The Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago is one of the cultural spaces that stand out as counterweights to a conservative vision of America. Through its shows and the way they are presented in its website, the theater clearly defends progressive values.
The Steppenwolf Theater is a modern ensemble, claiming progressive values. A study conducted on the theater’s website has highlighted various important elements of its identity, one of the most relevant being its liberal position on numerous issues.
The shows produced by the Steppenwolf this season are all contemporary original plays. They revolve around various themes linked to modern-day issues, currently subject to debate and controversy in the United States such as race, queer identities or religious reforms. The theater has a clear take on all these topics, which can easily be inferred from their plots, but also the choice of their characters.
Protagonists Challenging Stereotypes
A lot of the main characters in the Steppenwolf’s plays challenge the stereotypical view of a protagonist. For instance, in the play Hir scheduled for next June, the three main characters are an independent woman, her transgender teenage son and her brother who suffers of post-traumatic stress disorder. The synopsis reads that “Hir’s crusade to shake up the patriarchy is disarmingly funny, absurd and surprising as it looks at an American family forced to build a new world out of the pieces of the old.” The typical “hero” image and the concept of normality are also questioned through sarcasm in Straight White Men, which explores the question of white privilege.
Those elements of the shows seem to express the modern and progressive identity of the Steppenwolf. The themes, the characters as well as the descriptions of the show could be interpreted as a form of activism through art in favor of causes such as gender equality, LGBT rights or social justice. By adopting such a stance on issues and ways of tackling them, the theater seems to target mostly modern, educated and active audience members.
This modern identity can also be sensed in the theater’s interface. It is intuitive, user friendly, and heavily relies on images. The centrality of visual elements, as opposed to text, seems to be a voluntary choice. If we look at earlier versions of the website, the evolution of the website’s interface seems clearly headed towards less text and more images. This can partly be attributed to technical advancements through the years. Indeed, hosting heavier content on a website, in this case images and videos, has been significantly facilitated since the creation of the website in 1996. Nevertheless, this type of evolution could also suggest a desire to adapt to a world experiencing a shift to a more visual culture, or an effort to appeal to younger audiences.
When Malkovich is Just Another Actor…
But the theater does not only challenge types through the plays it chooses, their characters and the way it communicates about it. The theater exhibits a strong desire to build an image of the ensemble as a cohesive community. The members of the ensemble are a central element in the communication process. Not only are they valued through the use of their photographs and of some of their biographical elements to advertise for the plays, but they are also treated equally, as a homogeneous group.
As a matter of fact, although some of the actors have earned an international recognition through their roles in cinema, such as John Malkovich or Joan Allen, they are not given any more visibility than other members of the group. This indicates that the image of a cohesive group is more important for the theater than the possibility of attracting more people by putting forward Hollywood movie stars. Moreover, throughout the different pages of the website, there is no visible hierarchy between the ensemble’s members. They all play various roles in different production.
This idea of a cohesive community is consistent with the description of the ensemble they offer to the public on the website. They want the company to be seen as a group of friends, who knew each other from high school and decided to follow their passion together. “The common thing that drew us all together was this idea of throwing something on the stage that was completely wild and cutting edge. We’re still about that.” explains Laurie Metcalf in a quote used on the website.
Modern, challenging, collective, the Steppenwolf definitely ticks all boxes of the progressive stage!