When the storied Steppenwolf Theatre Company asked Anna D. Shapiro to step into the role of artistic director, the Tony Award-winning director balked at the idea. The job was too big, and the thought of replacing Martha Lavey, who’d led Steppenwolf for 20 years, was too daunting. But when she finally sat down to write her official rejection, recalls Shapiro, “I couldn’t stop crying.” So she put aside the pen. “I thought, I’m ready for this. I want this.”
In conversation, Shapiro, 49, comes across much like the productions she’s famous for directing (August: Osage County, The Motherfucker with the Hat): fiercely present and blazingly honest. She has a habit of qualifying her sentences with the phrase “quite frankly,” even though it’s tough to imagine her speaking any other way.
Growing up, Shapiro had no intention of becoming an artist. “It was just not part of my personality to be brave,” she says. That changed, though, when she took a class in stage direction her senior year at Columbia College. “That was just where I belonged,” she says. “I knew that with that class.”
From there, she went on to receive her master’s from the Yale School of Drama and then in 1995 joined Steppenwolf, whose productions she’d long admired: “I have a very faulty memory of my childhood, yet I can recall really explicitly the nights at Steppenwolf. This place gave me a love for theater, and it gave me a career.”
While Shapiro speaks reverently of the Lincoln Park theater, she has no desire to keep it under protective glass. For starters, she plans to shake up its programming model, building more stages and producing more plays. “I would love to figure out a way to be less careful and more adventurous,” she says. “I ask in every meeting, ‘How do we continue to be the most vital theater-making organization in this city?’ ”