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Northwestern Faculty and Alumni Remember Martha Lavey

Lavey speaks to School of Communication students in January 2015.

Martha Lavey liked to read — while running. Trotting along the Evanston lakefront with arms outstretched, she’d cover up to 12 miles and countless chapters. Lavey’s enigmatic habit seemed perfectly aligned with the lore that followed her — she was focused, motivated, incisive, captivating.

Wonderfully original.

May Zimmerman (C82, GC85, GC94), the Tony Award-winning director and Jaharis Family Foundation Chair in Performance Studies was a classmate and friend of Lavey’s. Zimmerman recounted some notable Northwestern memories, including the running, and also how Lavey wrote her dissertation on a manual typewriter at a time when computers abounded.

“She was a rare bird,” Zimmerman says. “But she found her niche at Steppenwolf.”

Martha Lavey, Northwestern University alumna, noted exemplar of its Performance Studies model, and former artistic director of Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company, died April 25. She was 60 years old.

“She was a towering figure in the Chicago theatre scene and her work as an actress and artistic director of Steppenwolf enriched our lives,” said School of Communication Dean Barbara O’Keefe, “and for many of us, she was a treasured friend as well.”

Lavey received her bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral, and honorary degrees from Northwestern (C79, G86, GC94, and H10), and, while at Steppenwolf’s helm from 1995 to 2015, oversaw the production of hundreds of plays and transferred dozens more to Broadway and abroad, including Tracy Letts’ Tony Award-winning August: Osage County. Her efforts, which included doubling the size of the ensemble and engaging with younger artists and audiences, elevated Steppenwolf’s reputation to that of a leading force in new work development and cemented Chicago’s standing as a world-class center for bold, experimental theatre.

Under her leadership, Steppenwolf received the National Medal of the Arts (the only one given to a theater), the Illinois Arts Legend Award, and nine of the company’s 12 Tonys. Lavey herself has won the Sarah Siddons Award, a Northwestern Alumni Merit Award, and an Alumnae Award, along with numerous accolades from local and national enterprises. She was also a prolific actress both inside and outside of Steppenwolf. She was the first woman to hold the position of artistic director; her handpicked successor, Anna Shapiro, is a Northwestern professor and the Marjorie Hoffman Hagan, Class of 1934, Chair of Theatre.

Lavey’s zeal for originality, combined with her well-documented intelligence, talent, complexity, and doggedness, was an ideal fit for the growing company. And her Northwestern education in Performance Studies, say friends and colleagues, had a profound influence on Steppenwolf’s evolution. Through her work, Chicago emerged as a theatrical powerhouse.

“Performance Studies was right for her: she had not just a great love of theatre but a critical edge, a critical eye toward all performance — an enormously intellectual approach,” Zimmerman says. “We said to each other more than once that the theory and vocabulary that we acquired at Northwestern served us every day in the tumble of making plays.”

While a graduate student, Lavey worked under the late professor Leland Roloff. His groundbreaking mix of edgy performance art and psychoanalysis influenced the careers of a number of alumni, including Lavey and Zimmerman, says Paul Edwards (C72, GC73), longtime faculty member in the Department of Performance Studies.

“Martha (and fellow students) all did Roloff-inspired performance art, both on campus and in the city, which they took in their own direction,” Edwards says. “These were heady, experimental times.”

Maggie Doyle (GC88) worked under Lavey when Doyle directed Steppenwolf’s Play Talks series from 1996 to 2006. She was also her classmate at Northwestern: “We were privileged to work with terrific teachers staging the boldest high-modernist works. Deconstruction was entering American discourse. Performance art was becoming the edgy new genre. We were in the gallery scene together downtown, in storefronts, abandoned buildings, and new women’s spaces. With experimental fervor, site-specific interdisciplinarity was key”

Frank Galati (C65, GC67, GC71) is a Tony-winning, Academy Award-nominated artist and professor emeritus of Performance Studies. He remembered his former student in a statement released April 26: “Martha Lavey made an indelible impression on me from the very first moment I saw her sitting in the half-dark of one of my classes. A shock of white ran through her lush raven hair like a lightning bolt. In the months and many years that followed the power of her physical and spiritual presence never diminished. Those of us lucky enough to become teachers may also be lucky enough to encounter students who quickly become our teachers. I learned more from Martha Lavey than any other student over forty years in that dim classroom beside the windy lake. She will nourish me the rest of my days”

Carol Simpson Stern (GWCAS64, GWCAS68), another longtime professor of Performance Studies, taught Lavey.

“She always stood out,” Stern says, “and always had an elegance and intelligence and taste that she brought to everything she touched.”

Stern recalled Lavey’s daring performances of ambitious works, how she commanded a “rapturous audience” — but didn’t suffer fools.  

“She didn’t particularly care for light social chitchat,” Stern says, preferring instead more meaningful conversation.

Jessica Thebus (GC91, GC97), associate professor of Theatre and the director of the MFA Directing Program, worked with Lavey when Thebus was an artistic associate at Steppenwolf. They were close friends.

“I think the Performance Studies PhD she did had a huge influence on her, on her combination of fascination with art, literature, psychology and culture,” Thebus says. “Nothing was ever too unusual for Martha, she was a true fan of all the possibilities of performance as well as the role of theater and performance as a creator of culture and a responder to culture. She believed an artist had a unique individual voice as well as a communal responsibility.”

The Northwestern Theatre community will be honoring Martha Lavey on Friday, April 28, at performances of The 86th Waa-Mu Show, Beyond Belief: A Superhero Story, The Passion Play, Tick, Tick…BOOM!, and Fuente Ovejuna.

– Kerry Trotter