Interview: Audrey Francis on THE THANKSGIVING PLAY at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Read the complete interview.

By: May. 22, 2024
Interview: Audrey Francis on THE THANKSGIVING PLAY at Steppenwolf Theatre Company
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We spoke with Audrey Francis about Steppenwolf Theatre Company's Chicago premiere of Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play, a biting comedy about everything right, wrong and woke in America, directed by Jess McLeod.

Four (very) well-intentioned theatre people walk into an elementary school. The work at hand: a Thanksgiving pageant that won’t ruffle any feathers. What could possibly go wrong? In MacArthur Genius Larissa FastHorse’s skewering and satirical comedy, well, just about everything. Rambunctious, thorny and not altogether politically correct, The Thanksgiving Play serves up the hypocrisies of woke America on a big, family-style platter. Come get ya some.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company is the nation’s premiere Ensemble Theater with 49 members who are among the top actors, playwrights and directors in the field. Thrilling, powerful, groundbreaking productions - from Balm in Gilead and Grapes of Wrath to August: Osage County, Downstate and The Brother/Sister Plays - have made this theatre legendary. Founded in 1976, Steppenwolf started as a group of teens performing in the basement of a church. Today, the company's artistic force remains rooted in the original vision of its founders: an artist-driven theatre, whose vitality is defined by its appetite for bold and innovative work. Every aspect of Steppenwolf is rooted in its Ensemble ethos, from the intergenerational artistic programming to the multi-genre performance series LookOut, to the nationally recognized work of Steppenwolf Education and Engagement which serves nearly 15,000 teens annually. While grounded in the Chicago community, more than 40 original Steppenwolf productions have enjoyed success nationally and internationally, including Broadway, Off-Broadway, London, Sydney, Galway and Dublin. Steppenwolf also holds accolades that include the National Medal of Arts, 12 Tony Awards, and more. Led by Artistic Directors Glenn Davis and Audrey Francis, Executive Director Brooke Flanagan and Board of Trustees Chair, Keating Crown - Steppenwolf continually redefines the landscape of acting and performance.

Steppenwolf’s Mission: Steppenwolf strives to create thrilling, courageous and provocative art in a thoughtful and inclusive environment. We succeed when we disrupt your routine with experiences that spark curiosity, empathy and joy. 

Audrey Francis (Logan) serves as Artistic Director of Steppenwolf Theatre, alongside Glenn Davis, where she has been an Ensemble member since 2017. She is an actor, director, educator and coach. Most recently, Audrey directed POTUS in Steppenwolf's 2023/24 season. Steppenwolf performing credits include The Herd, Between Riverside and Crazy, The Fundamentals, The Doppelgänger (an international farce) and Dance Nation. TV credits include Justified: City Primeval, Chicago Med, Chicago Fire and Empire. Film credits include Perpetrator, Knives and Skin, Later Days and Distant Learners. She has taught acting in New York, LA, Toronto, Sydney and Melbourne, as well as at The University of Chicago and The Theatre School at DePaul. Audrey is a professional acting coach for Showtime, NBC, Fox and Amazon, and is the co-founder of Black Box Acting.

Why did you and Co-Artistic Director Glenn Davis choose The Thanksgiving Play for Steppenwolf's 48th Season?

When considering a programming a play for Steppenwolf’s season, I always ask myself, “Does this play challenge me and how long will I want to talk about it after seeing it?” Larissa has done a brilliant thing with this play, in that she pulls the audience in with laughter, then surprises them with a provocative and challenging question that makes people stop and wonder if it’s okay to be laughing. That moment of unpredictability, of having a rug pulled out from under me, and disrupting assumptions I was unconsciously operating under, is what makes it a play I personally wanted to program.

Tell us a bit about your character Logan?

Logan is stressed. She’s trying so hard to do everything “right” but in trying so hard, she’s found painted herself into a corner of focusing on what her version of “right” is rather than what the room may actually need. She’s a former actor, current director and educator, and aspiring mentor. She’s also a bit of an unhinged, insecure, hopeful mess of a human who I hope never stops trying.

Playwright Larissa FastHorse joined you at Steppenwolf for part of the rehearsal process, what was that experience like?

What a gift it was to be in the room with Larissa. She brings such facility and openness to the process and, possibly my favorite part, is that it seems as though Larissa doesn’t have a precious bone in her body… Which is right in line with how I feel about Steppenwolf. Because of her willingness to share her experiences, we were able to bring a level of honesty to the characters that I think has a hugely positive impact on the production. She’s funny, smart, and irreverent and having her in the room was a huge asset to the way we built this world.

Talk a little about Director Jess McLeod's vision for Steppenwolf's production.

Jess is one of the most fierce directors I’ve ever worked with. She had such a clear vision for this production and was relentless in the team’s pursuit to execute that vision to the fullest. She challenged us to approach the work with a level on honesty and bravery that can be easy to avoid when doing comedy. But because of that, I believe the comedy in this production has a greater payoff. Because of Jess’s tenacity and care, it’s been one of the most challenging and most rewarding roles I’ve gotten to inhabit.

The show is performed in Steppenwolf's new in-the-round Ensemble Theater - what are the benefits and challenges of performing in the round?

This is my first time acting in the round and I never want to go back. It’s such an exhilarating experience. To be surrounding by an audience leaning in, laughing, gasping, then being able to hear a pin drop is one of the most exciting theatre experiences I’ve ever had. In particular, with this piece, having the audience be able to witness (and be witnessed) by each other changes the alchemy and the stakes of this story. For me, it’s all benefits, and the only challenge is… not being able to hide.

This is an extremely physical play - talk a bit about that and how you prepare.

Major vocal warmups thanks to our vocal coach Kate DeVore. I also spend a lot of time stretching and my new best friend is my foam roller. We’re lucky to have a physical therapist that visits us once a week, but overall, it’s our incredible stage management team that helps to make sure we’re rested and hydrated.

How have audiences been reacting to the play?

It’s been a wild ride to experience audience reactions. They truly do show up ready and willing to go on the ride with us. Of course, every audience has it’s own personality, but for the most part, the laughs hit hard and so do the questions.

What do you hope audiences take away?

I’ll borrow the answer my fellow ensemble member (who also plays Caden in the play), Tim Hopper: My hope is that audiences go home with the reminder of how amazing it is to experience live theatre.


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