Starting at Steppenwolf

Alexis Jade Links (Contributor) is a fourth year Theatre Arts Major. Her recent credits include Assistant Director for The Theatre School at DePaul University’s Cabaret book by Joe Masteroff, Dramaturg for A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, and her upcoming work can be seen as Dramaturg for Medea by Euripides.

“Minds are like parachutes. It doesn’t matter so much what you pack them with, so long as they open at the right time.” – Taylor Mali.

Today, Rob Dieringer and I start the first day of the rest of our artistic careers. We feel as though we’ll be changed forever. I’m wearing my favorite outfit; a conservative black dress with red and white flowers on it. I debate for an hour in the mirror whether or not to remove my nose ring and my black nail polish, hoping my individuality will not cloud The Steppenwolf’s perception of my intellect.

Looking out of the fourth floor window, Rob and I remain silent. Somehow we both knew that the view out this window would never be the same after this meeting. The famed Steppenwolf would be letting us into its elusive club, including us in its secrets.

Trying not to sweat through my sport coat, I look to Rob with nervous eyes as we enter a room full of The Steppenwolf’s artistic staff, teaching artists and assistant directors. I dig into my frontal lobe trying to remember names and attach them to the faces around the table. I pray that my flashcards of bios and history won’t fail me now.

Turns out I didn’t need any of these things. In fact, to lead a good post-show, I would later learn, I would need to drop all of my preconceived ideas, bid good riddance to most of my script analysis skills, and instead, learn to fearlessly embrace the moment.

“First and foremost, The Steppenwolf’s mission is to be a public square,” says Joy Meads, our boss and Literary Manager of the theatre.

Joy presents her PowerPoint about how this mission is achieved. She observes that The Steppenwolf is the most successful in achieving its overall mission when the post-show discussions — the very things Rob and I were hired to do — were fruitful.

The Steppenwolf, we would learn, is concerned with departing either from a lecture-like format or from an “Inside the Actors Studio” discussion. Theatre is about a community, how we process things in a multi-layered way extending from individual understanding to communal to global. To tell someone, or a whole audience for that matter, what the art “means” does nothing to benefit the art, the artist or the listener. We allow ourselves to grow from each other by engaging in dialogue. My experience from the first day at The Steppenwolf inspired me to believe in the importance of post-show discussion and its power to affect closed minds and open them. Productions can be truly meaningful when we can collectively interpret them. From this interpretation, theatre has the most tangible potential to inspire real change.

This is not easy. No more “like”, “um”, or “interesting”. Say sayonara to pointing (you look too professorial), fussing with hair, looking at notes. Even if they’re the only ones willing to talk, try not to call on the same person twice. Steer the conversation away from that one guy who took a semester on Mamet and thinks he’s an expert. Don’t give too many facts, but enough that the audience can recognize you have intellectual clout. Don’t ask yes or no questions. If you’re nervous, don’t let the audience see it – play the part. Don’t use your cell phone for a watch; in fact, try not to use a watch. Some people sit, but I prefer to stand, walk toward the person talking, affirm or unpack what they’ve said, move it to another question through expansion of their idea, call on someone, and walk toward them. It shifts the group’s (not audience – we are all equal participants and experts on our theatrical experience) attention to the person speaking and off of you on stage. Start by introducing yourself with confidence. Don’t hide the nose ring or the things that make you who you are. It’s okay to be quirky and young but acknowledge it first so that the group doesn’t have the opportunity to dismiss you and your lack of knowledge. Don’t give them any excuse to doubt you. In the first five seconds you’re on stage the group will decide whether or not they can trust you. Don’t fuck it up by looking or sounding stupid, naïve, immature or arrogant. Try your hardest not to repeat yourself. When hit in the face with a bizarre comment or seemingly irrelevant question, rather than try to combat it yourself, push it back to the rest of the group for more thoughts or theories.

The steps to leading a great discussion according to what I learned as a Steppenwolf intern are the following:

1.      See the show (avoid reading it first).

2.      Write down your initial questions, thoughts and most important, images, stage pictures and moments in the show that strike you.

3.      Read the play.

4.      Again, take down notes. This time compare what’s written to what you saw in the production. What are the differences? What does the production seem to interpret?

5.      See the play again. Be sure to read the program materials before seeing the show this time. How do they frame the work? What questions do those dramaturgical notes and interviews elicit?

6.      Stay for the discussion and observe what people say about it. This gives you the opportunity to identify what general audiences are drawn to and what kinds of questions are at the front of their brain.

7.      Go home and read up on the production history and the artists involved. Let’s make sure you’ve got the facts straight and memorized.

8.      Make a map. First, write out three moments in the production and three themes in the production. Connect them all with questions, ideas, quotes, and sub-themes. This is your bible. This should be where all of your questions come from. You need to be able to hear what people say, and weave it, move it, direct it to something bigger. Audience questions and comments, more often than not are scattered and un-linear. Don’t forget that they’ve just had to sit for two hours and be talked at. These will not be the most articulate thoughts you’ve ever heard. Imagine the questions and ideas you want to cover as a map not a line.

9.      Breathe.

10.     Be confident.

11.     Drink water and pee before.

The best piece of advice, the most important thing I learned, and the biggest hurdle I try to jump everyday is to listen: not just hear, but to listen.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s