• Michael Brosilow
  • Martha Lavey, pictured with John Heard in 2006, is stepping down as Steppenwolf’s artistic director.

Here, in edited form, is part two of a conversation I had with Steppenwolf Theatre artistic director Martha Lavey, apropos of the news that she’ll be stepping down from her post in 2015. Part one deals mainly with why she’s leaving a job she’s had for 20 years. In this bit, we try to get a handle on the term institution.

Tony Adler: Part of your job, it seems to me, has been to turn Steppenwolf into a major theater, something that’s known throughout the country and is an institution. It seems to me it fell to you to build it into that. Do you feel that’s true?

Martha Lavey: Well, I think that’s where I met it in its life. When I came in the founders had met, they had consolidated themselves and gained the appellation of executive artistic board in the eyes of the board. So it was their charge to find the next artistic director. And with that they thoughtfully prepared what they felt were good objectives for the artistic director to seek. And one of those—Gary [Sinise] was very eloquent on this—was that Steppenwolf had become too insular. That it needed to situate itself more actively in its community. That was a piece of the vision that I really resonated with.

One of the things you did that impressed me in that regard was starting Garage Rep—associating smaller theaters with Steppenwolf, encouraging them, giving them that imprimatur. I thought that was a useful way of getting back into the community.

Yeah. Thank you, yeah.

But how does that fit in terms of institutionalization?

I don’t know exactly, I guess, what you mean by institutionalization. What do you mean by that?

Well, for one thing, you have the power now to take shows to Broadway.

Well, producers take the plays to Broadway. Steppenwolf doesn’t.

But the Steppenwolf name—


The huge New Yorker ad [for Shapiro’s Broadway staging of This Is Our Youth] is all about Steppenwolf. That’s an identity. And it’s a big organization. It’s evidently going to get bigger too. And I think, from my perspective, you’ve had to shepherd that process. It seems that’s been partly your responsibility.

Using the label “institutionalization of the theater.” I don’t know. It may be appropriate. I don’t know. Is buried underneath this the idea that institutionalization is a bad word and there’s a great deal of loss attached to that? And, if so, what is the loss? Is the loss that it puts artistic restriction on us? Does it make us unable to do something that we could have or by rights should do?

No, it may be one of those things that’s necessary but bittersweet.

Yes. I think it was Bruce Sagan—our board member, who was very responsible for getting us into [Steppenwolf’s current] building in 1991—he said to those guys at the time, basically, Be careful what you wish for. And here he was leading the charge to make it happen. But yeah. I remember I was over at the Den [Theatre], and I said, “Cherish this. Love every moment of this.” You know, there’s something so beautiful about that stage in one’s life of making work and making a tribe to make work. It’s just a beautiful, ecstatic thing. But how does one sustain that?

I’m less interested in the nostalgia of it than in what you feel your responsibility in that transition was.

Again, the woman without the strategic plan. I feel like I was following what the artists were doing. It’s a little bit of leading and then it’s a little bit of seeing what happens. Visiting companies, for instance: Our managing director had left when I first came in, so Bruce Sagan was sort of sitting in the role of managing director. We had this fantastic upstairs space which we called the Studio. And I said, “Bruce, what if we brought a company”—I had just seen that Turnabout production of Faith Healer—”What if we brought that up there? How would that be?” And he figured out this contract that was very favorable to the visiting company, made a very low threshold. And that started it. And then we started inviting companies to come into this [studio] and then ultimately into the Garage [theater space], and then, a few years ago, I said, “You know, the thing is, even though the financial barrier is pretty low to having visiting companies come in, there’s still a layer of companies that we can’t get to because they’re too small. What if we put them in rep and gave them a single producing template? That way they could run for ten weeks and all they’d have to do is like three performances a week.” And that started Garage Rep. So things just kind of build on themselves.

So you don’t feel that you had a long-range plan as far as that was concerned. It just sort of happened, and from that plateau you saw what could happen next.

