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Steppenwolf Artistic Director Talks About ‘Institution Building’ at Northwestern

By Jacob Nelson

“Before artistic director, I was a babysitter, a waitress, a receptionist, a teacher… a waitress.”

So began Martha Lavey’s explanation as to how she got to be Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Artistic Director during the Master of Science in Leadership for Creative Enterprise’s January speaker series event. Lavey, who has been Artistic Director for about twenty years, revealed at the event that there is no paved path to a successful career in theatre. Hers began after graduating from Northwestern, when she saw a production of “Say Goodnight Gracie” at Steppenwolf and found her calling.

“I thought, ‘By golly, if I could ever act with people that good I’d be happy'” Lavey said, “and by golly, I was right.”

Under Lavey’s leadership, Steppenwolf has been awarded the National Medal of the Arts, the Illinois Arts Legend Award, and nine of the company’s 12 Tony Awards. Lavey said the learning curve for the culture of Steppenwolf was steeper than the learning curve as the artistic director of the theater. She learned as artistic director that being collaborative helped.

“One important part of the learning curve is I don’t have to do it alone,” she said.

During the question and answer portion of the event, Lavey was asked for advice about pursuing a creative career. She told them to work with people they like.

“Work around people you really like,” Lavey said, “and then your path just starts to find you.”

Lavey was careful, however, to acknowledge the risk inherent in pursuing a career in theatre acting or directing.

“There’s the plan, and then there’s what happens,” Lavey said. “Most careers… you could basically count on the fact that at the end of it you’d probably be better off than when you started. Independent actors and directors can’t count on that. They deserve some latitude.”

When asked about whether or not her gender had affected the way people treated her when she took over as Steppenwolf’s artistic director, Lavey replied, “First of all, I have five brothers.” However, she did offer advice to the women in the audience about navigating the professional arts world. She told them to “quit apologizing. Not everything needs to be in the form of a question.”

“That’s not a closed chapter, that’s an ongoing assertion of your place in the world,” she said.

Over the years, Lavey, who began at Steppenwolf as an actor, took fewer acting opportunities to focus more on direction and other administrative duties. She said she learned that she gets a lot of satisfaction out of institution building.

“I’ve always sort of followed my nose,” Lavey said. “I’m hopeful that’ll be helpful for the next chapter.”

The next Speaker Series event will be with Sheetal Prajapati, the Assistant Director of Learning and Artists Initiatives at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). The event will be held Wednesday, Feb. at Northwestern University’s Evanston campus, in the Frances Searle building (room 1-421). The event is free. Click here to RSVP.