What is now lauded as the nation’s premier ensemble theater had humble beginnings with two Illinois State alums.
Terry Kinney ’76 and Jeff Perry ’78 partnered with Gary Sinise to create Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company in the mid-1970s. They did so out of a resolve to continue developing as actors, never anticipating they would ultimately change the face of American theatre.
“Our beginnings were just an extension of the kind of work we did here” at Illinois State, Kinney said during a panel discussion with Perry. The two returned to campus in February to receive honorary doctorate degrees at Founders Day. Both have also been added to the newly created College of Fine Arts Hall of Fame.
Reflecting on Steppenwolf’s start, the two praised Illinois State faculty for creating the opportunity to learn what it means to be an artist. “We had this permission and inspiration of that gift that the department gave us in its curriculum, which was basically saying ‘Go learn how to fish,’” Perry said.
As undergraduates the two were empowered to write, cast, design, and direct productions. Kinney still fondly remembers playing a sloth for an entire semester in Jean Scharfenberg’s class. He still invokes the advice of professor Don LaCasse, who preached “Don’t just do something, stand there” when teaching the art of creating a character that listens on stage. And both remain grateful for the wisdom of John Kirk, who emphasized that characters are formed in the space between actors.
Such teaching instilled “this crucial expectation to figure out what it meant to be an artist,” Perry said. He and Sinise, who was a Chicago high school classmate, enlisted Kinney in conversation about how they could continue that quest after graduation.
They found the answer by starting their own theatre company in the basement of a Catholic church in Highland Park. Eventually nine other ISU peers were involved in the effort, including John Malkovich ’76 and Laurie Metcalf ’76. The name Steppenwolf surfaced because one of Perry’s friends was reading the Hermann Hesse book by the same title at the time.
“We started our own theatre company by throwing ourselves at each other. We never did readings of first plays. We flung ourselves around the room. And we didn’t stage violence. We hit each other,” Kinney said.
Such raw emotion was funneled into four plays initially, two of which were eventually staged by invitation at St. Nicholas Theatre in Chicago. Critics gave good reviews, cementing the foundation Steppenwolf needed to build a strong future.
That was 35 years ago. Perry and Kinney have since established remarkable careers as actors and directors. Steppenwolf has grown to 43 members who still stage groundbreaking productions that capture national acclaim and accolades, including nine Tony Awards.
The success is sweet for Perry and Kinney because the company remains true to the trio’s initial vision, which was “to tear down the fourth wall” and “be hyper-real” in representing aberrant society. “We were good at portraying those people that broke our hearts. That’s the kind of work we chose,” Kinney said.
“I think there is something incredibly uplifting about doing a play about desperate characters who don’t know what to do next,” Kinney explained. “The importance of art for me is to go to the theatre, turn off the lights, and see our lives reflected back in metaphor and storytelling. It helps to make sense of the things we suffer through every day. That was our mission from the beginning.”