Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ Hallie Gordon on Now Is the Time and The Book Thief

Steppenwolf’s education director tells us how theater fits into a new citywide initiative against youth violence.

Photograph: Joel MoormanDirector Hallie Gordon (foreground) and cast member Nicole Wiesner in rehearsal for The Book Thief at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Sitting across from members of the Latin Kings, Hallie Gordon knew she was off track. “They [wanted] to be at the theater handing out pamphlets,” she recalls. “ ‘Do you want us to come and talk to the kids? How we work this community…is that what you’re looking for?’ ” It was not.

Gordon, the artistic and education director of Steppenwolf for Young Adults, was seeking a book to adapt for the stage as part of Now Is the Time, a citywide initiative announced in April to promote and guide discussion among youth about Chicago violence. Piloted largely by Gordon, the program is a collaboration among the Chicago Public Library, Facing History and Ourselves, DePaul University and Steppenwolf, joined by a coalition of theaters including Victory Gardens, Writers’ and Chicago Shakespeare.

When she met with the gang members, Gordon was considering a stage adaptation of the memoir My Bloody Life: The Making of a Latin King. “It was them looking at me going, ‘You’re really naive. This is a machine you’re talking about,’ ” she says. “I realized it was the wrong book. [I feared] glorifying that in some way.”

This month in Chicago, there are around a dozen shows aimed at kids and mounted by theaters either wholly devoted to children or that have programs intended for students and schools. Once those kids reach their teens, however, that number thins out. “There’s not that much theater that deals with this specific age group of 15 to 18,” Gordon says. “They’re starting to have relationships, starting to question their parents’ authority. They’re in this very malleable place in which if you offer them something really intense to think about, they will go all the way. I don’t think enough adults or schools really offer that to them.”

At times, they’ve blocked her attempts. In 2006, many schools pulled out of attending Lydia Diamond’s adaptation of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. One school administrator described a scene in which a character laments to God as blasphemy; another quibbled over the word panties, Gordon says. “If it means a ninth-grade class can’t come see it because panties is in there, we’ll do underwear.”

Of the ten or so Catholic schools that normally attend SYA productions, only two saw last spring’s LGBT-themed [node:15154276 link=fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life;]. “Some schools were like, ‘We don’t have a place to have that discussion,’ ” Gordon says. “Well, if you don’t have a place and they can’t talk to their parents, then why wouldn’t you bring them here so we can have a discussion about it? You can’t ignore this.”

Gordon’s latest production adapts Australian author Markus Zusak’s young-adult best-seller The Book Thief (also the fall selection for One Book, One Chicago). In the book, Death puzzles over a German family endangering itself in defiance of Nazism. The director hopes to open up a discussion about the challenge of doing the right thing in a morally relative world.

Adapter Heidi Stillman finds Zusak’s work speaks to defying social norms under the harshest of circumstances. “There’s all kinds of questions about when do you stand up for things and when do you not?” Stillman says. “If most of us were in that situation, I think a lot of people would duck and cover. If we can’t see [weakness] in ourselves, we can’t really effect change.”

Public performances of [node:15743076 link=The Book Thief;] begin Saturday 20.

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