Photo by Andrew Campbell

Martha Lavey put I Never Sang For My Father on the Steppenwolf schedule, then played Alice, here with fellow ensemble member Kevin Anderson (Gene Garrison).

Photo by Michael Brosilow

Lavey and Steppenwolf ensemble member Molly Regan in Wallace Shawn's Aunt Dan & Lemon

Photo by Lisa Ebright

From left to right, Martha Lavey as Ida Right, Ken Murton (C87) as Andrew and John Carlile (C91) as Ida Left in Northwestern's 1986 production of Gertrude Stein's Ida.

Courtesy of University Archives

Terry Kinney, who co-founded Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 1974 with pals Gary Sinise and Jeff Perry, remembers vividly the first time he laid eyes on Martha Lavey. She was nude.

"Martha was just sort of browned out and wigged and naked," says Kinney, recalling the play Savages Steppenwolf presented in 1981 "that was a debacle. I was playing a Brazilian revolutionary, and all of these Northwestern students were playing Brazilian Indians, wearing only body makeup and sort of crepe black wigs. It was all so ill-conceived, I can't even begin to get into it," he adds, laughing.

Such a debacle might have spelled professional doom for another young company — and, perhaps, for Lavey (C79, G86, GC94). But fast-forward 23 years to a balmy Tuesday evening in June 2004, and step into the theater's lobby on North Halsted Street.

There is Lavey, now the theater's artistic director, smiling elegantly from Annie Leibowitz's huge, mesmerizing photomural of the 35-member Steppenwolf ensemble. Patrons stare at the photo, sipping wine. (There's John Malkovich, sitting cross-legged, wearing white socks! There's Gary Sinise, with tattoo on bulging biceps! There's Joan Allen! And John Mahoney!)

On this particular evening, Lavey is onstage. An astonishingly gifted hybrid who can switch roles from artistic director to actor just by walking from the administrative office down the street to the theater, she is appearing in I Never Sang for My Father, Robert Anderson's poignant, late-'60s play about a son (ensemble member Kevin Anderson) desperately trying to connect with his father (Mahoney).

When the lights go down at the end of the play, it seems — at least from one vantage point — that everyone in the balcony (maybe the theater) is sniffling softly. Cast members take their bows. The audience stands to applaud. Lavey gazes upward. As both artistic director (who put the play on the schedule) and actor (playing Mahoney's daughter, Alice), she has hit a home run.

This same day, Lavey, who at 47 seems to have the energy of an athlete, has been up since 4:30 a.m., meditated for a half-hour (a daily ritual) and been to the gym. ("I go on the StairMaster machine, which is great because I read new plays.") She has arrived at her office at 9 a.m., worked the phones and presided over three meetings — including one about creating films of the company's staged productions and another about international tours — before sitting down with a reporter from 5 to 6:30 p.m.

This is all before heading to the theater at 7 p.m. to get ready to perform at the Downstairs Theatre — a job most mortals would prefer to do without first juggling a full day's worth of administrative duties.

"If I use this experience to feel debilitated or drained, shame on me," says Lavey, who is wearing all black, right down to her Mary Janes, and a heavy silver chain with a silver heart around her neck. Far from debilitated, she is brimming with passion for her position — and gratitude.

"I am very aware every night at curtain call that I am being permitted to occupy this job, for this period of time, where at the end of my workday there are 500 people looking up at me and my fellow actors and applauding," she says, palms pressed together in front of her chin. "It's literally true that before I put my feet on the ground in the morning, I give thanks for what I have."

In Steppenwolf's infancy, when actors performed in a suburban church basement with 88 seats and a donation box, the company was known for raw, gut-gripping theater. But now it has 24,500 subscribers (many of them suburban) and a budget of $12.5 million, with performances on two stages in an $8.3 million theater (opened in 1991), and another venue (the Garage) down the street. Steppenwolf has won three Tony Awards, plus the prestigious National Medal of the Arts, all displayed behind glass in the lobby.

Founders Kinney, Sinise and Perry, who now serve as Steppenwolf's executive artistic board, tapped Lavey as artistic director in 1995, just two years after she became an ensemble member. The first woman to hold the job, she has been in the position longer than any single person.

"She's got impeccable taste," says Kinney, a film and television actor and director who lives in Brooklyn and who directed Steppenwolf's Tony-winning production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which also played in London. "Martha is someone who shakes up our programming, so we don't get stuck in a groove of a bunch of kitchen sink plays or all realism, [produced] just so that our actors can sort of bang heads."

A willowy woman with luxuriantly thick hair, delicate, refined features and an actor's richly modulated voice, she sits primly at first during an interview, then draws up one knee or leans over guy-style, elbows on knees. This year she received the Alumnae Award from the Alumnae of Northwestern University and was named one of the city's 10 most powerful women in the arts by the Chicago Sun-Times.

Still, she is disarmingly modest. She was floored, she says, when asked to become Steppenwolf's artistic director. "It was beyond my wildest dreams that I could do this."

