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A Digital Stage the Steppenwolf Way- Catching Up with Leelai Demoz About Steppenwolf NOW


Learn about the very first project on their digital stage, What Is Left, Burns.

A Digital Stage the Steppenwolf Way- Catching Up with Leelai Demoz About Steppenwolf NOW

Steppenwolf, a pillar of the Chicago theatre scene, is launching a virtual membership program this fall - and with it a season of virtual programming from some of the country's top artists. BroadwayWorld was thrilled to be able to catch up with Associate Artistic Director Leelai Demoz to ask about the new platform, Steppenwolf's plans for the future, and the very first project on their digital stage, What Is Left, Burns by James Ijames.

How does one go about making a virtual show? It's exciting that Steppenwolf is tailoring each of the works specifically for the digital platform - what does that process look like? What is your role?

Sometimes, you just have to start. We didn't have all of the answers, but we knew it was important to create work during this time. In looking at an old email, Anna D. Shapiro, our Artistic Director, said that we need to create new work "so we stay creative, stay stimulated and yes, maybe a little scared."

The journey started with reaching out to various artists and pitching our idea. The response was heartening and it was an indication that this was the right move. We had to truncate our usual development process. The scripts had to be written in a shorter amount of time. In some cases, they had to be revised to fit into a radio play format or a filmed format. We had to figure out the best way of filming in our own Steppenwolf way.

My background is as a film/TV producer and I am so impressed at how all of the members of our production, marketing, and artistic department created a new language for filming these plays. It's outside of our usual workflow, but we are making it work.

Tell me more about the first offering on the virtual stage, What is Left, Burns by James Ijames. What inspired this production, what can viewers expect?

This play is by James Ijames, who also wrote the our mainstage play THE MOST SPECTACULARLY LAMENTABLE TRIAL OF MIZ MARTHA WASHINGTON. That play, which was directed by Whitney White, was in the middle of rehearsals when we had to close the theater in March.

A Digital Stage the Steppenwolf Way- Catching Up with Leelai Demoz About Steppenwolf NOW
Ensemble members K. Todd Freeman and Jon Michael Hill. Photo/design credit: Lowell Thomas.

Once we made a decision to produce a virtual season, we went to James and Whitney and asked them to collaborate once again. Within about 6 weeks, we got a draft back from James. It was extraordinary. He wrote this beautiful short play that felt like a complete experience. You were taken on a journey through this emotional minefield of two lovers connecting after a long time. It felt so completely about the time we are living going through now. And then Whitney came on and had a unifying vision of this filmed world, that elevated the play in a unique way. She had some great visual ideas which gave this production a lushness which you don't usually see. We were fortunate to have Justin Ellington compose an unbelievable score to the piece.

What was it like watching ensemble members K. Todd Freeman and Jon Michael Hill work in this new digital medium?

One of the things that I found fascinating watching rehearsals on Zoom is the intimacy that you have with the actors. Watching their process so closely was a unique privilege. You see how they build their characters in a way that you would never experience on stage or even in a film. And they did this while acting as their own camerapersons, lighting technicians, and production designers. Their performances are truly special.

Was there anything unexpected that happened during the making of What is Left, Burns?

Our amazing production team came up with an idea to support Whitney White's vision. It involved sending a projector to one of the actors' homes. During the shoot, they figured out a way to remotely control the projector, so Whitney was able to try different looks from her home. This is one example of why this process has been so rewarding. This collective creativity has infused all of these works in so many different ways.

With the launch of Steppenwolf NOW, the company has now reached people across the world, well beyond their regular footprint as a foundational institution in the Chicago theatre scene. To help illustrate this incredible reach, they've put together this remarkable map showing where memberships have been purchased.

A Digital Stage the Steppenwolf Way- Catching Up with Leelai Demoz About Steppenwolf NOW

It's incredible that Steppenwolf NOW virtual memberships have already been purchased in over 140 cities, 38 States, 7 Countries and counting. How does Steppenwolf feel about its new global reach? What does this mean for the future of the theater?

It's an unexpected gift from this current moment that we're able to bring Steppenwolf to the world. The barriers to access are breaking down in all ways-over half of the audiences purchasing virtual memberships have never been to our theater before. We are working to ensure that anyone who wants to engage is able by offering discounted and free memberships for essential workers, which includes artists, as well as community partners, teachers and students. Steppenwolf is a Chicago theater through and through, and we're humbled by the opportunity to share the greatness of Chicago theater across the globe with our virtual stage. There's a big appetite for storytelling from the numbers we're seeing and we're hopeful to continue this work even after we're back inside the theater.

Steppenwolf is in the midst of building a new theater-in-the-round and education center. What is Steppenwolf's plan and greatest hope for when we're all able to gather together again?

Our new building is a beacon of hope as we move and evolve through this time. The construction has remained on track on the stunning new space, which will feature a state-of-the-art Theater-in-the-Round, the only one of its kind in Chicago. Only six rounds deep with no audience member more than 20 feet from stage, the intimacy will reach a level that is reminiscent of Steppenwolf's early days.

There will be a dedicated education loft allowing us to double the impact and reach of our education and community work, and more social spaces for artists and audiences to intersect. I can only imagine how big of a celebration it is going to be when we're all able to be in that space, and the depth of gratitude we'll feel for the shared experience of live theater!

Our virtual work is currently welcoming the world with open arms, and our expanded campus aspires to do so as well, serving as a cultural hub for the city of Chicago. The educational opportunities the new space affords will allow us to connect with more youth and foster a new generation of arts learners, makers and appreciators. We can't wait.

For more information about the upcoming programming and to purchase your own Steppenwolf NOW membership, visit

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