A Letter from Steppenwolf Co-Founder Jeff Perry
Gary Sinise and I met as sophomores at Highland Park High School north of Chicago and fell in love with acting under the tutelage of an inspiring drama teacher, Barbara Patterson. In 1973, Gary and fellow classmates from our high school started a community theatre in Highland Park. I met the rest of the first generation of Steppenwolf's ensemble of actors and directors in the Theater Department at Illinois State University.
Our training at school was defined by gifted, wildly opinionated teachers steeped in various versions of Stanislavski's acting technique. We were fortunate enough to be a part of a program that encouraged its students to produce and direct their own peer selected plays in their smaller theatre. After graduation, 9 of us continued working together in this way. We wanted to expand the freedom we had tasted at school while working on plays we loved in an environment that we controlled. Some of us had directed or would grow into directing and some of us would become writers as well, but in our beginnings we were above all actors who shared a conviction that the best way to create great theater and to grow as individual artists was through ensemble work. It was as fellow actors that we made a theatrical 'religion' out of ensemble storytelling.
About 12 years ago I was bitten by an idea for a Steppenwolf school. I imagined that those of us who had grown up in this theater with its own particular brand of 'actor driven' ensemble work should be able to share something personal, authentic and pragmatic about its values and methods. By accomplishing this, I knew we could contribute something of value to the world of actor training. In turn I assumed that the very attempt to teach what we had barely articulated to ourselves would provide nourishment for our own growth as artists.
I began brainstorming with some of Steppenwolf's most trusted mentors; Artistic Consultant Sheldon Patinkin, Artistic Director Martha Lavey and ensemble member and Associate Artist Anna Shapiro. Before long, we had fashioned the first draft of a 10 week 'ensemble studies' curriculum. It is a curriculum designed for actors to intensively practice their craft with and through each other, inspired by values that we believe inform not only great ensemble work but great acting: the ability to act spontaneously, instinctively and with joyful abandon, while maintaining the specificity and discipline required of great dramatic writing.
Of course, a curriculum is only as good as its teachers and Steppenwolf's are experienced, passionate, and talented. Their love of the craft and their skill as instructors has created an environment in which we are confident that our students will feel both safe and challenged to do their best work.
As we approach our 12th summer we continue to evolve the shape of the school's offerings. The cumulative chorus of student response has been our reliable guide in this evolution and our greatest reassurance that we are on the right track. For all of us who receive continuing inspiration from teaching, the School at Steppenwolf epitomizes the best of our theatre's many joys. Not only is it a place where trust and risk lead to growth, it is a beautiful reminder of why we fell in love with acting in the first place.
Jeff Perry, Co-Founder
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
The School at Steppenwolf