Masters students to make directoral debuts at Steppenwolf this summer

Sammy Caiola

The third-year Master of Fine Arts students in direction and design will make their Steppenwolf debut with a series of plays this summer.

“Next Up” is a series of productions that will run from May 31 to June 19 in the Steppenwolf Garage Theater, 1624 N. Halsted in Chicago. Each of the three MFA students will direct a show for his or her thesis production in graduate studies.

Jaclynn Jutting, who is directing the Chicago premiere of “Animals Out of Paper” by Rajiv Joseph, said working at Steppenwolf gives her the opportunity to apply skills she has learned in the directing and design program.

“There are a million little moments from the classroom over the past three years that I carry with me into rehearsal every day, ” Jutting said. “Getting to observe some of the best directors in the country has affected my art in a way that I could never thank them for.”

Last year, the students spent a quarter at Steppenwolf getting accustomed to the atmosphere, said Anna Shapiro, head of the MFA directing program. This fall they worked at the theater doing pre-production for the plays.

Having their work seen at a regional level means more audience exposure and better chances at being hired, Shapiro said. The MFA students also get the opportunity to work with a cast of professional actors.

“Like tennis, you get better when you play with people who have more experience than you,” Shapiro said. “They spent two and a half years working on techniques, and now they get to practice that with the people they’ll be working with in the community when they leave.”

This is the first year Steppenwolf has opened its doors to the MFA students as an opportunity to complete their production theses, Shapiro said.

Auditions were held last November, and rehearsals have been in full swing for the past four weeks. Erica Daniels, the director of casting at Steppenwolf, helped the students choose their actors and was present for the rehearsal process. She said the students were able to direct adequately in a professional setting because they had experience coming in.

“We invited them in because we felt they fit in, not because we needed them to prove something to us,” Daniels said. “Once we got them in the room and allowed them to own it, actors understood that these were not kids; they were young directors.”

Jeff Parker, an actor in MFA student Jess McLeod’s “Venus,” said this show is an “edgy, adventurous theater piece” and actors must go beyond their comfort zone. He said McLeod’s attitude throughout the rehearsal process has allowed the cast of six actors to perform at their best.

“She is relentlessly positive, and that can be unique,” Parker said. “Rehearsal processes are up and down experiences, and this director has an incredible amount of energy. And when you have that coming at you, it feeds what you do in the space. It urges you on.”

MFA students are required to direct three shows while in the program, but Brad Akin said the majority of skills are learned in the classroom. He said a lot of class time is spent imagining what a show would look like and putting it together on paper, so getting to see their productions working in a real-life scenario has been a good experience.

Akin said the Steppenwolf staff has treated the MFA students like equals.

“We’ve been very welcomed, and we’ve been treated like professionals,” Akin said. “There hasn’t been any sense of feeling like we’re outsiders who have broken into the clubhouse.”

The program is supported by grants from the Duke Foundation that came from Barbara O’Keefe, dean of the School of Communication.

“For our students in the performing arts, there is no better place to test what we teach them about the creative and collaborative process, to refine their commitment to relevant and engaged work, and to observe many different kinds of artists and leaders at work,” O’Keefe said in an email. “Our graduate students will benefit from the relationships they develop there as well as these invaluable opportunities to learn and grow.”

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