CHICAGO: Steppenwolf Theatre Company has announced that two ensemble members, Audrey Francis and Glenn Davis, will share the role of artistic director. This announcement continues Steppenwolf’s tradition of placing the company’s artistic leadership in the hands of ensemble members rather than hiring from outside the company. Francis and Davis succeed ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro, who is stepping down next month after six years at the helm. This appointment marks two firsts for the company: It’s the first time an artistic director of color has been selected, and the first time the 49-member ensemble has formally appointed co-artistic leaders (the company has had prior shared leadership regimes, but this is the first ensemble-elected co-artistic directorship, according to a spokesperson).
“Steppenwolf was founded by extraordinary actors who had a vision of building an ensemble of artists who would support each other while producing honest, bold, and thought-provoking theatre,” said Shapiro in a statement. “This approach changed American theatre. Now with a nearly 50-member ensemble, we are on the verge of our next great act: the opening of a remarkable new theatre-in-the-round and an education wing, two decades in the making, that promises to be a cultural nexus for our city. Glenn and Audrey, together, are the right mix to build on our company’s legacy and open our doors wider than ever before.”
Both Davis and Francis got their starts at the School at Steppenwolf, have built their artistic careers in Chicago’s theatre community, and became ensemble members in 2017 under Shapiro’s leadership. In addition to Shapiro’s leadership, both new artistic directors pointed to former artistic director Martha Lavey‘s principles of ensemble, innovation, and civic duty for planting the seeds for Steppenwolf’s next chapter. The move to co-leadership echoes moves made around the country, including at fellow Chicago theatre Teatro Vista, which announced its new co-artistic directors Lorena Diaz and Wendy Mateo earlier this month.
“As an actor-centered theatre company, moving to a new co-artistic leadership model is aligned with the entrepreneurial spirit of its founders, ensemble members, and leadership team who have all shaped Steppenwolf,” said Eric Lefkofsky, chair of the Steppenwolf board of trustees, in a statement. “The different life experiences Glenn and Audrey bring to the role will provide a more comprehensive world-view in decision making that will benefit Steppenwolf actors, staff, the company, and our audiences.”
Moving forward, the new artistic leaders intend to continue centering the organization’s ensemble in programming and operationalize the theatre’s commitments to inclusion, diversity, equity, and access. Creating an equitable space for individuals who have been historically marginalized and underrepresented in the theatre is central to how the co-leaders will shepherd in the evolution of the company.
“The ensemble has always been the heart and soul of Steppenwolf,” said Davis in a statement. “As the company has grown so, too, has the ensemble, now reflecting a diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and passions. Our goal is to center the artists through ensemble leadership and strengthen that ensemble ethos so that it permeates every aspect of the institution.”
Additionally, Francis and Davis will lead the theatre as it nears the opening of its new 50,000 square foot arts and education center later this year. Included in the organization’s expansion is a new 400-seat theatre in the round as well as new community spaces.
“Steppenwolf has always been an innovator and, as the American theatre community reimagines itself, we’re going to dream big and push Steppenwolf and the industry to reexamine how we support artists on and off stage,” said Francis in a statement. “We are inspired by the changes we see in our industry and aim to redefine how artists are valued in America.”
Glenn Davis is an accomplished actor and producer from Chicago. He garnered widespread acclaim for his performance in the world premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo at L.A.’s Kirk Douglas Theatre, and transferred with the production to Broadway, where he starred alongside Robin Williams. Davis joined the ensemble in 2017, where he has performed in several productions. Most recently he was seen in Steppenwolf’s production of the award-winning Downstate by ensemble member Bruce Norris in Chicago and at the National Theatre in London, where The Guardian hailed his “visceral performance.” Additional Steppenwolf performing credits include You Got Older (also featured Audrey Francis), The Christians, fellow ensemble member Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brother/Sister Plays and Head of Passes, and the Steppenwolf for Young Adults production of A Lesson Before Dying. Off-Broadway credits are Transfers (MCC Theatre) and Wig Out! (Vineyard Theatre). Other regional credits include Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow (Williamstown Theatre Festival); International credits include Downstate (National Theatre, UK), Edward II, (Stratford Festival), as well as Othello (The Shakespeare Company). Television credits include Billions, 24, The Unit, Jericho and The Good Wife.
Davis is also a partner at Cast Iron Entertainment, a collective of artists consisting of Sterling K. Brown, Brian Tyree Henry, Jon Michael Hill, Andre Holland, and Tarell Alvin McCraney. Cast Iron is currently in residence at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, with a mandate to engage in a collaborative and experimental story development process intended to incubate new theater projects. He is also an artistic associate at the Young Vic Theatre in London and at the Vineyard Theatre in New York. Davis is a graduate of the Theatre School at DePaul University, and holds the distinction of being the first African-American to graduate from the Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada.
Audrey Francis is an acclaimed actor, director, teaching artist, and co-founder of Black Box Acting. In 2009, Francis co-founded the acting conservatory that started with 12 students and within 3 years, served over 1,000 Chicago artists. She created the original curriculum, the Black Box Method, which is based on and inspired by the Meisner and Viewpoints techniques. After running the company for a decade, Francis and her business partner sold the company. Black Box is still going strong and serving the Chicago community.
Francis attended the School at Steppenwolf in 2004, and since then has been acting professionally in Chicago, working with an array of companies in the storefront and regional theatre scene. Audrey became a Steppenwolf ensemble member in 2017 and has performed in ten productions with the company to date, including The Doppelgänger (an international farce), Dance Nation, The Fundamentals, Between Riverside and Crazy, and The Herd. Francis has also been in many acclaimed independent films, namely Knives and Skin, Later Days, Signature Move, and the award-winning web series Distant Learners. Her most recent directing credits include Plano with First Floor Theatre that debuted in the 1700 space at Steppenwolf, The Invisible Hand at Steep Theatre, and the audio play of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter in Steppenwolf’s most recent virtual Steppenwolf NOW season.
Francis also works as a professional acting coach for Showtime, NBC, Fox, and Amazon. She works closely with executive producers, showrunners, and directors to provide actors with off-stage rehearsals that bring more of a theatre process to the world of television. She has most recently worked with The Chi, Empire, Patriot, and Chicago PD. She has taught at the University of Chicago, DePaul Theatre School, Loyola, Black Box Acting, and the School at Steppenwolf. She has also taught workshops in Los Angeles, Toronto, Sydney, and Melbourne.
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