Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the nation’s premier ensemble theater company, opened today its trailblazing new 50,000 square foot theater building and education center, the Liz and Eric Lefkofsky Arts and Education Center. Designed by world-renowned architect Gordon Gill FAIA of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, with theater design and acoustics by Charcoalblue and construction by Norcon, the expanded Steppenwolf campus is a cultural nexus for Chicago—offering bold and ambitious opportunities for creative expression, social exchange, unparalleled accessibility, and arts-driven learning for Chicago youth in The Loft, Steppenwolf’s first-ever dedicated education space. The expanded Steppenwolf campus also features bright new lobbies and two new full-service bars for socializing designed by fc STUDIO, inc.
Opening to the public this month as in-person performances return to Steppenwolf, the Liz and Eric Lefkofsky Arts and Education Center is the largest new permanent cultural asset to open in the City of Chicago in 2021. The $54 million new building is part of Steppenwolf’s multi-phase $73 million Building on Excellence expansion campaign.
“What an extraordinary day this is for our company and Chicago. This multi-phase campus expansion is over two decades in the making and is a manifestation of Steppenwolf’s core values of ensemble, innovation and cultural citizenship. Formed by an ensemble of young actors who wanted to create courageous work, nearly 50 years later our expanded campus builds on the company’s infamous beginnings and ensures a future for the continued artistic growth of the ensemble and space for tens of thousands of Chicagoland teens to experience transformative arts education. We are investing in this expansion of our artistic home in Chicago to serve our extraordinary city and support the work of generative and diverse theater artists for generations to come,” shares Executive Director E. Brooke Flanagan.
World-renowned architect Gordon Gill FAIA of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture has been deeply involved in the project since 2007 and a true advocate and visionary in the building’s evolution. “Working with Steppenwolf has been a special experience—their clear intention of accessibility for all has transformed the space. Architecturally the design fits within the character of the neighborhood, while embodying the personality of this singular company: inviting, intimate, and rugged. The concrete honors the founders, their strength and the original foundation they built while the complementary warm wood tones and splashes of color celebrate the newer ensemble members and next chapter,” shares architect Gordon Gill FAIA.
“It’s rare to find a group of people who are so invested in not just the function of the building, but the emotional life and equity of the space. One of my proudest moments in the design is that arguably the most primary space is given to the students, which speaks volumes to the company, its ideals and its future,” adds Gill.
The lobby of Steppenwolf’s Arts and Education Center designed by Gordon Gill FAIA of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, and the Ensemble Theater in Honor of Helen Zell designed by Charcoalblue. Credit James Steinkamp Photography.
At the heart of Steppenwolf’s new Liz and Eric Lefkofsky Arts and Education Center is an intimate and state-of-the-art 400-seat theater in the round, one of its kind in Chicago, with theater design and acoustics by Charcoalblue. Named the Ensemble Theater in Honor of Helen Zell, this new performance venue will open to audiences with the Steppenwolf for Young Adults world premiere adaptation of Eve L. Ewing’s 1919 in February 2022, followed by a grand public opening of the theater with ensemble member Yasen Peyankov’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Seagull featuring an all-ensemble cast, April-June 2022.
Only six rows deep—with audience members never more than 20 feet from the stage—and featuring a modular staging system to vary audience capacity and experience, Charcoalblue designed the incredibly intimate Ensemble Theater from the inside out to integrate the theater into the fabric of the surrounding building.
Charcoalblue has worked with Steppenwolf Theatre Company for more than a decade to expand its ambitions as the nation’s premier ensemble theater company. From optimizing Steppenwolf’s existing proscenium theater to designing a cabaret-style theater and imagining the radical new Ensemble Theater, Charcoalblue’s theater and acoustics consultancy was instrumental in designing the three unique theater spaces—from auditorium design, flexibility, seat-count and sightlines to technical capability and acoustic design.
Completed in three phases, Steppenwolf Theatre Company now has an intimate, highly experimental cultural campus that doubles down on education, enhances audience engagement, and invites all of Chicago to experience its cutting-edge theater.
“This new building is a love letter to Chicago that will allow us to expand our reach across this great city as we operationalize our theater’s commitments to inclusion, diversity, equity, and access. Our renowned 49-member ensemble of artists now have three very different and inspiring theater spaces in which to create bold new work, take risks and be in conversation with our community. The possibilities are limitless in our transformed artistic home. As we celebrate nearly 50 years since Steppenwolf’s inception, we lead with enormous gratitude for our past, appreciation for where we are today, and a promise to pave pathways forward for future generations who will call Steppenwolf their home,” share Artistic Directors Glenn Davis and Audrey Francis.
Classrooms in The Loft at Steppenwolf’s Arts and Education Center, designed by Gordon Gill FAIA of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture. Credit James Steinkamp Photography.
