Before delivering the keynote address at Theatre Reunion Weekend, Anna Shapiro ’90, HDR ’15 talks to Columbia Connection about her college memories and why she doesn’t believe in disasters.
If you track the history of Chicago theater over the last 20 years, you’ll find Anna Shapiro ’90, HDR ’15 at the center of things. She’s been affiliated with the renowned Steppenwolf Theater since 1995, where she directed the 2007 premiere of August: Osage County (which would soon move to Broadway—where it would earn Shapiro a Tony Award for her direction). In 2015, she stepped up as Steppenwolf’s artistic director.
And it all started at Columbia College Chicago. She’ll be back on campus to give the keynote address at Theatre Reunion Weekend. Before that, she talked with Columbia Connection about “impossible” student productions, the Columbia theatre-making ethos, and why she doesn’t believe in disasters.
What Columbia productions stand out in your memory?
All of us, we never tire of repeating the stories of basically every single production we were involved in. It's as if every single one of them was seminal and life-changing. But the one that I remember the most was a production I did in my senior year of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. It was a play that was supposed to be impossible, but because we were so arrogant—I was going to say young, but I really mean arrogant—we didn't know that it was supposed to be impossible. So we just, followed our own instincts and formulated a really strong point of view.
Even in my grown-up life, when people are like, “Oh, well, we can't do that,” I just have this Columbia part of my brain that wants to say, “You're an idiot. We can do whatever we want.”
Any memorable disasters?
I mean, isn't [college] the time where we don't have to use those words? Now, there's fun disasters: I will never forget a flat falling down in the middle of a show. That was hysterical. I almost peed in my pants. Because you're trying to be so serious and then, suddenly, a flat falls down.
You know, making theater is also a very emotional thing and sometimes people are drawn to it for reasons they don't understand, and their vulnerability can create situations that are really tough for young people to manage. But those aren't disasters. Those are gifts. Those are important moments where you're in a room with a bunch of people trying to figure out how to do something and you realize, you know, someone in here is hurting or someone in here is lost and we don't have any grown up in here telling us how we're supposed to handle this. We just have to make good decisions.
How does Columbia's theater program shape Chicago's theater scene?
I think that Columbia is the most anti-elitist, inclusive theater-practicing organization that I know in the country. Its ethos of inclusion and representation just comes from: Anybody who wants to do this can do this, and we'll support the people who want to do it. I wish that could be a touchstone for us all every day. At its heart, [Columbia] helps young people who didn't think there was a place for them to tell stories learn how to tell stories. And that's so Chicago, right? You can't swing a dead cat without its hitting a little theater company here. And I think that that ethos is hugely connected to Columbia.