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Gary Sinise shares the history of moving theater productions out east

Gary Sinise

Gary Sinise

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Updated: November 19, 2012 2:51PM

Thirty years ago this month — October 1982 — Steppenwolf Theatre moved a play to New York for the first time.

That play was Sam Shepard’s “True West.” It was early in our company’s history, and a time when moving a show to another city was a daunting task. Steppenwolf was an unknown acting ensemble, operating on a shoestring budget, and it was necessary to find producers in New York who could put the money together to make it happen. As artistic director, I felt it was very important that we show our work to a New York audience, as I believed in the production and the possible upside for the company should we succeed there. In the Chicago cast were John Malkovich, Jeff Perry, Fran Guinan and Laurie Metcalf. I directed it.

At the same time, we were also about to move into a new home at 2851 N. Halsted (not far from our current location at 1650 N. Halsted). Moving “True West” was a great opportunity, but the idea that company members would leave to go to New York when we were about to open a new theater was not going over well within our ranks, and some decided against it. Malkovich wanted to go and so did I, and so I ended up acting in the show as well, playing the younger of the two brothers, and recasting the other roles with New York-based actors. It was a difficult time for us, with lots of arguing as to what we should or shouldn’t do. But once the show opened and became a huge hit, from that point on, the mid ’80s turned into one of the most exciting times in our theater’s history. Between 1982 and 1986, we moved five shows to New York. In 1985 we received the Tony Award for best regional theatre and in 1990 “The Grapes of Wrath” won the Tony for best play.

“True West” ran for almost two years at The Cherry Lane Theatre, and I directed several different casts during that period. John and I did it for six months. The week after we left the show, we taped it for PBS’s “American Playhouse” series. It can be found on the Internet now, and occasionally one can find a video tape (if you do some digging).

Last Saturday, Steppenwolf opened “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Wolf” on Broadway to great reviews. At a time when our theater company is earning accolades for its work in New York, I thought it interesting to note that our first trip east was made three decades ago.

Gary Sinise donated his fee for this column to his foundation,

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