Keeping theater culture alive at Steppenwolf

“I want to see human beings break my heart,” says Martha Lavey, artistic director of Steppenwolf Theatre. Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin/UIC Photo Services

Fifteen years ago, Martha Lavey was a sometime-actor and a more frequent babysitter, waitress, receptionist, tax preparer and night school instructor as she worked on a Ph.D. in theatre.

So when the founders of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which had already launched actors into Hollywood and Broadway careers, asked her to become its artistic director, she wondered why.

“At the interview, they tested my cultural knowledge of Steppenwolf, which trumped experience as an artistic director. They wanted someone who would keep the culture alive,” she said.

“The learning curve on the culture was steeper than the learning curve on artistic direction.”

Lavey visited the UIC Theatre last week for an onstage interview with Yasen Peyankov, head of UIC’s acting program and a Steppenwolf ensemble member. The audience included about 60 theater students, plus others wondering what makes a good leader, a good actor and a good play.

She attributed Steppenwolf’s nearly 40 years of growth to “a passion to stay together” as an ensemble, beginning during “a kismet moment when Chicago was an ensemble town.”

“There was an ethos that you work really hard,” she said.

“Nobody ever sat back. It would be an insult to who you are and to the others on stage.”

Ensemble acting is more difficult for young Chicago actors now that the city’s theater scene is on the national radar and they are lured to Los Angeles and New York, she said.

Despite the national success of Steppenwolf actors, the ensemble has no contracts.

“The only contract is, you prioritize Steppenwolf in your life, and we’ll prioritize you,” she said. If some members move on, she said, “We wait them out and they come back.”

Asked about her choice of plays for a season, Lavey said she wants to keep the conversation with the audience “variable, to hit different notes. Not monochromatic.” She favors serious works, not “fluff … effervescence that they’ll forget the next minute.”

“Personally, I like to see a story, with laughter and fighting and being touched,” she said.

“I want to see human beings break my heart.”

She also listens to the wants of the actors. Steppenwolf is unlike traditional theater companies, where actors are treated as the lowest link in the food chain, Lavey said.

“I remember the first time I saw ‘Balm in Gilead,’ and I saw them do ‘Say Good Night, Gracie’ in 1979. I thought, ‘If I could ever act with people that good, I’d be really happy. And I was right.”

Peyankov asked Lavey to choose some qualities that make a good leader.

“You have to be more passionate for what you represent than for yourself,” she replied. “I am more comfortable being fierce for Steppenwolf than in the actor’s self-promotion.

“And you’re not right and somebody else is wrong. You have to perceive situations in different ways.

“You can be right, or you can be happy. Or generous, or compassionate. It grows you up.”

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