A new day will soon dawn at Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
The Tony Award-winning Chicago company on Thursday announced the appointment of co-artistic directors — Glenn Davis and Audrey Francis — marking the first time in Steppenwolf’s history that the job will be shared by two individuals, and the first time that a person of color will helm the troupe.
Davis and Francis, both ensemble members in the company, will assume their leadership roles in late August, following the departure of artistic director Anna D. Shapiro, who announced in May that she was stepping down from the post she’d held since 2015.
“We knew that Anna was most likely not going to renew her contract, so the ensemble had already been in discussion [since last fall] about the succession plan. And through all of those discussions, two beautiful things were born: one, deciding to adopt a co-artistic director model, which to us is basically ensemble leadership. And the second was it was the first democratic process that the ensemble had in electing the two next artistic directors,” Francis said during a recent joint interview with Davis.
“Glenn and I raised our hands as a team and the ensemble voted. And because of the amazing work [that late artistic director] Martha [Lavey] and Anna had done before us, this felt like a natural evolution for the company. Because we already operate as an ensemble company, this idea of ensemble leadership … is such a great exploration for us because Glenn and I have two very different world views and life experiences. It can only benefit the company and the city.”
Davis and Francis have extensive experience locally and across the globe in the theater world, on stage, behind the scenes and in educational settings.
Francis boasts a resume as actor, director, teaching artist and educator, having co-founded Black Box Acting in 2009, serving more than 1,000 Chicago-area theater students and artists. A transplanted Coloradan, she’s a graduate of The School at Steppenwolf and familiar to theatergoers for her roles in “The Doppelganger (an international farce),” “Between Riverside and Crazy” and “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter.”
Davis, a native of Chicago’s South Side, is a graduate of the Theatre School at DePaul University and the first African American to graduate from the Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada. His work at Steppenwolf includes “Downstate” and “The Brother/Sister Plays.” He’s a partner at the Cast Iron Entertainment collective along with Sterling K. Brown, Brian Tyree Henry, Jon Michael Hill, Andre Holland, and Tarell Alvin McCraney.
“I wouldn’t say doors were closed to me as an artist of color, but when you’re a Black artist, the doors are limited in number,” Davis said. “So we formed this production company and we started to build projects in film, TV and theater. … If the world is not going to put us in this, we are going to put us in this.”
The duo already has a sense of how to divvy up the job.
“Glenn is definitely going to be the point person on programming and institutional advancement,” Francis said, “and I’ll be the point person on things like education and artistic and organizational leadership. But not one decision will be made without us being in conversation with each other.”
Central to their plans will be Steppenwolf’s new 50,000-square-foot Arts & Education Center, scheduled to open this fall.
“We have a beautiful new building that will be an entry point to reach out to communities in Chicago that don’t normally get to come to places like Steppenwolf … communities that have been historically marginalized, to be honest, that don’t get the chance to come to Lincoln Park and experience cultural entities like Steppenwolf,” Davis said. “So we think of that building as a love letter to the city. The arts and education building will be pivotal in terms of all the things we will do going forward. There’s a big audience we want to cultivate of the next five, 10, 15 years, and that will be their entry point. But also we want to continue to center the ensemble, that everything continues to emanate from the artists who built the company years ago and who are the main ingredient.”
Contributing: Darel Jevens