2001-2011: With Inventive Themes, Steppenwolf Gala Focuses on Ensemble

Photo: Rick Aguilar Studios

The Steppenwolf Theater Company’s annual spring gala has maintained an exclusive vibe: Attendees range from well-known actors to city mayors and major philanthropists, and tickets, previously $1,500 a head, were lowered to a still-hefty $1,000 in the throes of the recession.

But the theater company has consistently shaken things up over the past decade, employing changes that range from new decorative schemes to different layouts and fresh venues.

“It has always been important to showcase the work of our artists, even though the format of the theater performance has changed throughout the gala’s 20 years,” said director of special events Kendra Stock Van Kempen. “Sometimes we have showcased the full production, other times a one-night-only performance, and most recently, a selection of scenes from the current production in our subscription series.”

The tradition began in 1991, under the supervision of Judith Simons, then the director of development, and trustees Gloria Scoby and Jane Gidwitz. In its first few years, the gala included a performance in the downstairs theater followed by dinner in the upstairs theater. By the mid-’90s, the event began attracting a larger audience, and the dinner moved to a tent that spanned the neighboring parking lot.

From 1991 to 2010, Heffernan Morgan helmed the design, giving the event a completely reinvented vibe each year. The 2004 gala had pink decor, including tall orchid centerpieces and cabana-style fabric draped around the dinner tables; in 2007, the dinner tent got a sleek, all-white look studded with disco balls and creamy fringe. The 2008 iteration had everything from prop parrots to inverted paper umbrellas—the event had a “kind of debauchery-slash-Versace feeling,” designer Bill Heffernan said at the time.

In 2009, when director of individual and major gifts Brooke Walters took over, “We really started from ground zero this year,” she said. New elements included the reduced ticket price—instituted as part of an effort to involve a more wide-ranging audience—backstage tours of the theater, and communal dinner tables designed to “create this family-like atmosphere” and evoke “an incredibly elegant dinner party hosted by the artists.”

In 2010, the dinner moved to a raw space down the street, which cut expenses considerably. Some “23 percent of our [gala-related] expenditures went toward the construction of that tent,” Walters said.

This year, Stock Van Kempen worked with Lori Dimun, director of event management, to oversee planning efforts for the gala, with Event Creative handling decor for the first time. After a selection of scenes from Langford Wilson’s Hot L Baltimore, the dinner took place in the same, yet-to-be leased raw venue as in 2010, this time with a dilapidated hotel theme. Food for Thought provided catering instead of Limelight, which had been catering the event since 2007, following previous companies Jewell Events Catering, which served the gala in 2000 and 2001, and Wolfgang Puck Catering, which worked the function from 2002 to 2006. 

Correction: Some of the photos were incorrectly captioned. The error has been fixed.

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