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Steppenwolf’s Martha Lavey dies at 60

Written by
Kris Vire

Martha Lavey, who spent two decades as artistic director of Steppenwolf Theatre Company, has died at age 60.

Lavey had spent nearly two years recovering from a debilitating stroke in May 2015, months before she was to hand off the Steppenwolf reins to her successor, Anna D. Shapiro. She suffered another stroke last Wednesday, Shapiro said this week, and was moved into hospice care; she passed away Tuesday.

Lavey served as Steppenwolf’s artistic director from 1995 to 2015, approximately half of the company’s history at the time she stepped down. An actor before she was an administrator, Lavey first appeared with the company in John Malkovich’s 1981 production of Savages, while she was still a student at Northwestern. She performed in several more productions, including Aunt Dan and Lemon in 1987 and Love Letters in 1990, before joining the ensemble in 1993.

She continued acting during her tenure as artistic director, appearing in more than two dozen Steppenwolf productions even as she oversaw an evolution of the theater’s identity away from the macho, chair-throwing reputation that can still hound the company (and Chicago theater generally, as Steppenwolf’s ’80s exports to New York and London became synonymous with “the Chicago style”).

Lavey became artistic director four years after Steppenwolf opened the doors to its current home at 1650 N Halsted St and helped guide the company through a somewhat rocky period of adjustment to the 500-seat venue and the concurrent need to boost subscription numbers. Midway through Lavey’s tenure, Steppenwolf (belatedly) began to expand its ensemble with an eye to increasing its diversity: From 1993 until 2007, K. Todd Freeman had been the only person of color among the ensemble; it now counts eight nonwhite members out of 48 total.

Also under Lavey’s tenure, Steppenwolf strengthened its commitment to developing new plays, establishing the New Plays Lab under Shapiro in 1995, and bolstered its relationship to the larger Chicago theater community with the Visiting Companies Initiative and the School at Steppenwolf in the late ’90s. The Traffic series of off-night, non-theatrical performances expanded the ranks of audience members coming through the doors.

Lavey’s influence on not just Steppenwolf but Chicago theater broadly was testified to by Michael Gennaro, the company’s executive director during the first seven years of her tenure, in John Mayer’s oral history Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago: In Their Own Words, published in 2016. Said Gennaro:

“Martha is without question the smartest person I have ever met. With all due respect, there was a tremendous insularity to the company when she and I got there. You had the driving force of Gary [Sinise], Jeff [Perry] and Terry [Kinney] as the so-called ‘brothers,’ as we affectionately called them, and Martha broke through that insularity by embracing and engaging outside artists. She was able to expand the reach and the spirit of what Gary, Jeff and Terry had first created, and she also brought an extreme intelligence to the choice of material and a tremendous rigor in terms of developing directors and writers. Martha nurtured an openness to the Chicago theater community and became the matriarch of Chicago theater. Her impact on Steppenwolf and beyond is as big as you can possibly imagine.”

Steppenwolf has created a page on the company’s website where they’re asking people to share thoughts and memories. A public memorial will be held at the theater at a date and time to be determined.

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