The Loft: Steppenwolf’s dedicated education center
The Liz and Eric Lefkofsky Arts and Education Center is also home to Steppenwolf’s first-ever dedicated education center, The Loft, encompassing the entire fourth floor of the new building. Steppenwolf was founded more than 45 years ago by a circle of students who craved a space to call their own. The Arts and Education Center continues and amplifies that vision, growing the reach of Steppenwolf’s education programming from 20,000 to 30,000 students annually.
The Loft includes three dedicated learning spaces for young people to explore and create within, as well as gallery walls featuring works by young visual artists selected via Steppenwolf’s Loft Teen Arts Project. Inspired by the theme “The Future I See: Creating for Community,” seven individual and group finalists from across Chicagoland were selected to receive art commissions: Elisabeth Cervantes, Alyha Khalil, Liz Olivarez Lyles, Kaleia Maxey, Stevia Ndoe, Tia and Tyra Smith, and BUILD. Their works provide inspiration to the students, educators, artists and audiences who visit the new Arts and Education Center. The competition was juried by a panel of acclaimed artists including Nick Cave, Liz Flores, Alex Garcia, Silvia I. Gonzalez and SANTIAGO X, in collaboration with Chicagoland youth and Steppenwolf Education staff.
"To the young people of Chicago, we want to give an especially big welcome back to Steppenwolf. To the teens of our city, we know the toll this forced closure has taken on you and we want you to feel, now more than ever, that this new theater is yours with an entire education floor created for you. Come and join us for shows on our stages, events, workshops and experiences created by teens for teens; and opportunities to get back to the artistic and creative pursuits that serve as your lifeblood. When you come to Steppenwolf, you don't need to bring anything other than yourself. We can't wait to see you,” shares Director of Education Megan Shuchman.
For more information on The Loft and the Loft Teen Arts Project, visit www.steppenwolf.org/loft.
Two new full-service bars designed by fc STUDIO, inc. for Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Credit James Steinkamp Photography.
Two new full-service bars and renovated lobbies
The expanded Steppenwolf campus also features bright new lobbies and two new full-service bars for socializing designed by fc STUDIO, inc. The transformed 1650 N. Halsted Street lobby space seamlessly connects Steppenwolf’s existing building with the new Liz and Eric Lefkofsky Arts and Education Center, while the second-floor lobby of the Downstairs Theater has been renovated to house a stylish bar and gathering space. The new building’s downstairs lobby features a second bar that connects to an outdoor patio area. These new bars join Steppenwolf’s popular Front Bar (1700 N. Halsted Street) to offer audiences, artists and community welcoming spaces for socializing in the Halsted Corridor of Lincoln Park.
Steppenwolf’s new bars will open at 6 p.m. before evening performances and close 30 minutes after performances end. On two-show days with a matinee and evening performance, the bars will be open from pre-matinee through the evening performance.
Across from the bar in the second-floor lobby is Steppenwolf’s History Wall, a new exhibit that displays a collection of physical artifacts from throughout the company’s history—ranging from early show programs and photographs, to props and renderings from meaningful productions, to personal memorabilia from the artists and staff who call the theater home. Commissioned by Steppenwolf Co-Founder Gary Sinise and designed by Chicago theater artists Arnel Sancianco and Jared Bellot, the History Wall is meant to evoke a sense of nostalgia in viewers and tell Steppenwolf's story and evolution—from the dream of a small group of high school friends to the nation's premier ensemble theater—in a way that feels tangible and within reach.
Artist Tony Fitzpatrick’s new mural as seen from the green room at Steppenwolf’s Arts and Education Center, designed by Gordon Gill FAIA of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture. Credit James Steinkamp Photography.
New mural from artist Tony Fitzpatrick
Celebrated Chicago-based artist and actor Tony Fitzpatrick created a vibrant and massive mural for the exterior of the Liz and Eric Lefkofsky Arts and Education Center. Commissioned by Steppenwolf as a highly visible public art installation for the Southwest wall adjacent to the new building, “Night and Day in the Garden of All Other Ecstasies” is Fitzpatrick’s largest work to date and his first outdoor mural.
Measuring 12 feet high by 76 feet long, the new mural pays homage to the leadership of the company’s beloved late Artistic Director Martha Lavey, highlighting the growth of Steppenwolf over more than four decades and its thrilling future. Fabricated on ceramic porcelain tiles, “Night and Day in the Garden of All Other Ecstasies” was designed by Fitzpatrick over the course of a year and then painstakingly digitized by Danny Torres, his frequent collaborator. The boldly colored mural is comprised of eight themed vertical panels, encompassing dozens of four-foot square tiles digitally printed in Bologna, Italy by the artisans of Imola Ceramica.
Along with the mural’s prominent public location outside the Arts and Education Center, it is clearly visible from within the green room for the new Ensemble Theater—providing artists with inspiration and an opportunity to reflect on the creative legacies of all those who have come before them.
