Steppenwolf Theater is once again dipping its toes in the treacherous waters of New York theater.
Absent since 2001, when its production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” nabbed a Tony for best revival, the venerable Chicago ensemble is attempting to reinvigorate its faded Gotham profile with four productions this calendar year.
None of them, however, are headed to Broadway. In fact, when the company opens Cormac McCarthy’s “The Sunset Limited” on Oct. 29, the self-produced transfer will be playing at 59E59, a small presenting house located on the Upper East Side.
Appearing so far off the Rialto might seem a backward step for a company that not only launched thesps such as John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf and Gary Sinise, but also drew Broadway acclaim for productions including “Cuckoo’s Nest,” 1996’s “Buried Child” and 1990’s “Grapes of Wrath.”
But while Steppenwolf brass say they’re always open to the possibility of a commercial run, they know their recent progamming is unlikely to survive on Broadway in the current climate.
Last year’s 30th anni season featured no marquee talent and only newplays. “Sunset” is a two-hander about an explosive encounter on a subway platform, while Bruce Norris’ “The Pain and the Itch” is a dark satire involving a child with a disturbing genital rash. Not exactly the kind of thing that gets ’em flocking to the TKTS booth.
“None of these recent shows has been particularly motivated by star power,” concedes Steppenwolf a.d. Martha Lavey. And exec director David Hawkanson knows edgy new plays can be anathema to the for-profit sector.
“Commercial hits have to be star-driven packages,” he says. “Until something changes, Broadway and commercial Off Broadway will not be hospitable to what we do.”
Case in point? Adam Rapp’s drama “Red Light Winter,” about a morbid, AIDS-tinged love triangle that begins in Amsterdam’s Red Light district. The Steppenwolf preem was picked up in February for a commercial run at New York’s downtown Barrow Street Theater.
At first glance, the production could almost be mistaken for a hit: It ran close to five months, was generally well reviewed and made the Pulitzer shortlist.Nevertheless, it lost money.
This was no surprise to co-producer Robyn Goodman.
“You’re never going to make a killing off a play,” she concedes.
However much producers claim to champion tough plays for love, they can only love so much. If Steppenwolf relied solely on adventurous investors, its New York presence might vanish altogether. It helps the theater’s visibility that Playwrights Horizons is currently producing “The Pain and the Itch,” which the ensemble premiered in 2005. Yet even though Playwrights kept Chi director Anna Shapiro and cast member Jayne Houdyshell, the show is not considered a Steppenwolf presentation.
Which means an arrangement like the one with 59E59 may be the most viable way for the company to keep its name in Gotham. Since the three-theater presenting house is also a nonprofit, its administrators are free to select tenants based on their innovation and imagination, not their earning potential. And they’re not looking to place their own stamp on the company’s work.
“For us, being at 59E59 is an ideal situation,” offers Hawkanson. “In recent years, Broadway hasn’t been able to find audiences for the type of work we do, and the Off Broadway houses aren’t interested in being presenters. They’re interested in being producers.” Plus, the price is right.
The 98-seat house in which “Sunset” is playing rents for a scant $3,000 a week, which Steppenwolf partly raised through donors. 59E59 also covers marketing costs and brings 1,000 subscribers as potential audience members.
Hawkanson says those subscribers are invaluable to help counter the enormous drain of building buzz in a new city. He explains, “In terms of the major difficulty of presenting out of town, it’s not about labor costs. It’s about the cost of finding an audience and sustaining it.”
And a 98-seat theater means there are smaller auds to sustain.
“That’s part of our appeal,” says 59E59 exec producer Peter Tear, “When we’re sold out, it creates an atmosphere of success, even if we only have 350 seats in all three theaters.”
This partnership is like a legit spin on service deals in the film and music worlds, where distributors often pick up smaller titles. In all cases, the product reaches a broader market with reduced financial risk, while the distributor or presenter gets the cachet of being associated with artistic quality.
Not that 59E59 invented this approach for the theater.
Gotham’s New Victory, which presents shows for children and youth auds, uses a similar model to host productions from around the world.
The 42nd St. theater also will have a Steppenwolf connection in November when it presents Lydia Diamond’s adaptation of the Toni Morrison novel “The Bluest Eye.” The Chi company preemed the play in 2005 as part of its young-adults program.
The New Vic deal is especially sweet, since the org charges no rental fee, provides marketing, boasts more than 3,000 subscribers and gives each company a weekly operating fee based on its size and the needs of its production. (New Vic reps declined to divulge the amount of Steppenwolf’s stipend.)
However, most Steppenwolf shows are not suitable for kids, so there’s no relying on New Vic for a consistent New York presence. Until Off Broadway and Broadway become more receptive to new plays, ties with 59E59 could be crucial.
“This is a relationship we hope can be ongoing,” offers Lavey. “There’s definitely going to be more happening with them.”