Martha Lavey

Martha Lavey is an unsentimental romantic. A Kansan by birth, she speaks with prairie earnestness about the practical uses of certain large concepts such as love, citizenship, and leading by following. She’s also one of the few people I know who seems actually to consider the validity of the things she says as she’s saying them. Earlier this month Steppenwolf Theatre disclosed that Lavey will be stepping down from her position as the company’s artistic director in 2015, after a round 20 seasons in the role, to be succeeded by fellow ensemble member—and Tony-winning director—Anna D. Shapiro. (At the same time they announced the retirement of executive director David Hawkanson, named David Schmitz as his heir, and gave information on plans for expanding the “campus” of Steppenwolf’s Halsted Street complex.) Here, in edited form, is the first part of a conversation we had apropos of Lavey’s news:

Tony Adler: Why now?

Martha Lavey: Why now because we’ve been in this process of talking about an expanded campus for about five years. Of course this gives rise in me to a thought of, OK, well, what’s the future leadership? Where are we as an organization? And I have always felt that Anna is the next natural leader at Steppenwolf.

She and I started working together in 1995. I was the artistic director, she was the director of New Plays Lab. And just for a host of reasons which I think are manifest and patent—not least of which is the fact that she’s been coming here since she was a teenager—she will be a terrific leader of this company. She has a view, a vision, and I think she has the acumen to do the institutional thinking side of the job. I’ve asked her over the years, Are you ready now? No, no, no. And then her career has been flourishing in the last couple of years, and she was being offered positions at other theaters or there were other opportunities that would’ve taken her out of the city, and I just thought it would be a terrible loss to Steppenwolf to have the person that I really think is our next, best leader go.

So this is more about her readiness than your desire?

It’s about those two things meeting each other. I’m thinking about succession. One of our core values at Steppenwolf is innovation; I don’t think that you can go around saying that and then not be willing to embrace it at a level that can be transformative. Yeah, yeah, it’s me thinking, OK, there will be the day soon when I’m gonna want to step aside so that the next phase of my life can begin, and Anna saying, “OK, all right, I’m ready now.”

How did you know you were ready?


Leave. Well, not to leave; I assume you’re going to stay as part of the ensemble.

Mm-hmm. Just that: talking with her, talking with our other associates—and Gary Sinise, one of our founders, very responsible for sitting me in the [artistic director’s] chair. He said, “You know, Martha, you’ve accomplished everything that we talked about in the beginning of your time here, and you have an opportunity to have a third chapter.” And that’s how I feel. The other thing is, at a kind of a spiritual level, I’ve always been aware that this job carries with it a lot of badge value. I’m given currency in the world that has to do with my representative function. It’s borrowed power in a way, right?

Well, yes and no. It’s a title, but there’s substance to the title.

Yeah. Thank you. And I feel extremely honored to kind of carry the flag for Steppenwolf. But at a deeper and spiritual level I feel like there are other things that we have to find out. You and I have talked about what it’s like to be a middle-aged person, what those challenges are, and what does that horizon look like, and what is it needful to encounter and to grapple with. And I don’t know that I can totally find that out sitting in the place that I am. [The job] positions me in the world in a way that offers a kind of secure identity and a passport, right? The alternative is terrifying, but as my brother, who’s a Buddhist would say, Oh, oh! You get to occupy beginner’s mind! It’s so funny: our theme for the season is How Did I Get Here? I feel like we’re constantly encountering those moments where we’re thinking, OK, this is what my life looks like. Of what more am I capable? Or, what would it look like if I took off this security blanket, and that one? It’s not something I relish—Oooh, I can’t wait to be free-falling!—but I somehow know deeply that it’s the necessary task.

Most administrators would wait until after the [campus expansion project] to leave. That’s supposed to be the syndrome: You build it and then you leave.

Yeah. The other thing is, though, that organizations are vulnerable while they are in that long-range planning process. There can be a little bit of—neglect may be too strong a word, but a less searching and energetic attention to the actual art. I’ve witnessed this in other organizations. It’s like everyone is pressing pause until this big project gets done. I don’t want us to be in that position. [Shapiro will be] just out of the gate and ambitious as heck for Steppenwolf and wanting to do all kinds of things. And another thing that it does is regalvanize the ensemble and their involvement. They get to have a different conversation partner, so the projects that Anna will suggest to them or they to her will have a different nuance or valence. I think that’s very exciting.

The other day I happened to see Mike Daisey’s essay that he wrote in 2008, about institutional theater and how he felt it had abandoned the artist in favor of the administrator. You seem to be worried about that.

Here’s a truth, Tony: One of the things that can happen if one sits in the chair for a really long time is naturally one develops an identification with the institution. “Institution” doesn’t capture it. I’m talking about a group of people, be they staff, board, committed donors, etc. If a person is fresh in the door, they have less of that identification, and that’s great energy. That’s great energy for an arts organization.

But Anna Shapiro is already part of the organization.

She is, but I have a feeling there will be demands that she will make on behalf of the artists that are fantastic.

Read part two of this interview here.