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A Family Affair

by Frank Galati

Director of New Play Development, Aaron Carter: I suggested to Frank Galati, director of The Herd, that maybe Steppenwolf ’s success with family dramas stemmed in part from the theater’s focus on ensemble: that artists who have worked together for so long could bring layered interactions to the stage that felt a lot like family history. Frank’s answer gave me a fascinating glimpse into the early days of the ensemble. It begins with an interpretation of the title of The Herd and winds through The Grapes of Wrath— with stops in Evanston restaurants along the way. An edited version follows. You know, the title of THE HERD may be a little bit vexing. People are going to think “hmmm… The Herd. What does that have to do with this middle class family in suburban London?” The fact is that the word, in addition to a company of animals—which is I suppose the primary definition—also means “troop.” Which applies certainly to Steppenwolf as a “troupe,” a company of actors. And it’s also a tribe. The word “herd” resonates with the notion of a tribe, a gathering of a clan, a family. So, there’s no question that this family—challenged as it is by the health of its beloved 21 year-old son Andy—is a family tangled in the same kinds of complex issues and needs that all families have, including Steppenwolf. Steppenwolf in its long history has explored those needs in play after play because so much of drama is focused on the family. You can go back to the house of Atreus in ancient Greece, all the way up to the families of modern 20th century American drama. The families of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams and the families of Sam Shepard for instance. There is hardly a play that doesn’t somehow reflect the tortured lives of families. When I joined the company in 1986, I had been friends with members of the company for some years before that. I knew John Malkovich and Laurie Metcalf and Rondi Reed and Randy Arney and Jeff Perry when they were in college. And when they first came to Chicago, many from Illinois State, I used to meet with them because my high school teacher Ralph Lane was their principal drama teacher at Illinois State. There used to be a restaurant in Evanston called Fanny’s and it was very popular when I was in college. It was an Italian restaurant run by a very flamboyant woman who also had a column in the Evanston paper. Dr. Lane would occasionally host a dinner for some of us at Fanny’s. And it was there around bowls of spaghetti and fried chicken that Jeff and others and Dr. Lane and myself would talk about the challenge of putting together an actor-focused ensemble and could it last. Could it endure? So I feel very privileged to have been kind of in the wings when the ensemble was being formed. And then during those first years when Steppenwolf was working in Highland Park Laurie Metcalf played Laura in The Glass Menagerie. And John played Tom. During those years I saw those shows and then I started acting in Chicago theater. Laurie and John both worked at a bookstore in Evanston called Chandler’s. And I used to stop by and chat with them. And they would say: you know you should do something with us. You should maybe direct something with us. It never worked out. I started teaching at Northwestern. I got to be busy and I did some acting gigs and so on. And then in ’86 Gary Sinise was artistic director and he asked me to direct You Can’t Take it With You. And I jumped at the chance. Oh my God, everybody was in it. Molly Regan and Amy Morton and Jeff Perry and Randy Arney and John Mahoney and Rondi Reed and Rick Snyder—my god, it was—Tom Irwin and Al Wilder. It was sensational. I would come to rehearsal and just sit there and watch! I don’t have to do anything. They’re so fantastic. They’re so good. And of course, you know, they were weaving together relationships, braiding in and out of each other’s lives. And creating a family. The family in that play You Can’t Take it With You was deeply reflective of the family that was Steppenwolf. The kind of sibling relationships. The rivalries. The cousins, the first cousins, the second cousins, the parents, the lovers, the children. I mean, all of those dynamics that were a part of the relationships of the Steppenwolf ensemble as it was coming to life and coming together were present and palpable lives of the characters that they were creating on stage. So it was maybe in the second week of rehearsals that Gary asked me to stop up in his office. He said “Frank man, how’d you like to be a member of the ensemble?” And I thought oh my God, I couldn’t believe it. I said yes. I would love to. And I felt, you know, I was beginning to be in the embrace of the Steppenwolf family. And I’ve felt it all my life since. They’ve never let go. And very shortly after that Gary said now you should think about something that would be really good for an acting company. And I had been thinking about The Grapes of Wrath as a project at Northwestern, and so I said what about The Grapes of Wrath because they had done Of Mice and Men pretty successfully a couple of years before. And Gary lit up! He said “Aw man, yeah, wow, that would be great.” And so because Steppenwolf had already gone to New York—that was Gary’s visionary dream. He knew. He had some gut instinct that we belonged on a wider stage, on a larger stage. So it turned out that Elaine Steinbeck, John Steinbeck’s widow, had seen Balm In Gilead. And I think she had seen True West. So when the publisher went to her and said you know there’s this theater company in Chicago that’s interested in doing this stage adaptation of Grapes of Wrath and she said “Well who are they?” And he said “Well, they’re called Steppenwolf.” And she said “oh, I saw one of their shows here. It was terrific. Yeah, we should give them a chance.” And so here come the Joads. And the way in which the Steppenwolf ensemble inhabited that family, and the calamities and tragedies that family faced was kind of profound. And again for me, it was a privilege to just bear witness to the love and passion and conflict and challenge and anger and disappointment and grief and sorrow—all of the ingredients that are part of the breathing rhythm of family life—how it transfers from this troop, this herd of actors, to a magnificent, courageous and inspiring family on stage. Playing out its narrative against the terrible backdrop of the Dust Bowl,and the Depression and all of the horrors that the Joads faced in their trek from Oklahoma to California. So here in The Herd is another family, all tangled up around the child that the family has been holding and caring for and worried about for 21 years. And that care is the depth charge in the middle of this family dynamic. And everyone is profoundly affected. What the play reveals—and what I think is so nourishing about the theater—is that it helps us see that we have so many misplaced expectations of each other in a family. Families in extremis expose raw human need and human emotion. The Herd is extraordinarily brilliant in its conception and execution. It’s heartbreaking. But of course, it’s also hilariously funny. And that’s part of survival. That’s the joie de vivre. The Joads had the same thing. Good humor and wit. Sometimes it is cruel and acerbic. But my goodness, they’re very very funny. And yeah. I think there’s no question that our relationships as brothers and sisters in the ensemble deepens the work that we are lucky enough to do together on stage.