Building on Excellence expansion campaign
The $54 million new building is part of Steppenwolf’s multi-phase $73 million Building on Excellence expansion campaign, which has raised $56.1 million to date, thanks to robust civic support from individual donors, foundations, corporations and government funding. As Steppenwolf prepares to invite audiences, artists and students to experience the next chapter of its extraordinary history, it celebrates the community of donors whose generosity has made this expansion possible, led by a $10 million gift pledged by Steppenwolf’s Board Chairman Eric Lefkofsky and Liz Lefkofsky to establish the Liz and Eric Lefkofsky Arts and Education Center. Additionally, in honor of her lifetime of extraordinary partnership and support of Steppenwolf and its artists, and in recognition of a major gift from the Zell Family Foundation, the new theater in-the-round is named the Ensemble Theater in Honor of Helen Zell.
Steppenwolf’s Building on Excellence campaign has received 15 gifts of more than $1 million to date, including major gifts from the Lefkofskys and Zell Family Foundation. Additional seven-figure gifts have been pledged by: Douglas R. Brown and Rachel E. Kraft, the Bluhm Family Foundation, the Crown Family, the Harris Family Foundation, the State of Illinois, the Pritzker Foundation, the Pritzker Traubert Foundation, the Rowe Family Foundation, Cari and Michael J. Sacks, Bruce Sagan and Bette Cerf Hill, Robert and Louise Sanborn, Matthew Shapiro, and an anonymous donation in memory of Steppenwolf’s late Artistic Director Martha Lavey.
A Safe Return
Steppenwolf is part of the growing coalition of more than 70 Chicagoland performing arts venues and producers that have agreed upon COVID-19 vaccination and mask requirements for all audiences, artists and staff through the end of 2021. Audience members must provide proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test certification upon entry in addition to wearing masks for all indoor productions. Learn more about Steppenwolf's guidelines at steppenwolf.org/welcomeback.
Steppenwolf has worked over the past year with our operations team, public health advisors and HVAC consultants to prepare its facility to safely welcome patrons back for performances. The addition of the new Arts and Education Center has expanded the square footage of the lobbies to nearly twice the previous amount of space offered to guests. Two additional elevators and multiple stairways have also been added to Steppenwolf’s campus for ease of transition between seating levels. The HVAC systems have undergone upgrades to allow for increased filtration and a higher percentage of circulated fresh air across all three theaters.
Committed to making the Steppenwolf experience accessible to everyone, performances featuring American Sign Language Interpretation, Open Captioning and Audio Description are offered during the run of each live play. Assistive listening devices and large-print programs are available for every performance and all three theaters are equipped with an induction hearing loop and feature a push-button entrance. All theaters feature wheelchair accessible seating and restrooms, and Front Bar features a push-button entrance, all-gender restrooms and accessible counter and table spaces.
United Airlines is the Official and Exclusive Airline of Steppenwolf. Steppenwolf is also grateful for the significant season support from Paul M. Angell Family Foundation, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, John Hart and Carol Prins, Illinois Arts Council Agency, Anne and Don Phillips, The Shubert Foundation and the Zell Family Foundation.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company is a Chicago theater that is home to America’s ensemble. The company began performing in the mid-1970s in the basement of a Highland Park, IL church—today Steppenwolf is the nation’s premier ensemble theater with 49 members who are among the top actors, playwrights and directors in the field. Deeply rooted in its ensemble ethos, the company is committed to equity, diversity, inclusion and making the Steppenwolf experience accessible to all. Groundbreaking productions from Balm in Gilead and August: Osage County to Downstate and Pass Over—and accolades that include the National Medal of Arts and 12 Tony® Awards—have made the theatre legendary. Artistic programming includes a main stage season; a Steppenwolf for Young Adults season; LookOut, a multi-genre performance series; and the Steppenwolf NOW virtual stage. The nationally recognized work of Steppenwolf Education engages more than 20,000 participants annually in Chicagoland communities promoting compassion, encouraging curiosity and inspiring action. While firmly grounded in the Chicago community, more than 40 original Steppenwolf productions have enjoyed success nationally and internationally, including Broadway, Off-Broadway, London, Sydney, Galway and Dublin. 2021 marks the opening of Steppenwolf’s landmark Liz and Eric Lefkofsky Arts & Education Center—deepening the company’s commitment to Chicagoland teens and serving as a cultural nexus for Chicago. Glenn Davis and Audrey Francis are Artistic Directors and E. Brooke Flanagan is Executive Director. Eric Lefkofsky is Chair of Steppenwolf’s Board of Trustees.
Steppenwolf’s Mission: Steppenwolf strives to create thrilling, courageous and provocative art in a thoughtful and inclusive environment. We succeed when we disrupt your routine with experiences that spark curiosity, empathy and joy. We invite you to join our ensemble as we navigate, together, our complex world. steppenwolf.org, facebook.com/steppenwolftheatre, twitter.com/steppenwolfthtr and instagram.com/steppenwolfthtr.