Steppenwolf Theatre Company hosted a warm and heartfelt public memorial celebrating the remarkable life and legacy of ensemble member and former artistic director Martha Lavey, who passed earlier this year at the age of 60. On October 9, more than 500 ensemble members, friends, family, co-workers, and collaborators gathered in Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre to share in a two hour tribute to the legendary Chicago cultural leader with stories, song, laughter and tears, hosted by current Artistic Director Anna D. Shapiro and Executive Director David Schmitz. More than 500 people also tuned into the live stream of the event.
In addition to the hosts, the evening included speeches honoring the many ways that Martha Lavey touched the lives around her personally as a sister, aunt, friend and collaborator, and publicly as a cultural and community leader, mentor and advocate of the arts and artists. Speakers included ensemble members Amy Morton, Bruce Norris, Yasen Peyankov, Molly Regan (sharing the words of ensemble member Austin Pendleton) along with Jenny Avery, Doug Brown, Ben Cameron, Curt Columbus, Nora Daley, Michele Dragisity, Evan Hatfield, Bruce Sagan, Jessica Thebus and Andy White. The event also included musical performances by the All Nations Worship Assembly Chicago Ensemble, Suzi Petri and ensemble member Jim True-Frost. A retrospective video looking back on Lavey’s life and legacy was provided by HMS Video.
The following morning, the stretch of Halsted Street in front of Steppenwolf Theatre was renamed “Martha Lavey Way” in an honorary ceremony. Steppenwolf ensemble, employees and public gathered at the corner of Willow St and Halsted St at 11am for the sign unveiling with remarks by Steppenwolf Executive Director David Schmitz and Alderman Michele Smith.
The honorary street renaming ordinance was submitted by Alderman Michele Smith of the 43rd Ward and granted by the City Council. Two honorary “Martha Lavey Way” signs have been installed—one at the northwest corner of North Halsted Street and West North Avenue, pointing north, and the other sign will be located at the southwest corner of North Halsted and West Willow Street, pointing south.
Martha Lavey joined the Steppenwolf ensemble in 1993 and served as Artistic Director from 1995 to 2015. Under her transformative leadership, Steppenwolf became a national leader in producing new plays and commissioning playwrights, doubled the size of its ensemble and diversified its base of artists, added two performance spaces, expanded and deepened its partnerships in public schools and the community, created Steppenwolf for Young Adults, and instituted a platform for engaging audiences after every performance. She oversaw the production of hundreds of plays and transferred dozens of Steppenwolf productions to Broadway and abroad, gaining national and international recognition for the company and Chicago as a vital theater destination.
During Martha Lavey’s tenure, Steppenwolf was awarded the National Medal of the Arts, the only theater to ever receive the honor, as well as the Illinois Arts Legend Award, Equity Special Award and nine of the company’s 12 Tony Awards. Lavey catapulted Steppenwolf to the forefront of new play development and production with a robust commissioning program that cultivates ongoing creative relationships with some of the most compelling playwrights today. Lavey oversaw the conception of and programming for the Garage Theater, an intimate space in 1998 that provided an additional platform for outside companies, new works and audience engagement. Several programs were established during her tenure, including Steppenwolf for Young Adults, an innovative and influential program for teens and their families; The School at Steppenwolf, an acclaimed training residency based in ensemble traditions; The Professional Leadership program for emerging arts managers and designers; The First Look Rep of New Work for plays in development; and the Garage Rep, presenting Chicago’s vibrant Off-Loop theater companies, among others. Lavey was named one of the ‘100 Most Powerful People’ by Chicago Magazine twice, was selected as one of the city's ‘10 Most Powerful Women in the Arts’ by the Chicago Sun-Times and was awarded the title of ‘2010 Chicagoan of the Year’ by the Chicago Tribune. Lavey and former Steppenwolf Executive Director David Hawkanson were recipients of the 2015 ‘Citizen Advocate Award’ presented by the Arts Alliance Illinois for their extraordinary contributions to the arts locally and nationally. In May 2016 she received an honor from the City of Chicago for her two decades of service as artistic director.
While leading one of the most acclaimed theater companies in the world, Martha Lavey also performed in more than 30 Steppenwolf productions including Middletown, Endgame, Up, Good Boys and True, Love-Lies-Bleeding, Lost Land, I Never Sang for My Father, The Memory of Water, Supple in Combat, Time of My Life, A Clockwork Orange, Talking Heads, SLAVS!, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Love Letters, and Aunt Dan and Lemon. Elsewhere in Chicago she performed at the Goodman, Victory Gardens, Northlight and Remains theaters and in New York at the Women’s Project and Productions.
Martha Lavey served a Board President for the Theatre Communications Group from 2009 – 2011. She served on grants panels for the National Endowment for the Arts, The Theatre Communications Group, Three Arts Club, USA Artists and the City Arts panel of Chicago. She earned a doctorate in Performance Studies from Northwestern University and was a member of the National Advisory Council for the School of Communication at Northwestern University. She was a recipient of the Sarah Siddons Award, an Alumni Merit Award and an Honorary Doctorate from Northwestern University.
Martha Lavey passed away on April 25, 2017 due to complications from a stroke. Faithful friends, audience members, donors, staff, artists, mentees, members of the Steppenwolf family and the national theatre community were all indelibly impacted by Martha's passion, commitment, vision and unmatched intellect. She will be dearly missed. Services for Martha were held in May 2017 in her parent’s home of Vienna, Virginia.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company is the nation’s premier ensemble theater. Formed by a collective of actors in 1976, the ensemble today features 47 members who represent a remarkable cross-section of actors, directors and playwrights. Thrilling and powerful productions from Balm in Gilead to August: Osage County—and accolades that include the National Medal of Arts and 12 Tony Awards—have made the theater legendary. Steppenwolf produces hundreds of performances and events annually in its three spaces: the 515-seat Downstairs Theatre, the 299-seat Upstairs Theatre and the 80-seat 1700 Theatre. Artistic programing includes a seven-play season; a two-play Steppenwolf for Young Adults season; Visiting Company engagements; and LookOut, a multi-genre performances series. Education initiatives include the nationally recognized work of Steppenwolf for Young Adults, which engages 15,000 participants annually from Chicago’s diverse communities; the esteemed School at Steppenwolf; and Professional Leadership Programs for arts administration training. While firmly grounded in the Chicago community, nearly 40 original Steppenwolf productions have enjoyed success both nationally and internationally, including Broadway, Off-Broadway, London, Sydney, Galway and Dublin. Anna D. Shapiro is the Artistic Director and David Schmitz is the Executive Director. Eric Lefkofsky is Chair of Steppenwolf’s Board of Trustees. For additional information, visit steppenwolf.org, facebook.com/steppenwolftheatre, twitter.com/steppenwolfthtr and instagram.com/steppenwolfthtr.
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