No theater in Chicago sells out more quickly than the Steep Theatre on Chicago's North Side.
Consider. The entire initial run of "Moment," the current production of the play by Irish playwright Deirdre Kinahan was sold out within about 48 hours of opening night. Shortly afterward, Steep added several performances. They were gone in a matter of minutes, mostly through Twitter. A week or two after that, Steep announced a three-week extension. About a third of the available seats were gone in an hour, the rest within a day. At the time of this writing, the only way you can get in to see director Jonathan Berry's production is by attending Steep's benefit night, and coming up with an extra 30 bucks, for the Care for Real food pantry in the Edgewater neighborhood on Sept. 8. And you'd better move fast there, too.
Granted, Steep is a small theater (less than 70 seats) and "Moment" got mostly excellent reviews, including one from me. But this isn't Lollapalooza. It's a new play by a writer of whom very few folks in Chicago have even heard. And Steep, which has an annual budget of only $140,000, doesn't have much money for marketing. Yet, as the theater well knows, hundreds, if not a couple of thousand, potential ticket buyers have been turned away. And Steep, a very cautious ensemble-based theater that has clearly been reluctant to embrace some elements of its own success, in the great Chicago tradition of such resistance, is beginning to see that it is at a point of decision.
One of its key actors, Caroline Neff (whom you can currently see in Anna D. Shapiro's production of "Three Sisters" at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company) has joined the Actors' Equity union, which has motivated Steep to begin talks with the union about becoming an Equity theater. Peter Moore, one of the founders, said in an interview this week that Steep also is thinking about expanding into one or two of the neighboring storefronts or maybe moving to a larger theater, assuming the intimacy of its work can be maintained.
"We actually had a similar decision point six or seven years ago," said co-founder Alex Gillmor, "when Peter and I asked ourselves whether we wanted to build this company or move to Los Angeles and build our own careers instead. We decided to stay. This is a family we've built here. We love each other so much and we want success for everyone. We've both got kids. We're not moving anywhere."
"Nobody is looking at Steep as the springboard to the next level," Moore said. "I think we're all hoping Steep will take us to that level."
Steep actually was founded in 2001 by Gillmor, Moore and Alex Gualino (who subsequently left the company). Its new theater on Berwyn Avenue (a key factor in the company's growth because it enabled audiences to find their work) opened in 2008.
Initially, Gillmor says, it was tough.
"We know how fragile the whole thing is," he said. "Before 'Harper Regan' went up, which was our first really big hit, we were struggling to pay the rent. We thought there was no way this was going to happen again. But now it's happened again. Several times."
What's really happened, of course, is the arrival of an audience — a general audience that has seen enough good stuff at this theater to figure out it can be trusted to do the kind of work it likes. Steep, in many ways, is in a similar position to TimeLine Theatre about five years ago. TimeLine has now established itself as a vital Chicago theater company. Steep seems poised to do the same.
TimeLine also shrewdly managed its own growth, slowly adding full-time staffers, improving the audience experience and being smart enough to build capacity and lengthen runs. Steep was slower to do that with "Moment," but Moore and Gillmor both say they are coming to a fuller understanding of the amount of demand out there for their best work.
All that said, "Moment" has to close after the current extension to make way for the fall season, which includes Ethan Lipton's "Luther" (a black comedy about a family that adopts a military veteran withpost-traumatic stress disorder) and "The Knowledge" by John Donnelly (a new British play about a beginning teacher in a tough school).
Clearly, Steep needs another space.