Two days into previews for “Seagull,” the production set to inaugurate Steppenwolf Theatre’s in-the-round theater, Steppenwolf co-founder Jeff Perry feels encouraged by the new space.
“The renderings gave me the hope for this, but I never felt a 400-seat auditorium could be that intimate,” said Perry, who plays Sorin in director Yasen Peyankov’s adaptation of the Anton Chekhov play chronicling romantic and artistic discord among the members of a wealthy Russian family.
“We cut our teeth on really intimate spaces,” said Perry, who recalled the early days when the company produced plays in the 88-seat basement theater of the Immaculate Conception Church school in Highland Park. From there the company moved to a 134-seat space at Jane Addams Hull House, then to the St. Nicholas Theater on Halsted Street and finally into its newly expanded space, said Perry, who described returning to the complex “like coming home.”
The production is also a homecoming of a different sort. For some “Seagull” theater artists, this production marks the first time they’ve performed in-person since the pandemic began.
“It feels like it was a whole lifetime ago that I got to embrace somebody on stage, that I got to speak to an audience indoors,” said Elijah Newman, who’s making his Steppenwolf debut as Yakov. “We all just need it and miss it so much. I think we feel that from the audience … That they missed this kind of connection.
Elijah Newman, center, makes his Steppenwolf Theatre debut in “Seagull,” a production that also features Eric Simonson, left, and Jon Hudson Odom. – Courtesy of Joel Moorman by signing up you agree to our terms of service
“We’re doing something you can’t get from sitting on the couch and watching Netflix,” he said.
For Newman, working with Steppenwolf for the first time is a dream come true.
“I feel like Steppenwolf has been at the forefront of my desires for long time,” said Newman, who was studying theater at Highland Park High School when he became aware of former students Perry and Gary Sinise who, with Terry Kinney, founded Steppenwolf Theatre.
Then, at age 16, Newman saw Highland Park High School’s production of “August: Osage County.”
“I saw that and said, ‘Where did this play come from?'” Newman said. “I saw that production and said, ‘I need to be an actor.'”
Auditioning for acting programs, Newman encountered Peyankov, head of theater at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Theatre and Music.
“When I heard that he was such a core part of the Steppenwolf ensemble, I thought, ‘Yup, that’s a guy I want to work with,'” he said.
Like Newman, Perry traces his love of theater back to Highland Park High School and English and drama teacher Barbara Patterson, who he says instilled in him and Sinise the professional values they still embrace today.
“That sense that there is no ‘I’ in team. That sense of ensemble. That this is how we tell a story; if you move props or have the lead (those functions) are equally important,” said Perry, who also credited the theater faculty at Illinois State University for instilling those same values.
Jeff Perry and Lusia Strus rehearse Steppenwolf Theatre’s “Seagull,” adapted and translated from Anton Chekhov’s play by director Yasen Peyankov. – Courtesy of Joel Moorman
“That was the beginning of theatrical self-determination,” said Perry, who describes theater as the most difficult form of self-government “because you have a bunch of times when you have to get along when you don’t feel like it. You’ve got people changing and morphing. … You’ve got ambition, you’ve got insecurity, curiosity. There’s a lot going on.”
Perry quoted Amy Morton’s quip that doing ensemble theater work “is not like wrangling cats, which would be hard enough. It’s like wrangling banshees.”
Newman says current Highland Park High School theater teacher Scott Shallenbarger inspired him.
“He created a space at that school where everybody felt welcome. He showed us that we all have a story to tell and we’re all special,” he said, adding that teachers like Patterson and Shallenbarger make students feel safe and valued.
“So many kids at Highland Park are made to feel like a number,” Newman said. “When they step into the studio theater at Highland Park High School, they’re made to feel like a human and an adult.”
To have a theater teacher or any kind of teacher who reminds you you’re special, that you have a story to tell and “gives you space to breathe, that’s incredibly special,” he said.