Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s one and only visit to Australia, in 2010 with its production of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, is still talked about by those who saw it.
As well as being cemented in local lore (where people still quote the play’s infamous “eat the fucking fish” line), Steppenwolf’s fearless acting style also had a profound impact on the local theatre landscape.
Theatremakers made up a good proportion of the audience every night at Sydney’s Roslyn Packer Theatre and many were powerfully affected by what they saw.
Actor Andrew Henry was so struck, he travelled to Chicago to study with Steppenwolf. On his return he co-founded an actor-driven company Red Line Productions, named after the Chicago subway line closest to Steppenwolf’s theatre.
Henry shared that enthusiasm with director Iain Sinclair, which led, in turn, to the critically acclaimed Sydney productions of the American classics All My Sons, Of Mice and Men and A View from the Bridge.
Sinclair then took that experience to Melbourne’s 16th Street Actors Studio, where he is now the head of acting.
Now Red Line and 16th Street have come together to bring two of Steppenwolf’s leading lights – Amy Morton and Audrey Francis – to Australia for a series of acting workshops in Sydney (June 14-18) and Melbourne (June 20-24).
“I had the best time ever when we did August: Osage County,” says Morton, actor, director and a Steppenwolf ensemble member since 1997. “I fell in love with Australia during that tour. The theatre was lovely, and the people who worked there were so good at their jobs and so kind. I remember when I landed back in Chicago thinking if I could get away with it, I would retire to Australia.”
Formed in 1975, Steppenwolf is one of the powerhouses of contemporary American theatre. Its acting ensemble includes A-list talents including John Malkovich, Joan Allen, Gary Sinise, Laurie Metcalf and Gary Cole.
“I guess Steppenwolf is known for a very visceral style of acting, a very hands-on, physical kind of performance,” says Morton. “You could never label the company cerebral, put it that way.”
Steppenwolf was established as an actor-focused company and remains so, Morton says. “We’re different because most theatres in the United States are producer-driven, or director-driven or playwright-driven. At Steppenwolf, actors make the decisions and all plays are chosen with the actors first in mind.”
That focus on actors and their craft led to the creation of The School at Steppenwolf, which draws performers from around the world to Chicago every year for 10-week intensives in Steppenwolf’s core values: spontaneity; authenticity and truthfulness.
“A lot of what we teach is about instant ensemble building,” Morton says. “We try to cram that in really quickly so a group of students becomes a tribe. Our philosophy is that you are only as good as the other people with you on stage. The goal is to raise the bar for the other person all the time.”
Morton’s teaching is founded on Sanford Meisner’s approach, in which the actor reacts instinctively and truthfully to the surrounding environment.
Her Steppenwolf colleague Audrey Francis is versed in a technique known as Viewpoints, originally developed by dancers and adapted to text-based theatre by actor-teachers Anne Bogart and Tina Landau. Steppenwolf’s Australian masterclasses blend the two approaches.
“Amy and I fuse the two techniques and frame it in a way to make it applicable right away,” explains Francis. “It’s all about telling the truth and understanding that you are enough, that you don’t need to ‘act’. Just tell the truth. Every time I see Amy on stage that’s what I’m reminded of.
“I think acting costs the human doing it something,” Francis adds. “If you are doing it the right way, you are living through something on stage in an honest and brave way. And that’s really something for an audience because hopefully, people can experience that and learn from it and see what it is to be a little bit more brave and honest out there in the world.”
For many actors, whether relative newcomers or seasoned professionals, Steppenwolf’s workshops can be “mind-blowing”, Francis says.
“So often, actors have been trained to believe that they have to entertain, that they themselves are not enough, and so they do these big acting things just to be interesting. But what we say is that human beings are fascinating as they are. That can be a – excuse my language – a mindfuck for some. We’ve had professionals say, I’ve gotten this far but now you’re telling me that everything I’m doing is false? And I’m like, well why did you sign up for the class if you didn’t think something was missing?
“We make a joke that we’re going to tell you to do everything the opposite to the way you were taught to do it,” Francis laughs. “It’s very jarring but it very quickly turns into something exhilarating. Actors feel alive on stage, sometimes for the first time.”
Next year, 16th Street Actors Studio, led by Kim Krejus, hopes to launch its own ensemble theatre company with the actor-driven values of Steppenwolf. It’s an ambitious plan requiring funding, commitment and the luxury of time – something many Australian theatre companies simply don’t have.
Morton says the strength of a regular ensemble of actors working together cannot be underestimated. “One of the reasons August: Osage County worked as well as it did was because it was written and performed by people who had been working together for 35 years. You can absolutely taste that when you watch it,” she says.
Many former Steppenwolf students have gone on to form their own actor-driven companies in Chicago, elsewhere in America and in the UK.
Morton says it is “humbling and sort of amazing” to think she has inspired other theatre makers around the world. “You realise that no matter where you go, that the acting community is still a really small community and that acting is still a journeyman trade. No matter what school you go to, it is still a trade that is passed down and you learn the most from actually doing it. If someone has learned from me, that is really moving.”
Steppenwolf Workshops are in Sydney from June 14-18 and Melbourne from June 20-24. Places are available to participate and audit (observe) these Workshops. Learn more and apply here.