Sometimes called Steppenwolf's "mom," she has tackled the job with a vengeance. "She gives her entire self to it," says Kinney. "I call at odd hours, sometimes because I want to leave a message but not really have a conversation, and she'll answer, and I'll say, 'What the hell are you doing there? It's Sunday at 7 p.m.'"

Her job, in a nutshell, is huge. She is responsible for what goes on the entire Steppenwolf schedule (working three seasons ahead), not only for the 510-seat Downstairs Theatre, but also for the more intimate Upstairs Theatre, the Arts Exchange Program (plays produced for students and families) and the Garage (in a sprawling space in the first floor of Steppenwolf's parking garage). Added on her watch in 1998, the Garage is a venue dedicated to the work of burgeoning actors, directors, designers and playwrights.

"Gary [Sinise] wanted the Garage used for a small theater, and he had described it in great detail," says Kinney. "Martha made it happen, and then some."

Lavey explains that she and other staff members, including associate artistic director Curt Columbus and director of new play development Edward Sobel (GC98), plus Arts Exchange director Hallie Gordon and casting director and School of Steppenwolf supervisor Erica Daniels (C91), are "always reading plays — new plays, extant plays — and we're commissioning work. We're building a stack of resources we can take to the ensemble and say, 'Look at this as an actor or a director.' At the same time, they are bringing stuff to us they would like to do. So the conversation goes both ways."

Says original ensemble member Laurie Metcalf, who now lives on a ranch in Victor, Idaho, but returns periodically to Steppenwolf (she got stellar reviews in Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune last summer), "Martha certainly knows how to bring me back to the theater. She can read me like a book and knows exactly what my taste is. She always manages to send me copies of scripts I fall in love with and can't resist doing. She is pretty manipulative that way."

With competition intense from Chicago's many theaters — the Goodman Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare Theater (where Barbara Schwarz Gaines [C68] is artistic director), Victory Gardens Theater, Lookingglass Theatre Company (where David Schwimmer [C88] and Northwestern professor of performance studies Mary Zimmerman [C82, GC85, 94] have made a mark in sleek new digs on Michigan Avenue), and a raft of smaller venues — shrewd programming is one of Lavey's heaviest responsibilities. And though founders Kinney, Sinise and Perry look over her shoulder, she makes the final decisions, says Kinney: "It's all Martha."

Not that they don't argue. "We certainly do," he adds. "When she suggested I Never Sang for My Father, I said, 'Why on earth do you want to do that play?' And she said, 'Because John Mahoney and Kevin Anderson want to do it,' and I said, 'Oh.' It tends to go like that." (The show played to packed houses most nights of the nine-week extended run.)

Lavey explains her interest in that particular play. Many of the ensemble's early, visceral productions were wildly successful, but says the artistic director, "We're not the same people. It would be inappropriate if we were doing the same kind of plays in the same way. For people who are now in their mid-40s to be claiming the moniker of 'rock 'n' roll theater' would be bad.

"Something like I Never Sang for My Father is a play we can now do with a level of understanding and empathy and nuance because some of us are parents, some of us are dealing with aging parents, some of us are putting to rest our own unhappinesses or scorecards from our own childhood. What I hope we are doing is allowing ourselves to grow up in an appropriate way, but in a way that remains passionate." ( I Never Sang for My Father was directed by Anna D. Shapiro, associate professor of theater and director of the Master of Fine Arts Program in Directing at Northwestern.)

The 2004-05 schedule offers both old and new plays, plus some of Steppenwolf's biggest names. The September opener, Ronald Harwood's gem The Dresser, featured ensemble members Mahoney and actor/playwright Tracy Letts (whose play Bug was a smash off-Broadway). In the spring Malkovich returns to Chicago to appear in the world premiere of Stephen Jeffreys' Lost Land, set in Hungary at the end of World War I.

New York actor and playwright Bruce Norris (C82) has had several plays commissioned through Steppenwolf's New Plays Initiative, begun in 1995 to encourage new work by both emerging and experienced writers. Norris' Purple Heart, a darkly witty play about a mysterious soldier and a Vietnam War widow, premiered in the Downstairs Theatre in 2002, starring Metcalf.

Norris, who says Lavey "is among the smartest people I've ever met," cherishes the artistic freedom she allows. He wrote three drafts of Purple Heart, making significant changes to the second act, he says, and had "endless discussions" with Lavey about the end of the play. She asked him to write a "more digestible or more comfortable ending, but I dug in my heels and said, 'No,' and in the end she backed off and said, 'You're the author and have ownership of the play.' She's happy to concede that."

Lavey has championed Steppenwolf's involvement with less experienced theater talents. "We're in a position to mentor or make opportunities for younger theater artists, either working side by side with them in a production or inviting them as guest companies," she says.

(One hit production that was part of Steppenwolf's Visiting Companies Initiative in summer 2004 was Winesburg, Ohio, a new musical based on Sherwood Anderson's novel of the same name. The production, presented on the Upstairs stage jointly with much smaller About Face Theatre, evolved from a one-act version developed through the Arts Exchange Program at Steppenwolf in 2002.)

