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Welcome to Constellations

by Anna D. Shapiro

In “A Director Prepares,” one of the seminal directing texts I include in the first-year MFA Directing seminar I teach at Northwestern, Anne Bogart discusses the violence of articulation. She compares beginning work on a play to a visual artist approaching a blank canvas. You have to make a beginning, decisive mark and, once that dangerous act of violence has occurred, you then spend the rest of the process attempting to x or improve that original gesture. Before that first action, the possibilities are limitless. But until that first mark, there is nothing to be in response to, nothing to be in communication with—it’s all simply possibility without forward momentum. When I officially started as Artistic Director in September, our 40th season had already been determined by our cherished outgoing Artistic Director, Martha Lavey. This exciting and challenging season of plays charted a clear course for not just our audiences, but the new artistic team. As we embarked on our own journey, her vision served as both touchstone and safety-net, that first, original gesture. But she also left this 6th play unannounced: a bit of white canvas for the incoming artistic office to make its own mark. While the team explored a multitude of possibilities, the process revealing and interrogating our individual proclivities, there was much discussion around how whatever we chose, along with the selection of the upcoming season, would define us. We fretted, a bit, about what the choice would mean. Ironically, Constellations kept coming to the forefront of the conversation. Playwright Nick Payne has written a beautiful, elliptical and elegant exploration of all that is possible when two people meet. It deals, simultaneously, with the beauty and mystery found in the unknowable vastness of the universe and the ways in which we attempt to define ourselves in a desperate fight to stave off entropy. It is, at its most pure, a wondering. Our choice to produce it provides us the opportunity to welcome ensemble member Jon Michael Hill back to our stage—last appearing in Head of Passes in 2013. It’s a chance to see him in a very different kind of role—a leading man—and an opportunity for him to stretch some very different acting muscles. Similarly, it’s an opportunity for our artistic producer Jonathan Berry to bring the work he’s been doing so consistently on the o -loop scene to our stage. For both of these guys, I feel a sense of pride in the artists they’ve grown into. I cast Jon H in his first Steppenwolf show and have worked with Jon B for 18 years, starting as a Steppenwolf intern. For both, this feels like a natural progression and the next exciting step in their work, but more to the point it asks of them to continue to reach for what is new in them, for what is to be discovered, and in many ways to do so in conversation with their own original “mark.” It’s one of the things I try to impart to my students, who are invariably anxious about making the right career decisions—the ones that will send them to the top of some imagined ladder of success. I try to tell them to instead focus on building the life that they want—what city to live in, what people to surround themselves with, whether or not they want a family, how they want to live. I try to tell them that if they are happy in that, then the right opportunities for them will naturally follow. As a team, we on the artistic staff are naturally, organically engaged in these questions and share the belief that the answers reside, at times, in the stories we tell. That the mark we make, this first mark, is only one in a continuum of searching, no, reaching, for meaning, not unlike the characters in Constellations. Running a theater company, I’m finding, is not so much a new thing, it’s simply the next. We may know, after 40 years, who we are. We now look into the uncertain future and are thrilled at the exciting prospects of defining ourselves by who we want to be.