ST. CHARLES – A calmness filled the air of the empty 79-seat Steel Beam Theatre, contradicting the usual liveliness evoked by the countless actors who have graced its stage over the last 14 seasons.
Sitting center stage in a regal, high-backed chair ordinarily used as a prop, founder Donna Steele tried to remember what the room resembled before it became the artistic world she created. A world now populated by thespians expressing the delights and tragedies of the human experience and a place where reality calls for make-believe in order to both enlighten and entertain.
When Steele first laid eyes on the then storage area that became Steel Beam Theatre, she initially wrote of the experience: “I peered into [the] space ... and through the dust and grime of many years, and the plaster here and there that disguised the beautiful river-stone walls, I saw a perfect space ... for a theater.”
After hearing her own words echoed back to her more than a decade later, Steele was silent for a moment – pausing to choke back tears – before uttering, “It’s been fast.”
After 15 years as the founder and executive/artistic director of the nonprofit theater, Steele is resigning. The childrens’ theater production of “Pippi Longstocking,” running in October, will be the last show she will direct at Steel Beam.
“It’s been a wonderful journey,” she said. “It’s a lot of hard work, and I am very proud of the work we’ve accomplished, but my career and my heart are calling me elsewhere.”
Various factors led to her decision to resign, she said.
“I’m starting the life of an actor, which is total uncertainty,” Steele said, adding that she plans to move to Portland, Oregon, to “follow her heart” for personal reasons.
A steadfast desire to solely pursue acting has come at a time when she recently was granted membership to the Actors Equity – a professional actors union – and the right person was in place to take the helm of the theater after her departure, she said.
“I never could have thought about relocation and just walking away. I had to have a plan; I had to have someone I knew could take over,” said Steele, whose resignation is effective Nov. 1.
Elgin resident Marge Uhlarik-Boller, who is currently directing the theater’s 15th season opener – “The Good People” – will replace Steele. Steele described the two-year resident director as “brilliant,” “passionate” and “the person to take us into the future,” Steele said.
“I want [people] to know that the hard work and the dedication of the board and the artists and all of the people who have made [Steel Beam] what it is today, nothing will change except for a couple personnel,” Steele said. “I think the spirit lives on as ever and the community and the audience needs to keep coming and keep supporting.”
Of the responsibility, Uhlarik-Boller said she has large shoes to fill, but also is fulfilling a lifelong dream of her own by working in theater full time.
“I have done theater forever ... I direct a great deal, and this is a dream for me to devote myself 100 percent to theater,” said Uhlarik-Boller. “The legacy is, of course, that – from very little – Donna built this theater, and it’s quite a lot to uphold, so of course I am excited and thrilled and proud.”
Steele built the theater using money from an inheritance she received from her parents. Family ties to Steel Beam have further heightened the emotional toll of her resignation. Since the theater’s inception, a seat in the audience had always been designated for her father until his death in May 2014.
“[My father] saw every show here, except for the last one, which was during the course of when he died,” Steele said. “The last show he saw starred my daughter, so that was pretty special.”
In addition to adult programming, Steele also implemented youth programming in an effort to inject younger generations with the same passion she has for acting.
“She had such a strong children’s program that really touched and reached thousands of kids who – of course – had never been on stage, had never read a script and had never been outside of themselves, so to speak,” said Geneva resident Dana Teichart, the former Steel Beam Theatre Board of Directors president who retired after nine years of service. “That was very gratifying to her.”
In honor of the service Steele has provided to the arts community, she will receive a Mayor’s Proclamation in October, said Teichart, who received the same commendation upon her retirement from Steel Beam.
Such an honor could help memorialize the contributions Steele has made to the local theater scene, but Steel Beam’s ability to endure the test of time is how she hopes her legacy will live on.
“The way I’d like to be remembered is to just keep it going. People fall in love with this place. It is magical. It isn’t me. It’s something bigger than me,” Steele said. “I’d love to come back here when I’m celebrating my 100th birthday and sit in the front row ... .”