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Gary Sinise sets the stage for a two-part series on the genesis of Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Gary Sinise | Getty

Gary Sinise | Getty

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Updated: March 27, 2013 11:25AM

The basement of Immaculate Conception Catholic School in Highland Park was Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s first home. The origins of our company go back to 1974, but it was here, in the summer of 1976, that we produced our first official season of plays. We built an 88-seat theater in what had once been used as a kind of youth center by the church.

We found the space by visiting the youth commissioner at the Highland Park Chamber of Commerce and asking if he had suggestions about where we might produce plays. He took me to see the basement space; when I met with the priest of the church, he granted us the use of the space for a $1 per year tax write-off.

Both co-founder Jeff Perry and I went to Highland Park High School, which is where we met fellow HPHS alum Kevin Rigdon, a design student who we asked to help us design the theater. We built risers that would hold three rows with an additional row on the floor. It was small, but it was our own. We would remain in this space through the summer of 1979.

In the winter of 1980, we made our move into Chicago to take over the Jane Addams Center Hull House at Belmont and Broadway. We would remain there until the fall of 1982, when we moved into a building at 2851 N. Halsted, originally used by the St. Nicholas Theater Company (founded by David Mamet and William H. Macy).

In 1985, we began discussions with our board about next steps and about the possibility of eventually building our own theater space from the ground up. Those discussions and much exploration continued over the next five years, and in 1990, with a very dedicated and committed board of directors leading the way, we broke ground at 1650 N. Halsted. We opened our first season in this permanent space in the fall of 1991, almost 22 years ago.

Our theater company has grown over the years — our ensemble has expanded from the original nine members to 43 theater artists. Our board of directors is one of the finest in the country, and our artistic leadership and staff is as strong as they come. What will be the next step? Stay tuned. I know some great things are ahead at 1650 N. Halsted.

Gary Sinise donated his fee for this column to the Gary Sinise Foundation.

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