Steppenwolf co-founder Gary Sinise (left) and John Malkovich in ‘Of Mice and Men’ (1981) © Lisa Howe-Ebright; Michael Brosilow

In 1989, the thrusting young Chicago-based ensemble Steppenwolf brought its adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath to London’s National Theatre. “My god, they were magnificent,” veteran producer Thelma Holt recalls.

Thirty years on, Steppenwolf is back on the South Bank with a new play by Bruce Norris, Downstate. The last time its actors were in London, in 2008, they were flaying strips off each other in Tracy Letts’ red-raw family drama August: Osage County.

This week the company began a $54m expansion of its Chicago theatre. But it started small: back in 1974, an 18-year-old Gary Sinise (best known as Forrest Gump’s Lieutenant Dan) roped his high-school friend Jeff Perry into staging shows in a church in a Chicago suburb, Highland Park. For their revival of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, they cast Terry Kinney, Perry’s contemporary at Illinois State University. Their director Rick Argosh was reading Hermann Hesse at the time: hence the company’s moniker.

It stuck. The three actors continued the company after college and, two years later, cajoled six other Illinois State grads, including John Malkovich and Laurie Metcalf, to join the ensemble. They worked day jobs and performed, unpaid, for three nights a week in a school basement they rented for $1 and kitted out with 84 seats. Chicago’s critics quickly took note: Richard Christiansen of the Chicago Tribune heralded “an extraordinary group of young players”. Within five years, Steppenwolf had scaled up to a new home in central Chicago. Within six, it had its first Broadway hit: Sinise and Malkovich tearing up Sam Shepard’s True West.

“They were a pretty incredible group,” says Steppenwolf’s current artistic director Anna D Shapiro. “Stars don’t align like that very often.”

As an aspiring actor, Norris would look on in awe from afar. He describes Steppenwolf as tight-knit to the point of exclusivity: “They were so hermetic because they served all their own needs.” In thrall to historic ensembles such as Konstantin Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre, Sinise and co programmed plays by committee, picking scripts by parts they wanted to play, and returned year after year, even after fame came knocking. Norris likens them to basketball star Michael Jordan in his prime: “There was no competition. They were just going to win.”

What set Steppenwolf apart was its acting style: high-octane, full-throttle, unpredictable. It became synonymous with a kind of “rock’n’roll” theatre.

“That turn of phrase has gotten really overused,” counters Norris, “and they overused it. They promoted themselves as this renegade, outlaw theatre company. Really, I think they specialise in being — how can I say this — big performers. They’re hams. They’re interested in engaging audiences in a visceral way, whether that’s throwing each other against the walls in a Sam Shepard play, or the psychological danger of a Pinter. It has to feel potent. That’s their thing.”

Francis Guina and K Todd Freeman in ‘Downstate’

In 1989, British audiences “didn’t see American work with this kind of edge”, says Holt. “They were a real company — a bit like the first days of the RSC. It was like watching a family working together.” When The Grapes of Wrath opened, the National’s artistic director Richard Eyre marvelled at it in his diaries. “It’s the best of American theatre acting,” he wrote. “It’s naturalistic — real water etc — but it makes a beauty out of the ‘thingness’ of things.”

These days, Steppenwolf is often likened to a national theatre of America — a measure not only of its iconoclastic swagger but also of a programme that often drills into a distinctly American psyche. Its big hits are packed with beatniks (Balm in Gilead), barflies (The Time of Your Life) and manic machismo (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). Families feature prominently: Philip Seymour Hoffman led its Loman clan on Broadway in Death of a Salesman, and its Glass Menagerie upped the Wingfields’ dysfunction, exacerbating both Tom’s homosexuality and Laura’s disability.

But the company’s priorities shifted as its actors took flight — Malkovich to Hollywood, Metcalf to sitcom stardom. Material began to matter more. “If we couldn’t always depend on these particular people to bring a script up to snuff,” says Shapiro, “we had to focus on cultivating relationships with writers.”

It worked. Steppenwolf is now seen as a world-class producer of new plays: August: Osage County was an apotheosis, a Long Day’s Journey into Night for 21st-century America. Today, its 58-strong ensemble includes four playwrights, all sometime actors. Moonlight writer Tarell Alvin McCraney learnt his craft there. “Writing for an ensemble means listening to actors,” he says, “and I learnt listening from Steppenwolf.”

Elaine Steinbeck, wife of author John, at the opening night of 'The Grapes of Wrath' with Gary Sinise (second left), set designer Kevin Rigdon (left) and director Frank Galati, at the Royal George Theater, Chicago © Steve Kagan/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Downstate is a typical Steppenwolf script, according to Norris. Set in a halfway house for rehabilitated paedophiles, “it’s about a group of people and how they cohabit, endure, tolerate and comfort each other. It’s hard to pin down a protagonist.”

What is less hard to spot is the dramatic power that he sees as Step­penwolf’s stock-in-trade. But that poses its own problems today. “Think about where Steppenwolf came from,” Norris goes on. “Their desire to épater la bourgeoisie — to shock the middle-class, literally thrust nudity and profanity in their faces. That’s always been what makes Steppenwolf shows exciting. But now we’re in a different era. The conversation — especially around this play — is: ‘Can we show an audience this? Can we ask this of an audience?’”

Shapiro sees it differently — less as a question of shocking an audience than of challenging them. “What makes a Steppenwolf play right now? Its vitality and its necessity,” she says.

If anything, shifting emphasis from performers to playwrights has enhanced Steppenwolf’s international standing. Instead of souping up American classics, it is examining the nation as it is today. Steppenwolf “brings the gnarled, hard-to-answer puzzles of American life to bear,” says McCraney, “and all audiences appreciate that.”

To April 27,

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