Since the early 90s, Steppenwolf Theatre has hosted local performing arts companies in its ever-expanding space on North Halsted.
"It started out as a very ad hoc kind of thing, a little bit of that Chicago goodwill," says Greta Honold, coproducer of LookOut, Steppenwolf's multigenre performance series and the current iteration of the theater's nearly three-decade tradition of hosting smaller companies.
The inclination to make space for lesser known or attended Chicago-area theaters has manifested into various initiatives and programs that have "shape-shifted" over the years, Honold says.
Before LookOut launched in 2016, there was Garage Rep, a Steppenwolf residency program that allowed for three different companies to perform on a repertory schedule over a two-month period in the Merle Reskin Garage Theatre.
While Garage Rep was solely focused on theatrical productions, LookOut covers a broader range of performances.
"Much of the year, we have the space set up in a funky cabaret configuration which allows for stand-up one night, storytelling the next, a band the night after that," says Honold. "[It allows for] a unique experience that is a little more like a nightclub than a theater."
Programming is traditionally announced quarterly, and for the fall and early winter 2019-20 lineup, Honold and her coproducer, Patrick Zakem, gave particular focus to dance and movement-based performance art, reconfiguring LookOut's performance space in the 1700 Theatre into a dance- and movement-friendly proscenium.
That series ends on February 2 with the final performance of Get Out Alive, an autobiographical "afrogoth" musical, written and performed by Nikki Lynette and presented through the lens of a hip-hop concert.
The late winter and early spring programming is comprised of theatrical productions from two local storefront companies. First Floor Theater will present Will Arbery's dark comedy Plano from February 16 to March 28, and Definition Theatre's run of White begins April 17 and continues through May 24.
Both productions also have ties to key players in Steppenwolf's current season—Plano is directed by Audrey Francis, a Steppenwolf ensemble member most recently seen in Dance Nation, and White was written by James Ijames, who also wrote The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington, which will run semi-concurrently with White at Steppenwolf later this spring.
While such connection is not a requirement for LookOut collaborations, it isn't uncommon.
"That's the way Chicago theater works," Honold says. "But we don't look for that. The connections we're seeing in the next couple productions are special, we think. With these two particular projects, it felt like the stars aligned."
This is Francis's second time directing a First Floor production; she previously codirected (with Will Bishop) the company's first-ever production, David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago, in 2013.
Since that first production, First Floor has continued to develop a reputation for boundary-pushing, intersectional work in the Chicago theater world, and attracted a dedicated cohort of younger theatergoers in the process. Plano follows three sisters in the eponymous Texas town who are suffering from various strange illnesses, all somehow connected to the men in their lives. LookOut is the company's first large-scale partnership with another presenting body, First Floor's artistic director Hutch Pimentel says.
"We have a chance to introduce our work to [Steppenwolf's] audiences, and they have the chance to get younger folks in their building, which is exciting for both of us," says Pimentel. "We have such a young group of ticket buyers at our company, so we're looking to find those folks who go see Steppenwolf shows and Goodman [Theatre] shows, and bring them into our theater, and I think [Steppenwolf's] looking to find the next generation of ticket buyers and audience members, who are the people who come to see our shows. It's a great mesh of sharing our audiences, but it's also an exciting artistic opportunity. Steppenwolf's ensemble is the preeminent acting ensemble in the world. It's exciting for us to be collaborating with one of their members, in their house, on a show that is a really interesting intersection of our interests."
Francis says First Floor and Definition are two of her favorite companies to watch right now.
"For [First Floor] to be in that same slot next to Definition feels really exciting to me, because those two companies have a vision I believe can set the tone for the next 20 to 40 years of theater. They're making me excited about theater's relevance again."
Definition's production of White is directed by Tasia Jones, who previously directed the play in 2018 while pursuing her MFA in the directing program at Northwestern University. (She graduated in June of 2019.)
Jones says she knew she wanted to direct the play again, and Anna Shapiro, Steppenwolf's artistic director who also teaches in the directing program at Northwestern, suggested Jones team up with Definition, who already had a working relationship with Ijames.
"It kind of seemed like a natural fit that we would do this as part of the LookOut series," Jones says. "That was the plan from the beginning."
Prior to moving to Chicago for graduate school, Jones was directing and performing in Boston. "Boston had a lot of fringe theater companies. . . but there wasn't a whole lot of interaction between them [and the larger companies]. Coming to Chicago and seeing that happen often was really great to see," she says.
White grapples with how institutions of art can promote diversity, inclusion, and equity initiatives without objectifying or tokenizing the very people for whom those same institutions are claiming to make space for, says Jones.
"I think Definition is really ready to have that conversation and invite audiences to have that conversation, and it's really encouraging that a large theater company like Steppenwolf is also ready to have that conversation," Jones says. "I think having this production live in Steppenwolf's space, and inviting their subscribers and core audience members to have that conversation, is really important. Small companies are thinking about this because they're grassroots and they are often more diverse in terms of their audience and theatermakers, but these larger institutions—how do they have these conversations with their audience members? This provides an opportunity for these different audience bases to come hopefully together and share in that conversation." v