U of C alum Aukin directs Old Masters at Steppenwolf

Daniel Aukin draws on experience from the U of C and beyond to direct The old Masters.

By Ben Sigrist

If you think the U of C’s theater program is overshadowed by our counterparts at DePaul and Northwestern, then there’s someone you should know. Daniel Aukin graduated from the University of Chicago in 1993 with a degree in Religion and the Humanities. He then went on to co-found a theater company in Austin, Texas and later became the artistic director of the esteemed Soho Rep in New York City. Embarking on his own path as an independent director since 2006, Aukin has returned to Chicago to direct The Old Masters, written by Sam Marks, as part of Steppenwolf Theatre’s First Look series.

With his feet propped up on a plastic fold-out table and his script binder positioned on an adjacent music stand, Aukin appears both relaxed and intent as he watches his actors rehearse a scene from The Old Masters, even as the regularly passing El trains rattle the rehearsal space.

Occasionally he quickly calls out a direction—“stay looking at her” or “try this while sitting down”—or stops the scene entirely to hustle over to the actors and whisper instructions or suggestions to them. Adam Ganderson, the show’s stage manager, leaned over to me during the rehearsal I attended to explain that Aukin deliberately keeps his voice down so that his directions will only be audible to the actors in question.

Speaking from his own experience workshopping new plays, Aukin explained, “It’s very useful, if you’re giving Actor A a direction privately, for Actor B not to know and to experience it with no anticipation of what happens. And whatever that provokes is going to be different than if they knew what was coming.”

Aukin’s efficient directions and confident persona in rehearsal testify to years of experience, but he can also remember a time when he wasn’t so seasoned.

“I’m really pleased that I didn’t study theater,” said Aukin, recalling his undergraduate years. “I’m really pleased that I got to do theater. For me, doing it has always been the greatest education.”

In 1990, during his first year at the U of C, he directed The Zoo Story by Edward Albee. “I didn’t really have any idea what the hell I was doing,” he recalled. “But that hasn’t changed that much.”

Nevertheless, he was grateful for such an opportunity, which he thinks would have been “virtually impossible” for a freshman in a large theater department to have.

In his fourth year, Aukin teamed up with classmates Steve Moore and Michael Martin to write and produce a play titled Love and Happiness. “In my mind we came down as an actor/director/writer combo,” said Moore, who co-wrote the play. Aukin worked on the script with Moore during the writing phrase and directed Martin in the production.

Inspired by the avant-garde plays of Richard Foreman, Love and Happiness features a character named X who stays at a hotel filled with bizarre tenants, such as an egg-obsessed proprietor and a fanatic experimentalist.

“We just bit off more than we could chew,” Moore said. “The set was very elaborate. It was two levels that had to be lit in different directions. There was a stairway that was deliberately ramshackle, but still had to be safe for actors. Whatever I did in my life, I could not go through that again.”

While they were very passionate about theater at the U of C, both Moore and Aukin fondly recall their academic experiences. “I was a Religion and the Humanities major, under J.Z. Smith, and he was like blowing my mind on a weekly basis,” said Aukin. “And talking about story and narrative and how people can start an argument in a narrative and the politics of storytelling—in a certain way, as disparate as studying religion and making theater might seem at first glance, there were always crossovers.”

Following their graduation in 1993, Moore, Aukin, and Martin moved to Austin and founded the Physical Plant, a small theater company that grew to become a venerable venue in Austin’s thriving theater scene. Later, in 1998, Aukin became the artistic director of New York City’s Soho Rep, a company whose mission was, and still is, to produce little-known contemporary plays and new works.

With only one other employee working at Soho Rep and significant financial concerns looming for the company, Aukin faced a difficult challenge in his new job.

“The first thing I did was hire an executive director at a full-time salary that we couldn’t afford. She knew that when she was hired. We didn’t know where the money was going to come from,” Aukin said.

However, once Aukin and the new executive director, Alexandra Conley, started to produce plays, the Soho Rep’s prospects began to turn around.

“I think the financial stability followed the work, as is often the case,” said current Artistic Director Sarah Benson, who had worked at Soho under Aukin. “Daniel focused on doing a few things remarkably well,” she added. “I think that that was a really smart decision on his and Alexandra’s part.”

As Aukin directed and produced more plays in New York, he began to build a team of frequent collaborators, which included actors, designers, and playwrights. Designer Louisa Thompson, who was one such collaborator, recalled that Aukin was particularly skilled at adapting new plays to Soho’s smallish space. “You’re dealing with so many limitations, it kind of forces you to get to an idea that can hold an entire production,” she said.

One project that required Thompson and Aukin to take particularly daring risks was a play titled [sic] by Melissa Gibson, another frequent collaborator. Produced in 2001, the play explored the trials and heartbreaks of intellectual, creative twenty-somethings, and the design combined both realist and surrealist elements. Within the general setting of an apartment building, the apartments the main characters occupied were represented by small, movable boxes while another apartment housing a constantly quarreling couple was represented more realistically.

Writing for The New York Times, Bruce Weber, like many other critics, approved of the ambitious design, which “works like a vise to squeeze the verbal stream of frustrations out of the characters.”

In 2006, after working for eight years to expand productions and raise artists’ fees at Soho Rep, Daniel decided to step down from his position to pursue new projects.

“Part of it was I felt like I had taken the company an awful long way and I could see what I thought was the next step for the company,” Aukin said. “And I just needed to step away from that kind of institution building.”

Now, Aukin is using his extensive experience directing new work to bring The Old Masters to the stage for the first time at Steppenwolf. As the show approached tech week, there were still a few big decisions to be made, such as whether or not a monologue would make it into the next draft or whether the characters order pizza or Chinese food on page 32 (which is much more important than you might think).

But these are exactly the kinds of questions that the First Look series is designed to help playwrights answer. Like the Soho Rep, Steppenwolf is dedicated to bringing new work to the stage, and First Look allows playwrights to gain new perspective as they see their works produced and performed.

Aukin is visibly passionate and dedicated to this kind of work, but you would be hard pressed to distinguish between work and fun after watching him joke with his staff or smile when something on stage goes almost exactly right. After announcing that he “loved” the scene that had just wrapped up, one of the actors onstage turned to him and said, in a sarcastic deadpan, “I need you to tell me you love it more often.” Aukin instantly broke out into a chuckle, made a light-hearted remark, and then moved on to the next scene.