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Steppenwolf's New Lead

Can Martha Lavey stop Steppenwolf's slide?

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With its 20th anniversary season set to begin next September and subscriptions down, the Steppenwolf Theatre Company is changing its artistic leadership. On August 31, Randall Arney will step down after eight years as the company's artistic director. He has held the post twice as long as any predecessor. In announcing his resignation, Arney, who'll remain a Steppenwolf ensemble member, expressed a desire to pursue more acting and directing jobs than he had been able to accept while at Steppenwolf's helm. But there seems to be more to Arney's resignation than merely his wish to explore other interests.

With its subscriber base slipping and an expensive new theater complex to maintain, the Steppenwolf ensemble appears to be seeking a more clearly articulated--and hopefully more appealing--artistic vision. To temporarily fill Arney's position the ensemble has chosen Martha Lavey, a Steppenwolf artistic associate and an ensemble member for the past two years, as acting artistic director. Lavey, 38, has worked with Arney operating the Steppenwolf studio theater over the past several months, but she comes to her new job with only minimal administrative experience. Though a relative newcomer, she's a respected member of the troupe and the first woman to be named artistic director.

Lavey holds a doctoral degree in performance studies from Northwestern University and is a protege of Steppenwolf ensemble member Frank Galati, known for his theatrical adaptations of challenging literary material such as John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Lavey first appeared with the Steppenwolf troupe in 1981 in Savages, directed by John Malkovich. Her taste in plays, like Galati's, tends toward serious fare; Pinter and Beckett are two of her favorite playwrights.

During the transition, Lavey will be assisted by a newly created executive artistic committee. Its members--Steppenwolf cofounders Gary Sinise, Jeff Perry, and Terry Kinney--will help Lavey rethink the company's artistic mission and guide the ensemble in selecting Arney's permanent replacement. Traditionally the Steppenwolf ensemble members rather than the company's board of directors have chosen their artistic leader, and Sinise says their preference would be to stick with someone who has a history with the group. "We plan on working with Martha," he says, adding, "Right now we're not launching a national search for an artistic director." Last week Lavey indicated she is interested in the job for the long haul. "I think we'll be trying each other out." If the trial proves unsuccessful, several Steppenwolf sources say, the company might consider seeking a permanent artistic director from outside the ensemble.

The Steppenwolf operation Lavey takes over is a much larger, more prestigious, and, in some respects, more unwieldy operation than the one Arney assumed artistic control of eight years ago. The company's work, including the Tony Award-winning The Grapes of Wrath and more recently The Song of Jacob Zulu and The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, has appeared several times on Broadway. In 1991 Steppenwolf moved from a tiny, poorly equipped space into an $8-million state-of-the-art facility at 1650 N. Halsted. Over the past eight years Steppenwolf's annual operating budget has ballooned from $1 million to $5 million, and the ensemble has grown from 21 members to 30, many of whom now reside far from Chicago. Familiar names that have gone on to great success in films and television include Sinise, Malkovich, and Kinney, along with Laurie Metcalf, Kevin Anderson, Gary Cole, Joan Allen, and Glenne Headly. Because many in the Steppenwolf ensemble are frequently busy with other projects, in recent years Arney has struggled to organize Steppenwolf seasons around their hectic schedules, a problem Lavey will face if she's chosen to fill his position on a permanent basis.

More important, Lavey must deal with a pronounced and growing band of subscribers dissatisfied with Steppenwolf's recent artistic output--a substantial number of whom have shown their displeasure by canceling subscriptions. According to Steppenwolf managing director Stephen Eich, the company's subscriber based peaked at 18,000 in the 1990-'91 season, when the company moved into its impressive new home. But since then the number of subscribers has fallen to 15,000. Not surprisingly, Eich dismisses dissatisfaction with the artistic product as a reason for the decline. "We knew that many of the people who bought subscriptions in 1990 and 1991 were soft subscribers and unlikely to stick with the company," he says.

Lavey, who says she will be giving serious thought to "a more defined artistic vision" for the company, will announce the 1995-'96 main-stage season in April. Meanwhile she is wasting no time beefing up the organization's artistic staff. She plans to hire a dramaturge/literary manager and another staffer to run a workshop for playwrights and directors that she would like to initiate next season. The job of overseeing Steppenwolf's next studio season will fall to Simonson.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/J.B. Spector.

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