgewater neighborhood.
Even before the news of the building's sale hit (and before the stay-at-home order in March shut down all theaters and clubs), Steep was thinking about how to reconfigure the space to address the needs of both social distancing and productions with larger casts. Piatt-Eckert says, "Something we were looking at for reopening, before the building sold, was figuring out how to make it work with flexible seating and figure out how to reline up audiences in different places."
But they quickly realized that even if they could create distance for their patrons, the close quarters for actors and crew would be a problem. That's one of the things they hope to address in their new space.
Says Moore, "One of the things that we were toying with, before the building sold, was our dressing rooms. With large ensemble pieces—we had a show with ten people coming down the pike—the idea of doing a ten-person show onstage in that space was daunting enough. But the idea of cramming ten people into a dressing room is impossible." He adds, "The booth for our stage managers is impossibly small to begin with. Having a [production] shop in the back of our new space is a priority."
Creating more open space for patrons is also part of Moore's dream list, spurred by Steep's experiences with the Boxcar, which not only gave audiences a place to gather before and after plays, but also presented its own programming, curated by Thomas Dixon, which encompassed music, spoken word, comedy, and community discussions. Moore says he would love to find a way "to incorporate those performances in the front lobby. And have a big open lobby with big windows and have the art right out there in front. Maybe have windows open to invite people into the space and welcome them immediately into the Steep world. I kind of feel like that vision for a lobby—open and inviting, arts incorporated into the function—is again a kind of metaphor for how I'd like the organization to come back."
Steep, in coordination with several other theaters in Edgewater, including Jackalope, Raven, Rivendell, the Story Theatre, and About Face, literally opened its lobby last month to collect donations of food, medical supplies, phone chargers, and other necessities in support of Black Lives Matter protesters and organizations such as Brave Space Alliance and Chicago Freedom School.
Says Piatt-Eckert, "I think in this time when we're not producing, theaters have the opportunity to take a hard look at themselves and how they work internally and externally to play a bigger role in anti-racist work." That reflection, she notes, includes looking at "how are our artistic teams assembled, and how are our leadership teams structured, and how are power dynamics structured.”
That soul-searching might also involve looking at some of the most cherished precepts of theater, especially the Chicago storefront model where gritting your teeth and getting through has long been held up as a virtue. "Now there are different kinds of safety that we talk about and one of them that we hadn't talked much about before COVID was the physical wellness, the not-getting-sick part of performing," says Piatt-Eckert. "I've been involved in theater for almost 30 years and I don't think I've ever worked on a show where there wasn't some cold going around during tech week," adding, "We really should be taking our health more seriously as we look at the production models. I don't have answers to that yet. But I think it's something we're all thinking about."
Meantime, though the shows aren't going on, Moore is still reading through scripts and thinking about what and when they can produce again. "We'll have a better timeline in the next couple of months. We have two shows that were on hold for a little bit and I'm not sure if we'll hop back in and open with those shows." (One of the shows Steep had to cancel this spring was Ironbound by Polish immigrant and onetime Chicago resident Martyna Majok, who won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for her play Cost of Living.)
Piatt-Eckert notes that Steep and many of their theatrical peers aren't necessarily eager to open until the COVID curve flattens out quite a bit more.
"Something I've heard a number of different theaters say is that they can only afford to reopen once. So theaters are holding onto the money they need as much as they can to be able to do another show. Mounting a show is really expensive and if you don't have the revenue from the last show to help fund the current show, you're essentially starting from scratch. And theaters are sort of hanging onto the money they need to be able to do that, but they can only afford to do it once. So if that show has to close because somebody got sick, or because we go back down into stage three or whatever that is, it's likely we won't have the funds to do it again."
That means, too, that funders need to be patient and flexible with all nonprofit theaters—and not just the ones who are on the hunt for a new home. "It seems sort of counterintuitive to fund theaters to not produce plays, but if there is funding to give theaters to function in the meantime, that makes it possible for theaters to reopen without having to recreate new staff and recreate new theaters and do all of the things that will be necessary if theaters start to close," says Piatt-Eckert. "For folks out there with piles of money, funding theaters and other arts organizations to NOT produce right now is actually hugely beneficial as we look to what reopening looks like."
But whenever and wherever Steep opens their doors next, Moore is determined that it will be a place of celebration and community. "The experiences we take away from [the Berwyn space], the thing about that space is that it was the most alive and vital when those rooms are activated and used by the entire community. Looking back, those are really the exciting nights in that space." v