Finding Our Compass

by Hallie Gordon

in Audience (R)Evolution

Post image for Finding Our Compass

(Pictured: Hallie GordonThis post is a part of the Audience (R)Evolution grant program and blog salon.)

There can be no question that Steppenwolf Theatre has a multi-generational audience for its world-class programming. We offer thought-provoking productions for all theatergoers from the age of high school onwards, and we pride ourselves on our ability to simultaneously reach so many generations. However, thus far there have been comparatively few opportunities for those generations to interact with one another in our theatre, because as with many arts organizations, we confront the phenomenon of discrete “sub-audiences” within our overall population of attendees. Currently, our most diverse audience, however you parse the demographics – racially, ethnically, generationally, and socioeconomically – can be found attending Steppenwolf for Young Adults (SYA), our suite of programming dedicated to high school students (during our weekday matinees) that also engages a much wider public during weekend performances.

As an organization, we have resolved to tackle this phenomenon of the “silo-ing” of our audience by providing greater opportunity for these “factions” to engage with one another. PROJECT COMPASS is focused on bridging our multigenerational audiences across program streams under one roof.

Funding from TCG’s Audience (R)evolution/(Re)Imagining has given Steppenwolf a unique opportunity to conduct an organization-wide experiment in this regard. SYA programming focuses on community connections and thereby engages and reflects the current realities of its audiences in distinctive ways, such as taking its original production of oral histories, How Long Will I Cry?: Voices of Youth Violence, on tour to the communities from which the stories were gathered. While this style of sustained and intensive engagement has proven very successful with the multigenerational audiences Steppenwolf serves, PROJECT COMPASS will provide us a broader opportunity to test out new and audacious engagement strategies with a wider community, including the more traditional theatergoers who have remained loyal to Steppenwolf for over thirty years. We hope that this opportunity to experiment with how multigenerational audiences interact with works of arts in similar and distinct ways will make us better poised to translate the most effective and impactful aspects of SYA programming that can and should be implemented across the theatre’s programming at large.

So what is PROJECT COMPASS to be? Well, initially, it will involve inviting my good friend Michael Rohd (Artistic Director of Sojourn Theatre and professor at Northwestern University), to collaborate with us. Michael has been a frequent collaborator with SYA in many different capacities, but never as an artist. He and I had been looking for a project to work together on for some time when he shot me an e-mail that read something like this:

“A show about an app design. The App is called Compass. The show is called The Compass. The App is something any 13-19 year old can download cheap. It will tell them what they should do in any life situation. It operates by collecting data on Context, Identity, Values, Goals, related to the particular consumer/youth who is running the App. The show is a beta test run by the design team for the App. (so the design team are the characters, and they have different points of view on its design, its integrity, and even the idea of testing it with real youth…)

The audience, in other words, in addition to partaking of the artistic experience of the show, will function as the focus group/laboratory colleagues who will critique and interrogate the App. The event itself shows the ludicrousness of this idea, this app. But also uses this app to take a serious and probing look at all the ways people make moral choices and about the importance (individual as well as aggregate) of Context, Identity, Values, Goals.

The “uber task” is this:

Try to pull apart how we as individual people make decisions, and how the society around us can assist with and/or complicate that decision-making, every day…”

That’s the show. But more importantly this idea gives us a platform to answer some very interesting questions: how can theatre offer a way to blend the audience use of social media that is still grounded in live experience? How can we use this audience engagement to build a more robust multi-generational audience better prepared and equipped to appreciate the value of learning and exploring alongside one another? And where can all this take place? What is the emergent or existing vocabulary or idiom to help frame such a conversation?

Steppenwolf recently acquired a significant expansion of our current space – the Steppenwolf Lab – which will function as a dedicated space for precisely the kind of interaction PROJECT COMPASS seeks to foster. With the Lab, Steppenwolf has a singular opportunity to lay the groundwork for new strategies of audience engagement. Developing the Lab will offer vital experience in how to create a multi-purpose theater environment that serves our audiences, artists, and the larger community of both the neighborhood and the city of Chicago. Through the Lab we can show our audiences – young and old alike – how their engagement with live artistic experiences can extend beyond passively bearing witness to a show, or at most, participation in a discussion afterwards. With the goal of blending multi-generational audiences in highly participatory and more immersive forms of engagement around the work of art, we will embark upon The Compass, conceived and directed by Michael Rohd, and an SYA show in the Fall 2015. We will spend the next year and a half collaborating with artists, our Young Adult Council, Tech firms, design firms, universities, child psychologists, game makers, staff, and other city organizations so that by that time the production is ready, our interwoven goals are ready for audiences, the physical space of the Lab is ready to host it, and a diverse, multigenerational audience is ready to receive, digest and interact with it.


Early photos of construction for the Steppenwolf Lab. Photo by Lauren Sivak.

Hallie Gordon (Artistic and Educational Director of Steppenwolf for Young Adults.) For Steppenwolf Theatre Company Hallie has created and facilitated many educational programs. Along with selecting the young adult productions each season she has created the Young Adult Council, these high school students collectively help to create innovative programming for their peers. As Educational Director Hallie has worked closely with the Chicago Public Schools to create an environment in which all students and teachers have access to the theatre. Hallie is the founder and co-creator of Now Is The Time a city-wide initiative inspiring young people to make positive change in their communities and stop youth violence and intolerance. As a theatre artist Hallie has directed Eclipsed at Northlight Theatre, for Steppenwolf the world premiere of The Book Thief, To Kill A Mockingbird, the world premiere of a new adaptation by Tanya Saracho of The House on Mango Street, and  Harriet Jacobs adapted for the stage by Lydia R. Diamond. A new premier of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye also adapted by Lydia R. Diamond which won a Black Excellence Award from the African American Arts Alliance of Chicago, This production also transferred Off-Broadway to The New Victory Theatre. She has directed staged readings for The Goodman Theatre, Timeline Theatre, Chicago Dramatists and Steppenwolf Theatre Company.  Hallie is the recipient of The Helen Coburn Meier & Tim Meier Achievement Award.


Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.

  • Lola722

    To be in the Young Adult Council do we have to act? I do some backstage work and have a great appreciation for theater