According to Lavey, her interest in nurturing theater flared early. "My mom would testify to the fact that I was always the one organizing the play or the pageant in the basement." One of seven children, she was born in Lawrence, Kan. Her mother was a homemaker. Her father spent his career in the CIA. In the late '60s, when Lavey was in sixth grade, he "moved his family into the heart of Detroit right after the race riots," she recalls. "Our schools were all racially integrated."

She attended Immaculata High School, where "our nuns were liberation theologians and feminists and made us aware of things like the anti-war movement. It was a very rich time in terms of social consciousness. I was very, very grateful to be part of it."

At Immaculata, she adds, "a woman named Anne Knoll from Cicero, in the Chicago area, cast me without an audition as Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker. She beamed on me and became my mentor. She was the person who suggested I go to Northwestern."

Lavey enrolled as a theater student in 1975. "I didn't have a dime, and so many of my friends were in the same boat. Our Sunday night dinners consisted of voluminous amounts of popcorn we made."

After graduation she signed up for an acting class taught by Malkovich and was later cast in the infamous Savages, which he directed.

"We thought we were good," she says.

She was married briefly in the early '80s and moved to California for a year, where she worked as a performance artist.

"But I was sick of being a marginal person in society," she recalls. "So I said to my husband, 'I'm going to law school. I want to do something where American Express is going to invite me to be a member.' And he said, 'You know, you could go to graduate school in something you like.' And the thing I really loved was the performance studies department at Northwestern, so I applied and was accepted."

Northwestern professor of performance studies Frank Galati (C65, GC67, 71) (a Steppenwolf ensemble member since 1986 and an associate artistic director at Chicago's Goodman Theatre) recalls Lavey's remarkable final presentation in his course Presentational Aesthetics — "a very hoity-toity title," he says.

"She did a section from James Joyce's Ulysses, and it was a performance I'll never forget. Every member of the audience had a headset, and she spoke the text, whispering it in our ears, while she enacted a ritual onstage that involved a kind of abstract choreography of the text and the lighting of dozens of candles. It was an indelible performance, and her boldness, her artistic imagination and reach were so extraordinary that I remember thinking that this was a person of real genius."

After Lavey earned her master's degree, Galati cast her in a breakthrough role: Lemon in the 1987 Steppenwolf production he directed of Wallace Shawn's quirky, disturbing Aunt Dan and Lemon, a black comedy intended to show how educated, refined groups of people can exhibit horrific behavior. (In startling monologues, Lemon defends Nazism.) Former longtime Chicago Tribune critic Richard Christiansen, who reviewed the play, recalls it was "a hell of a show. What struck one about Martha was the almost mesmerizing magnetism she brings to the stage. From that point on she has always had that intensity and commitment and burning charisma that mark the qualities of a first-rate actor."

Lavey later returned to Northwestern to pursue a doctoral degree in performance studies. She recalls that "part of what attracted me back as a graduate student is that I saw these people who had very long professional relationships with each other, including Dr. Wallace Bacon, Lilla Heston, Frank Galati and Carol Simpson Stern [G64, 68]. That was a family. They had tremendous regard for each other, and the fact that it was in the context of an academic and intellectual community, that they shared a love of certain poems or novels, was really attractive to me."

While working on her dissertation, she says, "I would ride my bike up to Northwestern [from her North Side apartment] and sit in the library labs and use the computer there. The first half I wrote on my Olivetti manual typewriter."

She still has that Olivetti. She uses it to write her extraordinarily astute essays on each Steppenwolf production that are published in Backstage, a magazine sent to subscribers. "Sometimes I learn more about the show from what she has written about it than from studying it myself or being in it," says Metcalf.

One of the most challenging aspects of Lavey's job, she acknowledges, is keeping the peace in the Steppenwolf family, dealing with artists who tend to have exceptionally strong opinions and large egos. She reports she recently locked horns with an ensemble member whom she loves "like a dear brother" but who was "suspicious of me and questioning decisions I had made and didn't trust me, and that was very painful."

How did she resolve the conflict? "Conversation. I'm learning in life how not to be reactive, how to listen."

When she is not onstage in a current production (she acts infrequently), Lavey is still busy many nights, seeing productions at other theaters or attending to Steppenwolf business. At a July event cosponsored by the Wall Street Journal and Cartier, Steppenwolf fans paid $125 each to have dinner at stylish Boka, a restaurant near the theater, then hear Lavey interview ensemble member Austin Pendleton, director of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, before seeing that show.

The affable Pendleton, also an actor and playwright who has appeared not only at Steppenwolf but also on Broadway, sat on a stool, rubbing shoulders with Lavey. She introduced him, explaining he had directed a Steppenwolf play, Say Goodnight, Gracie, in 1980 that sealed her fate. In the cast were young ensemble members John Malkovich, Joan Allen, Glenne Headly and Francis Guinan.

"I remember thinking, 'OK, that's it. If I could ever be with actors who were that good, then I would be happy,'" says Lavey, beaming at Pendleton, who is nibbling on cookies and sipping espresso.

"And now," she adds, "I am happy."

Anne Taubeneck is a freelance writer in Wilmette, Ill., who writes frequently about the arts for the Chicago Tribune.

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