Maybe I am being slightly shy about it as a vision. I think, yeah, underlying it, there was a vision. One of the things I’m very interested in in theater is that it is deeply involved with citizenship. I think that going to the theater enhances our participation as citizens rather than consumers. Because, for instance, the political dialogue in this country has become so polarized and so literal and so black-and-white. And what does theater do? It permits us to witness conflict and gradations of human behavior and feeling, and it’s so nuanced, and it uses metaphor. And so, as a way of thinking and reflecting, I think it’s extremely wholesome for us to experience. And there we are, we’re having to sit next to strangers. Just everything about it is training in being a thoughtful citizen, a thoughtful person in the community. And so it feels to me like Steppenwolf as an institution wants to model itself as a good citizen. What does that mean? It means, for one thing, encouraging and training young artists, and it means meeting our audience in a deeply respectful way and producing for them, if possible, tools for interpretation and engagement, to power them in the interpretive act. All those things come into play. And I think, yeah, at the base of it, it’s values driven and vision driven. I mean, you have to live in the world you want to be in.

Tell me how you deal with an ensemble of 44 artists. Have you got an approach?

You know what, Tony, this will sound like—I don’t know what it will sound like. It will sound goofy: I love them. The cliches obtain. It’s like family. Have I ever been taken aback? Have I been hurt? Have I gotten angry? Yeah. But I have such deep sympathy for what it is to be a theater artist that I would never say, “Oh, I can’t ever deal with that person again.” Or, “That was insurmountable.” Also, I’m not a person who gets angry and stays angry. I’m just not like that.

You know, what’s striking to me in having this conversation is that you haven’t really spoken about Steppenwolf as a business. Every time I’ve brought up institutionalization or how you deal with the dynamics in what can be called a business, you don’t respond in those terms.

Well, because I think that the institution exists to facilitate the artists. That’s why it’s there. The only thing that ever makes me unhappy is when this beast can’t do what the artists want to do. And I feel like, in certain ways, maybe I’ve gotten smarter about how to adapt us to them. The calendar we made at the beginning of the year, maybe we have to work with that to fit somebody’s schedule—but outside of the subscription series, of course, because creating the subscription series and all of the dynamics of that and the number of people that have to be in the calendar meetings to make it work is impressive. It’s a lot. This is what I thought when I heard you before, talking about an institution. The virtue of it is that it provides structure, order, and it’s reliable. It can be reliable to artists. And the shadow side of that is when it becomes rigid or incapable of being responsive to change. But if I don’t talk about the institution maybe [that’s because] I don’t know—and again, I don’t mean to be disingenuous—what you mean by that.

You’re asking me?

Yeah. If I’m somehow demurring from talking about the institution, what is it you want me to talk about?

I want you to talk about what you want to talk about. But an organization of this size, a structure, a hierarchy, a need to make money flow in different directions, make sure these people are pleased, make sure those people are pleased, make sure that what people now call the brand is safe and expanding and viewed the way you want it to be viewed—those are all elements of an institution. I think you have to acknowledge that Steppenwolf has a certain resonance. It’s always had a lore—the basement-in-Highland-Park stuff—

Hundreds of people have sat in that basement. Thousands. I think they’re the same ones who went to Woodstock, if I’m not mistaken.

But the idea of what Steppenwolf is has changed. Our idea, the public’s idea, has changed with its development.

With its success.

With its success. With the idea that there’s a new generation. One event that made me think that Steppenwolf was aware of its public persona was the addition of artists of color to the ensemble. It said to me that Steppenwolf understands its identity in the world and wants to say something about that identity.

That’s absolutely true.

That was more than a theater company. That, to me, said “institution.”

Yeah, but it also says citizenship. I don’t know, it’s not like I’m up for a quibble about “institution.” It’s awareness of responsibility. Look, a not-for-profit is supported by its community. It’s not self-sustaining. And what is the implication of that? To me, it’s that at a certain point in its maturation it wants to give back to its community in education programs and so forth. But it also says that in order to stay relevant you have to be in some way reflective of the city that you’re living in. And PS: a lot of great contemporary playwrights are writing about mixed-raced situations. We can’t be a bunch of white people, and the ensemble doesn’t want to be just a bunch of white people. Diversity—and that doesn’t just mean cultural diversity—makes a place stronger. To sit around a table and have different points of view is a good thing.