Basement to Broadway
By Noel Daniel
Dr. John Mayer carries himself with the sort of stature and surety that only a man who has spent his life following his passions can.
Although he is now the chairman of California State University, Stanislaus’ (CSUS) theatre program, he came of age some two thousand miles away, in a Chicago suburb, surrounded by a friend group which would go on to reshape the face of the American stage.
In the mid 1970s, Mayer was a student at a high school in Highland Park, just twenty-eight miles north of Chicago. At that young age, he already had a passion for the stage. It was a passion he shared with his friends, Jeff Perry and Gary Sinise.
These days, Mayer is still close with his high school friends, who have starred in Scandal and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, respectively. These friends, joined by the likes of John Malkovich and Laurie Metcalf, pioneered the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 1974, and set off on a path that would reignite the theatre scene in Chicago and all across the country.
When Mayer was finishing his doctorate more than 25 years ago, he wrote his dissertation on the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s formation and early history. And then, just before the fortieth anniversary of the Company, he received an unexpected request. A London-based published, Methuan Drama, reached out to him to ask that he write a book for them about Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
“Unsolicited from me, they asked me if I’d write it,” recalled Mayer. “And I said, ‘Well, I’m only going to write it if the theatre gives their blessing.’ And they have. They’ve been really supportive.”
The book, called “Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago: In their Own Words,” stands as a resource for theatre students exploring the history of the world famous Steppenwolf Theatre Company—a theatre company which started in a church basement and today boasts many Tony and Academy Award winners among its ranks.
IN HIS BOOK, MAYER DETAILS HOW HIS FRIENDS GOT THEIR START AND HOW THEY GOT TO WHERE THEY ARE NOW AS A THEATRE COMPANY, EXPLORING THE HISTORY OF STEPPENWOLF THROUGH PERSONAL ANECDOTES FROM MEMBERS OF THE COMPANY.
“This is one of the foremost companies in the world and I’ve been blessed to be given the opportunity to write the book. The theatre has embraced me to do it,” Mayer said. “When I’m talking to these people, the familiarity really helps. That they’ve known me for years, that they know they can trust me. We sit, we talk, it’s just conversational and they’re giving me great material.”
It isn’t hard to see how much passion Dr John Mayer has about the Steppenwolf Theatre Company and how proud he is of the organization. When asked about what has made Steppenwolf such a stellar, widely-admired organization, he cites the “group dynamic” approach that Steppenwolf actors take.
“It’s not about stars, it’s about working together,” said Mayer.
This is the approach that Jeff Perry teaches at the Steppenwolf Theatre School, whose competitive program sees students from all across the nation fighting to get in. Over fifteen years ago, Mayer pitched the idea to Perry that he should come to CSUS and hold summer intensives covering the sort of group ensemble work that’s covered at the Steppenwolf school—an idea that Perry loved. CSUS theatre students now have a chance to learn about that dynamic group spirit without going all the way to Chicago.
What was it about that high school in Highland Park that produced so many talented people who would go on to leave such a footprint on American theatre? Mayer recalls one “single incredible force of nature by the name Barbara Patterson,” the high school theatre teacher with Mayer shared with Scandal star Jeff Perry and Emmy-winner Gary Sinise, “whose influence was the seed that became Steppenwolf.”
His voice is warm as he recalls this teacher who nurtured his passion for the theatre and the way she impressed on her students that what was most important, as an actor, was not to set out to be a star, but to do the best work you can do.
“Making it happen on your own, that was another kind of anecdotal quality of the theatre that she taught us from day one,” he reminisced. “Nobody’s going to do it but you, so make it happen.”
AS AN AUTHOR AND THE CHAIRMAN OF THE THEATRE DEPARTMENT AT CSUS, IT’S CLEAR THAT MAYER TOOK THE LESSON TO HEART, AND HAS BECOME A MAN WHO KNOWS WHAT HE WANTS TO DO AND MAKES IT HAPPEN.
All these years later, Dr. John Mayer tries to act as an inspiration to his students the same way Barbara Patterson was for him and his classmates. In her high school theatre classes, he did Shakespeare; today he still does Shakespeare, producing and directing CSUS’s very popular Shakespeare Under the Stars event, an annual production which sees an audience in the thousands each year.
“If you have a passion and you commit to that passion,” said Mayer. “You follow that passion with all of your being, amazing things can happen.”