Steppenwolf Gala 'Bordered on Bad Taste' (Says the Designer)

Celebrating the theater's ensemble members, this year's Steppenwolf gala got gaudy with Versace-inspired decor.

A table inside the dinner tent

Photo: BizBash

With individual tickets priced at $1,500, Mayor Richard M. Daley as a dinner guest, and Gary Sinise on bass (more on that later), Saturday's Steppenwolf Theatre gala upheld the annual affair's reputation as one of the city's black-tie heavyweights. Aside from serving as a networking extravaganza and a fund-raiser for the local theater company (this year, the gala raked in $1.3 million), the event is “first and foremost, a celebration of our actors,” said Judith Kaufman, the theater’s director of special events.

Before dinner, a special gala performance, written and performed by the ensemble, took place on the theater’s main stage. Inside the dinner-and-dancing tent that spanned a neighboring parking lot, ensemble member Joan Allen acted as mistress of ceremonies. A live auction featured actor-centric packages like a backstage tour with John Malkovich, who has long been affiliated with the theater. Sinise (an ensemble member himself) provided the after-dinner entertainment with his Lt. Dan Band, covering everyone from Beyoncé to Evanescence as guests hit the dance floor.

Along with its famous guests, the fete is known for over-the-top decor. This year, event designer Bill Heffernan (of Heffernan Morgan) said he went for “a kind of debauchery-slash-Versace feeling” that “intentionally bordered on bad taste.” On Tuesday, the gala tent went up, and Heffernan and his team began a series of four 18-hour days devoted to its decoration. They adorned the ceiling with 150 suspended elements that included gilt picture frames, faux parrots, black chandeliers, and large coach lanterns stuffed with candelabras and flowers. They covered tables in vividly colored brocaded fabrics, gold plates, and centerpieces festooned with fruit and hot-pink roses.

Pulling together all those disparate elements “could easily have been a train wreck,” Heffernan said. “The real trick is to be able to envision what it'll look like when it's lit up at night.” And lit it was. Some 150 pinspot lights illuminated the dinner tables, while automated moving lights projected colorful patterns throughout the tent and, outside, 80 uplights shone on fabrics lining the tent's perimeter.

Note: The photos on this page were taken before the event and do not show the lighting as it looked the evening of the event.

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