Jeffery Chips is trying to be it all: husband, father, theater director, and day-job-worker. He said, referring to the old idiom of burning the candle at both ends, that he had actually located a third end to burn. He started Steel City Shakespeare Center (SCSC) in 2012 with the intention of creating a space for actors to gather, workshop and audition. It wasn’t until two years after its founding that Chips pursued producing plays under the SCSC banner.
SCSC specializes in a kind of performance that Chips characterizes as “extreme casting”. Their productions are bare-bones in style, utilizing a small cast to convey many characters. The actor’s work with minimal sets, lighting and sound production, instead relying on the strength of their skill set to create the atmosphere. Chips noted that a production like this challenges the audience to use their imagination—to play along with what is happening on stage. For example, in SCSC’s production of Twelfth Night featured Chips playing two characters getting in a fist fight with each other.
The company is still finalizing the details of its 2017 season; though Chips was able to give some insight into what Pittsburgh audiences can expect. Theater, he said, can be an agent to counteract our culture’s current state of isolation and polarization. “Let’s all come together and share stories as a means of uniting.” When pressed about whether a dead white guy, such as Shakespeare, is really the platform to achieve those goals, he noted that he too struggles with that concept, but ultimately Shakespeare can speak to a multitude of experiences. His company, he said, has also produced non-Shakespeare, albeit white and British-centric plays such as last year’s Pride and Prejudice. The production was Steel City’s Shakespeare’s most successful show to date.
One source of support that has been crucial to Steel City Shakespeare’s growth is their partnership with New Sun Rising. New Sun Rising is a project out of Millvale, PA dedicated to supporting local artists and entrepreneurs. SCSC has received mentoring in the fields of development and visioning. NSR also happens to be Pittsburgh in the Round’s fiscal sponsor.
A longtime lover of theater, Chips has found it challenging to balance all the life roles that he has taken on. After completing his graduate degree in Shakespeare and Performance and training at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia, he returned to Pittsburgh and performed in a few local productions. When those shows completed he said to himself, “Is this it?”. The answer he came to was a resounding no. To Chips, people are told that once they have children, they are to “get serious.” He believes though, that children benefit from seeing their parents thrive.
What helps Chips thrive is heading SCSC. When in production, he has packed weekdays where he runs lines while driving to and from his job, eats dinner with his family every night and then goes off to rehearsal. Often, after rehearsal, his work continues back at home where he then focuses on selling ad space in the program or he types up his notes for actors. Relaying a conversation he had recently with Jim Warren, Artistic Director of the American Shakespeare Center, Chips told me that Warren said, “You have to make a decision that will help you down the road. Keep moving and keep building that momentum.”
He trusts that his hard work will pay off one day, and he will hopefully not have to juggle his artistic life with his day job. Chips also pointed out that his wife wouldn’t mind him pitching in more with the laundry and dishes as well. Pittsburgh is the right place, he said, to be in the arts, but he also has some feedback for his peers: “ The arts community needs to challenge itself and say— we are worthy of earning more.”
To stay up to date with all the fun happening at the Steel City Shakespeare Center, check out their website here.