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Welcome to Downstate

by Anna D. Shapiro


It’s hard to believe that the opening of Downstate, a world premiere by ensemble member Bruce Norris, marks the beginning of my fourth season as artistic director of Steppenwolf Theatre. The last few years have been filled with so many changes—some tragic, some beautiful and some just simply disorienting—that it feels apt to begin this one in the arms (and the mind!) of one of the most important American playwrights of our time.

Bruce’s work has always been provocative, always modern and always vital. That his plays have consistently challenged all of us to look at our behaviors and our beliefs in ways that sometimes make us uncomfortable is why his work is necessary. That he creates that work with deft humor and true compassion is why he will always have a home on the Steppenwolf stage.

When we began work on Downstate, a number of complicated questions came up for the artists and staff involved. Inhabited as it is by sex offenders and their victims, it traffics in a conversation many people don’t even believe should be happening. Why give any voice to these monsters? Why dredge up images and crimes that are considered by some to be the worst imaginable? It is understandable that people are triggered by any conversation regarding children and their safety.

Bruce and I both experienced that directly when we produced The Pain and the Itch over a decade ago. So incendiary was the topic of a child and sexuality that written opinions about the play referenced in detail (and with fury) an event in the play that never even took place.

This is how powerful and suggestive these conversations can be: they can make us believe we are seeing something that isn’t even there. And I think it’s safe to say that regardless of what side of the aisle you may find yourself on, our times continue to shock and confuse. This makes each of us even more likely to feel vulnerable to evils both real and imagined—that’s what unstable times do. They make us feel fragile. And they make us afraid. That is why it is important for every art form, not just theatre, to respond to this moment not by reinforcing the idea of our fragility but by reminding us of our essential bravery.

Theatre audiences are not faint-hearted. Theatre audiences are adventurers—embracers of experience, both literal and emotional. And theatre audiences understand that plays are not about what happens in them. Plays are about what happens means.

Downstate walks directly into the path of the storm of this moment and is asking us to recognize that societies are not remembered for how they treat their most honored—they are judged by how they treat their most loathed. And Bruce, for all of his satirical darkness, understands that how we answer this question has a ripple effect of its own: on our culture, on our own hearts and, ironically, on the world we leave our children.

Anna D. Shapiro, Artistic Director