Stephenie Park goes from Benin to Harvard to reality TV to Steppenwolf

  • Stephenie Park
Stephenie Park
September 16, 2013|By Julia Borcherts, @JuliaBorcherts | For RedEye

In a new twist on an old adage, Stephenie Park's motto might well be, "If at first you do succeed, try, try again."

In 2003, the Chicago-area native and current Wicker Park resident moved to Benin, where she served with the Peace Corps to help farmers and groups of women in the West African country obtain microloans and to help with AIDS education. In 2005, she moved to Ghana, then took the LSATs and ended up at Harvard Law School. After two years working as an attorney in Chicago, she won a spot on NBC-TV's "America's Next Great Restaurant," where her concept for healthy fast-food lunches for urban professionals earned her a fourth-place finish.

Sure, she didn't win, but the experience gave her the courage to trade in her briefcase for acting classes. Now, the 32-year-old makes her debut on the Steppenwolf stage in the American premiere of "The Wheel," by British playwright Zinnie Harris, in which a 19th Century Spanish woman named Beatriz accidentally acquires guardianship of a young girl and journeys through war zones—and across time—to return the child to her father. But their journey takes an odd turn when the girl develops special powers. Ensemble member Tina Landau directs the production, which features a 17-member cast including Tony Award-winner and Steppenwolf ensemble member Joan Allen. We called Park to find out more about her experiences onstage, in front of the camera and out in the world.

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"The Wheel"

Go: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday through Nov. 10 (plus Tuesday shows starting Sept. 24) at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.

Tickets: $20-$82. 312-335-1650; steppenwolf.org

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Her roles: I play two parts. One is Blandine; she's a French woman with a boy. And the other is Thi, a Vietnamese woman in a village that Beatriz and the kid pass through. And all of us are playing various townspeople and musicians and all of the other things, too.

What surprised her about "The Wheel": The music, because when you read the script, it's not something that most people would read into the play but the way Tina [Landau] has done it, she's completely married the music to the story and I think that's one of the cooler aspects. There is a band and they play everything—there's gypsy music, there's French music, there's British folk songs. It really [laughs] is genre-less.

What it's like to walk into Steppenwolf to go to work: It was intimidating stepping into a Steppenwolf show as a newcomer and as a fairly new actor. But Tina invented this method called Viewpoints and that was a really cool part of the process because it brought us together. It's about being aware of other people and being aware of the space. And I think doing those exercises helped us as a 17-person cast just to get used to each other and get comfortable with each other really, really quickly.

What she loves about working in theater: There's such a community, because you spend day in and day out with people who really, really want to be there—for months at a time.

Her advice for reality show auditions: The trick is to be yourself. People who try to push themselves into being a more exciting or controversial person than they really are—people can see through that. That said, it is so much more stressful being on a reality TV show than anyone expects. [Laughs] When I had seen anything in a competition-based reality show, I never thought about the time frame that they had to shoot it and I felt like it was in real time. But it's so much faster; it's faster than double-time. You end one competition; you start another. There's no downtime at all.

What's for lunch? I am a big fan of protein bars and I make most of my own food. But there are some pop-up stands at the Lincoln Park Green City Market that are really good; I love River Valley [Ranch]'s tamales a lot, and they have some chili that's delicious.

What most people don't know about Harvard Law School: People were really social [and] went out a lot. Harvard actually has a pretty liberal policy about attendance and grading. And everyone knows they're going to get a job, so—for me, and a lot of the people that I know—the stress was not as present.

On her Peace Corps work helping villagers in Benin obtain microloans: It was to farmers and also to groups of women, and that was who I think saw the largest benefit, especially because it is still a patriarchal society.

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