By Brian Hieggelke
Last October, Steppenwolf surprised the theater world by announcing a double-barreled transition in leadership: long-term artistic director Martha Lavey would give way to Anna Shapiro at the end of the current season, and David Hawkanson would retire even sooner as executive director—his protégé David Schmitz would step into the top administrative job as managing director on January 1. Schmitz might have the highest-profile new job in Chicago theater, but even for his first press interview, a week and a half into the gig, he’s calm and confident. That’s because, I imagine, he’s been at Steppenwolf for a decade already, and his big near-term challenge, the expansion of the theater’s “campus” to include a new building, new lobby and two theater spaces, is an undertaking he approaches with confidence. He was downtown last week to meet with a board member, and we grabbed a few minutes in a bustling Loop coffee shop.
What brought you to this point?
I’m a theater person from the start. I was involved as an actor as a kid and actually have an undergraduate degree in directing and sound design. I moved to Chicago in ‘98 to get an MFA in directing from Roosevelt University. And the nice thing about that program, beyond being a good program where I learned a lot, was that it didn’t pay me to go to school, so I had to get a job. I got a job as a business manager for a for-profit company called Adair Performance which was, literally, clowns. Like birthday-party clowns. And that’s why I have the advantage of being able to say I worked for clowns and really meaning it. But the great thing about that opportunity was it taught me contracts and budgeting and the fundamentals of business, which I didn’t get in any of my schooling. Then I was hired as the bookkeeper at Lookingglass about two months before they broke ground on the space on Michigan Avenue. I walked into a really great opportunity—there was a lot of need for financial work, for analysis, and there wasn’t really anybody to do it. I was hired as a bookkeeper. By the end of the summer, I was director of finance. By the end of three years, general manager, helping to run the theater while we were looking for an executive director. We eventually hired the current executive director, Rachel Kraft. At that point, I was still directing. I was an ensemble member at Stage Left Theatre from 2002 to 2008, when my first kid was born and I stopped directing. And then I was hired at Steppenwolf in 2005, and walked into, again, a great situation. David Hawkanson, the executive director, took me under his wing, along with certain members of the board, and the rest is history I guess. The funny story that my wife tells is that when she first moved here in 2001, after we’d been dating long distance, we were going by the old Steppenwolf administrative offices at North and Halsted, that beautiful brick building, and I said, “That’s where they have their offices! Wouldn’t it be amazing if I could work in a building like that?” Read the rest of this entry »