At "Behind the Curtain" Event, Steppenwolf Donors Sip Cocktails Beside Table Saws

For its first "Behind the Curtain" event, Steppenwolf Theatre invited guests to its scene shop for donuts, cocktails, and private tours of the company's massive prop inventory.

By Jenny Berg October 13, 2009, 6:38 PM EDT

Prop cakes in Steppenwolf Theatre's scene shop

Photo: Barry Brecheisen for BizBash

Steppenwolf Theatre's "Behind the Curtain" Fund-Raiser
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On Saturday night, servers at Steppenwolf Theatre's first “Behind the Curtain" fund-raiser stood on the set of Superior Donuts, helping guests differentiate between real cinnamon-sugar-covered treats and plastic ones. Held in the company's scene shop, the event let attendees explore sets and props from past productions, and also offered brief tutorials in backstage skills such as spotlighting and operating a wind machine.

“People don't necessarily understand what it takes to mount a production on stage,“ said Brooke Walters, director of major gifts. “And so to actually invite our donors and subscribers to the place where we create all the sets and all the props, and to let them have a drink beside a table saw and to see a room full of multiple staircases, which have all been used in different shows, and to see that our properties master has to shop for every single show to find different furniture, and that we have a team to dress it up or distress it as needed—that's the really cool part for me." Allowing guests to see the work that goes into mounting each production, Walters continued, lets Steppenwolf donors understand where their dollars go.

Walters said that the idea for the new benefit stemmed from the theater's desire to tailor an event to its subscriber base and so-called Director's Circle, which comprises individuals who give $1,500 or more to the theater each year. “We have a very well-established gala benefit, and our young professionals' board has branded the Red or White ball,“ she said. “Our gala benefit is really run by the board of trustees, and with a single ticket price of $1,000, it tends to be a higher ticket price account. So we wanted to develop something that has a lower price point, and market it to a broader audience." 

Setting ticket prices for “Behind the Curtain“ at $250 per person, Walters and her team began a marketing push that targeted full and single-ticket subscribers through emails and mailed pieces; they also set up a dedicated booth at the company's open house in September. Ultimately, about 150 guests made it to Saturday's event, which “we thought was a pretty good showing for our first time out of the gate," said Walters, adding that the event raised more than $40,000.

The scene shop's location on the far west side of the city presented a potential trek for some attendees, so Walters and her team arranged for a shuttle service to transport guests to the event from Steppenwolf's parking lot in Lincoln Park. They also provided valet parking at the venue and asked event staffers to call cabs for those who needed them. “We wanted to make sure that guests were in their comfort zones,“ Walters said. “So if they wanted to come, we made sure they had a way to get there." 

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