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John Clancy is the author of this commentary.
This one’s from the vault, but I’ve got a bad feeling it might still be true.
Steppenwolf has always been cool. They are the Rat Pack, the Dirty Dozen, the Wild Ones of the American theater, roaring into town, picking up some awards, roaring back out. The name itself, at first rangy and sharp-toothed and then a tip of the hat towards German literature perfectly captures the Dharma Bums/Hell’s Angels confluence of American cool. Then you have the Chicago mythos. You imagine working-class Poles and Micks toiling in the deafening slaughterhouse all day and then trudging home to rehearse wild-ass shit all night in the basement of a church, slugging back black coffee and rye to stay awake. Add to this the wild success, the movie stars, the Broadway runs and awards, and clearly Steppenwolf is the ideal. So it’s hard to argue that they’ve all but killed American theater.
Not them, of course. It’s their spawn, infected by the Steppenwolf Syndrome. The Stepford Steppenwolfs. The Steppenpuppies. If you’ve worked for any extensive period in the American theater you know them. The actor who looks for any excuse in the script to take off his shirt, knock furniture around or clean his nails with a Bowie knife. The director who casts these actors and encourages everyone to shout, smoke and stalk around. The writer who is openly or secretly re-writing every early Shepard play and constantly robbing profanity of its beauty and power by using it as mere punctuation.
The result of all this misguided energy is a dizzying and ultimately dispiriting accumulation of loud, violent, messy evenings of theater. Every once in a while, like a night in a crowded bar or a walk on the Lower East Side on a Saturday night, these evenings can provide a life-affirming, electric jolt. But all too often you find yourself looking around and thinking, “What the hell is everyone shouting about?” and wishing you were home with friends. The Steppencubs have given us an undergraduate theater, a juvenile theater, a “boys-with-guns-and-women-who-strip-and-cuss” theater.
John Clancy is an OBIE award winning director and a founding artistic director of the New York International Fringe Festival. His productions have won six Scotsman Fringe Firsts at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He is a partner in Clancy Productions, serves as the Executive Director of the League of Independent Theater, the advocacy group for Off-Off Broadway, and is Board President of the LIT Fund. He lives on the Lower East Side with his wife, Nancy Walsh.