Stephen Louis Grush has three rehearsals today. In Laura Eason’s two-hander Sex with Strangers at Steppenwolf, he plays a writer who builds a huge Internet following by documenting his sexual exploits. Afterward, Grush heads north to a rented church space to check on rehearsals for Laura Jacqmin’s Dead Pile, which is being produced by XIII Pocket, the storefront company Grush founded in 2009. He then heads to Avondale’s Black Box Acting Studio, where Pavement Group artistic director David Perez is rehearsing Grush’s own play Feet of Clay for a new group called LASTmatch Theatre Company. Oh, and did Grush mention he’s building Dead Pile’s set?
“The theater scene here directly reflects the culture of Chicago. It’s very working class, very responsive to hard work,” Grush says. It’s certainly responded to him: The 27-year-old has spent the last few seasons pinging among high-profile roles at Steppenwolf (The Tempest, Dublin Carol) and the Goodman (A True History of the Johnstown Flood, The Seagull). As XIII Pocket’s artistic director, he nabbed a spot in Steppenwolf’s inaugural Garage Rep last year for his own Adore and more recently penned Cash, a collection of vignettes inspired by the songs of the Man in Black.
Grush is a man in black himself when we meet for a coffee break near Steppenwolf’s rehearsal hall. Clad in a black T-shirt and jeans and an all-black Saints cap, the New Orleans native says it was Chicago’s DIY spirit that attracted him when he came here eight years ago as a Roosevelt undergrad. “It seemed to be a city that does a good job of supporting actors, writers and directors, and not being shy about people blurring the lines between that,” Grush says. “And I knew I wanted to focus on all of that.”
Steppenwolf casting director Erica Daniels cast Grush in the first table read for 2007’s Good Boys and True after seeing his senior showcase at Roosevelt. “You could tell the guy had just tremendous raw talent,” Daniels says. Artistic director Martha Lavey read opposite Grush as his mother. Daniels, who couldn’t attend the reading, says Lavey called her cell phone afterward, saying, “Erica, I think I told him I would do the play if he did it.”
Grush inherited his interest in theater from his mother, who’s also an actor. “I grew up in the greenroom; me and my brother and sister were always around it,” he says. “One of my earliest memories in life was watching my mother onstage.” He also started writing at an early age. “I can’t say I was directing when I was a kid,” he allows, “but I was probably pretty fucking bossy, I imagine.”
Grush credits his work ethic to his father, a freelance dental technician. “I think a lot of men, American men, we learn a lot about work from our fathers. And I watched him bust his ass every day,” he says. “Working freelance wasn’t intimidating to me because I watched him make a living and somehow survive raising his children doing the same thing.”
In Sex with Strangers, Grush’s sixth Steppenwolf show, his character, Ethan, may have been inspired by Tucker Max “or the thousands of Tucker Max look-alikes,” Grush says, but now “he’s come to sort of represent the whole blogger culture, the unapologetic tossing away of social barriers—all that crazy shit floating around on the Internet that people don’t censor at all.” For his own part, Grush says, “I’m a pretty private person. I’ve only recently been part of Facebook, and I think about canceling it every day.”
As we wrap up, I ask Grush about his evening plans. A night off, perhaps? Nope. “I’m off to a board meeting,” he says.
Sex with Strangers is in previews, opening Saturday 29.