High-Profile Steppenwolf Gala Offers Gritty Decor, Backstage Tours

To facilitate a sense of community between guests and ensemble members, this year's Steppenwolf Theatre gala employed backstage tours, communal tables, and an extended cocktail reception.

By Jenny Berg April 22, 2009, 11:55 AM EDT

Projections in the tent

Photo: Rick Aguilar Studios

Steppenwolf Theatre Gala
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Known as one of the city's most exclusive black-tie events, the Steppenwolf Theatre Company's gala took place on Saturday night. In keeping with the benefit's traditions, Heffernan Morgan poured hours of labor into transforming the theater's neighboring parking lot into a decorated-to-the-hilt dinner tent; Mayor Richard Daley and his wife, Maggie, attended the affair; and famous ensemble members—Michael Shannon, Martha Plimpton, and Gary Sinise among them—mingled casually with guests. But that's where the similarities to previous incarnations ended. “We really started from ground zero this year," said Brooke Walters, director of individual and major gifts.

For starters, the benefit's ticket price dropped from $1,500 to $1,000. “We wanted to bring our event more in line with some of the others in town,” Walters said. ”We do feel that it's a very unique evening and we are limited in space—the gala starts with a show, and our theater only has so many seats in it. But with the economy, we felt that $1,000 was a more reasonable price.” In addition to demonstrating cognizance of the times, the scaled-back ticket cost was intended to diversify the event's audience. Of the 550 guests that made it out on Saturday night, Walters said: “We got more individual representation mingled with the corporate representation.”

When it came to planning the event, “we wanted to make it a bit of a different process," Walters said. This year's co-chair group expanded to include five members from the theater's board of trustees (in years past, it had only involved one) and an ensemble member, Anna D. Shapiro. The theater's artistic director, Martha Lavey, was also heavily involved in the planning process and served as event host.

The reason for the change? “Apart from the buy-in of our board of trustees, we really wanted to focus on this event being a night where our artists were serving as hosts for the community,” Walters said. ”We wanted the actors to welcome guests into their world and show them what it's like to be a performer, so that people understood the importance of supporting the arts.”

In the past, after the evening's kickoff stage performance (this year, three scenes from the current production of The Tempest) guests headed into the lobby and entered the dinner area through a tent. But this year, “we broke the audience up into separate exit groups and lead them all through unique tours of our facility” on a winding path to the tent, Walters said. “We wanted them to see the green room where our artists get dressed before the show. They got to experience the catwalk where all the trusses are hung. They got to have cocktails on the Steppenwolf stage.”

To keep the gala's look on a par with its intended vibe, the planning crew also took the teams from Heffernan Morgan and Ogilvy & Mather (which donated the evening's printed materials) on backstage tours prior to the gala. That way, the creative group “could get a sense of what the true nature of the theater would be before designing the event and the collateral pieces, Walters said. Ultimately, stage-board-like Masonite formed the tent's floor; knotted ropes hung from the ceiling to evoke the gritty look of a backstage area; and in lieu of more traditional place cards, guests' table numbers were written on rectangular pieces of paper that resembled theater tickets.

To cement the connection between guests and ensemble members, attendees dined at long communal tables that were employed to “create this family-like atmosphere,” and evoke “an incredibly elegant dinner party hosted by the artists,” Walters said. Hoping to inspire further mingling, planners arranged for a 45-minute cocktail reception to follow dinner, giving guests extra time to interact before Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band struck up the dance music.

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