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When Mary Page Marlowe begins performances at Steppenwolf Theatre Company March 31, it will mark the fourth collaboration between playwright Tracy Letts and director Anna D. Shapiro. Together they’ve premiered Letts’s Man from Nebraska (2003), August: Osage County (2007) and his adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters (2012); the Broadway transfer of August earned Tony Awards for both of them in 2008.
But Marlowe also serves as Shapiro’s first production in her new role as Steppenwolf’s artistic director, following Martha Lavey’s two-decade run at the theater’s helm. When the current season was announced in March 2015, there wasn’t yet a director attached to Letts’s latest, and Shapiro didn’t intend to take on a directing project in her first season.
“My stance was, I’m not directing anything my first year as the artistic director. The learning curve felt really steep to me,” says Shapiro during our meeting at Steppenwolf’s administrative offices. “I thought, That’s crazy. I have to be on the ground every day. I said, ‘I can’t do that.’ And I still am not sure that wasn’t the right position to take, but somehow….There was this confluence of things, and we decided what was best for the play, and what was best for the theater, was that I do it. It’s still a little bit of a blur how that happened.”
Shapiro, who turns 50 in March, was announced as Lavey’s successor in October 2014 at the same time that David Schmitz was announced to replace retiring executive director David Hawkanson. It was to be a total turnover at the top but a gradual one, with Shapiro officially taking over as AD at the beginning of the 2015–16 season and Lavey, who would remain an ensemble member, still there for her as an adviser when needed.
That learning curve, though, got a lot steeper when Lavey suffered a stroke last May. Shapiro had been living in New York with her husband, fellow ensemble member Ian Barford, and their children, while she directed Larry David’s Fish in the Dark and Barford performed in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, both on Broadway; at this point, she had to take the reins at Steppenwolf more abruptly than planned.
“We had this plan, you know?” she says with a slight shake of her head. “The kids and I were going to come home for the summer, they were going to do summer camp, and Martha and I were going to have lunch together two or three times a week. We would joke about it and say two of the meetings would be about work but the other one, we’d just lie and say it was about work.”
Shapiro emphasizes that she and Lavey had wanted to be very deliberate in the transition. “It was a big shift for us, individually and as friends. I had essentially been her consigliere for a really long time. I didn’t have a whole lot of concern about my ability to learn how to do the job, for a million different reasons, including [that] I had her. I wasn’t being kind of cast out on my own. And then, just, frickin’ disaster struck. And none of that happened.”
Shapiro has had to learn the job on the job, trying to disrupt as little as possible. “Being a part of a theater company as an artist, especially as a director, is very, very different. I come in here as a director, and I’m just trying to get every resource I possibly can for my own shit,” she says with a grin. “I had to kind of figure out how I listen, how I retain. I have to really make sure that I understand as well as I can what everyone else here has to get done, become a student of what they’re doing so I’m not screwing people up so badly.”
One immediate change Shapiro made was to the structure of the artistic staff. She now has three deputies—Jonathan Berry, Hallie Gordon and Aaron Carter—who share the title of artistic producer. Each production has one of the three assigned to oversee it.
“I wanted to make sure there were enough boots on the ground in the process of making our plays,” says Shapiro. “That there was a ‘produce-orial’ minder of the artists on each project, somebody in on the ground floor from the first rehearsal who really understood what the project’s goals were and was around to make sure the theater was helping get those accomplished.”
At the time of our interview, Shapiro was in the process of choosing her first season slate for 2016–17. (Steppenwolf had yet to announce the season at our print deadline, but revealed the densely packed slate today.) Though she couldn’t talk specific titles, she made a point of wanting to “broaden the creative conversation” and open up Steppenwolf’s stages to “more voices.”
“I mean, I am a 50-year-old white lady. I think the work I make lines up pretty well with that definition. And I’m not being judgmental about the work I make. I love the work I make. But that’s not the only work we’re going to make here.”
To that end, she suggests the company has to expand its programming and, eventually, its ensemble.
“Every single person in the company is aware that we’re too old, most of us; we’re far more representative of the dominant power structure. We have limits,” says Shapiro. “Everyone in the company feels like they want the work on Steppenwolf’s stages to look more like the world. But in order to do that, you have to create more opportunities for production. Because a five-show season doesn’t do it, can’t do it.”
Letts’s new play, a nonlinear look at ordinary moments in an ordinary woman’s life, creates opportunities for seven actresses of varying ages who share the title character. It may sound like a lost Beatles song (“Eleanor Rigby,” meet Mary Page Marlowe), but Shapiro says it’s really about a universal feeling.
“It sounds a little precious, a li’l clever. It’s really not,” she says. “He’s actually trying to physically, aurally, visually represent a way that life feels, an articulation of this sort of shared human experience: Is life happening in order? What would the sequence look like in terms of how important, or what affected [that], or how we did that, or why we did that or if somebody shook up the photographs and laid them out in a different way?”
Sequencing aside, Shapiro says the play is mostly straightforward two- and three-person scenes. “Which nobody writes better than [Letts] does. And I like directing those really mundane moments. So part of it, for Tracy and me, is in our wheelhouse…. But the whole thing we’re trying to do? I have no frickin’ clue if it’s gonna work. That’s such a gift that one of your colleagues gives you: Here’s a play. You think you know everything? Figure this thing out.”