News & Articles

2008 Cindy Pritzker Lecture on Urban Life and Issues

by Martha Lavey

It is an honor to have the opportunity to speak to you on behalf of Steppenwolf Theatre. When Mary Dempsey asked me to speak on this occasion, my first response was one of utter intimidation--I couldn't imagine what I might say to such an esteemed audience of citizens and leaders. I feel passionately about this city, the adopted home of my adult life, but I feel, in so many ways, a newcomer to Chicago when I consider those of you who are continuing a long family tradition of living in and working to improve this city which is, so fortunately, our shared home. Allow my newcomer status to serve as my perspective: I have lived in several other cities--the Kansas City and Washington, DC of my youth, Detroit in adolescence, and briefly, New York and San Francisco in my young adult life. I have had the opportunity to travel in my adult working life to, frequently, New York, annually to London and to Ireland, variously Dublin and Galway, to Seattle, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Providence, Rhode Island, New Haven, Connecticut, Ashland, Oregon, San Francisco and Boston. My family visits give me access to the Washington, DC area, to Detroit, St. Louis and Baltimore. I am always enlivened by visits to these cities but I return to Chicago with a renewed appreciation of the bounty we enjoy here. I am aware that my passion for Chicago might mark me as provincial. Aware and unapologetic. When I drive down Lake Shore Drive every morning at dawn and see the sun rising over the lake and feel myself in the garden of our city, while the great buildings of our thriving metropolis come into view, I feel both a part of a world city and utterly and contentedly at home. What is it about Chicago that allows one to feel both so thoroughly a world citizen and a part of a caring community? Why is this city, so clearly a global city, so easily and graciously a network of neighborhoods and parks? I use my experience of the Chicago theater world as a microcosm of the larger forces that shape our city's life as offering an answer to this inquiry. I had the great good fortune of arriving in Chicago, by way of Northwestern University, at the moment when the off-Loop theater scene was gaining steam and about to burst onto national consciousness. The first salient point is that I was drawn to this city because of a wonderful university. Chicago is the home to the second largest student population in the country--nearly a half a million students are now pursuing higher education in and around Chicago. The wide range of educational institutions in Chicago--from world class universities to the city colleges, trade schools and two-year colleges--the educational infrastructure of the city provides a point of entry to young people to Chicago. Their time here is supported by a rich cultural life and employment possibilities that entice these young people to make Chicago their home. In my case, the exciting theater scene that existed in the early 1980s (and which continues to this day), made Chicago my city of choice to pursue a career in the theater. Not only was the artistic profile of the city compelling for an actor starting out, it was possible to actually live here: I could find an affordable apartment, the transportation system made it possible to live without a car (which I did, for my first 15 years in the city), my friends and I could rent storefront spaces and galleries in which to self-produce. The critics of our major newpapers were tuned to the performance scene in Chicago to the degree that they would attend and write about performance in grungy little theaters that sat well under a hundred people. Steppenwolf Theatre is a perfect expression of all of these forces: the original ensemble had all migrated to the state universities of Chicago from southern Illinois and formed themselves into an artistic entity first, in Highland Park where the critic from the Chicago Tribune, Richard Christiansen, attended their early performances. On the strength of his recommendation, the theater gained an audience that allowed them to move into the city in increasingly larger spaces until they were able to build our current home on north Halsted. The support for that building effort was spearheaded by the generous business and philanthropic leadership of the city chief among whom, Bruce Sagan, who very recently played a similar role for the Joffrey Ballet. The Joffrey Ballet now has a beautiful new home on State Street, where their company now has replete rehearsal space and is initiating a school, vouchsafing the perpetuation of the company. The building is a statement of purpose and a promise. There is a similar storyline in Steppenwolf’s evolution: from the platform of a small theater in Chicago, the company became known outside of the city when they transferred productions to New York. From there, individual artists of the company went on to properous and highly visible careers on the national and international stage: Broadway, television and film, international theater festivals, and throughout the country. These artists returned often, over the years, to Steppenwolf where their enhanced profiles drew new audiences to our Chicago home. The leaders and trustees of the theater, wise to the ambition of these artists, recognized that the return of the ensemble to Steppenwolf would be anchored by creating a building that could meet the increasingly sophisticated expressiveness of the company. In its current home, Steppenwolf is a wonderful example of Chicago's heterodox mix of the home-grown and the world class: home to artists for whom Chicago began as a hugely aspirational space (where they worked in bookstores, drove the school bus, served as secretaries and waiters) and which became their platform to the world stage. A world stage, that begins in an artistic home, situated in a Chicago neighborhood. Millennium Park stands as an inscription of these uniquely Chicago forces: it is the fruit of our hybrid nature: a public square, democratic in its access, and a home to world-class art. The Park hosts live performance, offers sophisticated gardens and sculpture and is situated in the heart of our thriving metropolis, sandwiched between the natural beauty of our lake front and the constructed beauty of our great architecture. The Park is the expression of our city's riches: leadership that dreams big, a committed business and philanthropic community that supports that vision, and a deep appreciation of beauty in the public square. This is Steppenwolf's story as well: passion made visible. One of the most gratifying aspects of the Steppenwolf journey has been the evolution of the company's sense of itself as a citizen of Chicago. We talk about our life as a theater as occupying, thus far, three stages. When the theater began, it was a conversation among artists. Young people, on fire with a vision for how to create an artist-driven theater. Those early members of the ensemble were each others' best audience--they were proving themselves to each other. They had few resources but their enormous collective talent, huge ambition, and a willingness to work really hard. By the time I became the artistic director, the theater, and many of those artists had achieved great success. The theater was now being supported by its community and it was time to take responsibility for that audience and financial support by engaging more fully in our community. We invited young companies into our theaters, we initiated a School at Steppenwolf to train working actors, we enhanced our educational programs for high school students. We saw ourselves as giving back for the generosity that had been extended to us. The third, and highly instructive phase of our life is current and on-going: as we learned more about our audiences, we began to recognize not only what we owed our community but what we could learn from our community. We began to use the power of listening. We have become a part of a community that feels great ownership of Steppenwolf--audiences who have been coming to our theater for years; individuals, foundations and corporations who have consistently and generously supported us; trustees who have given their time and treasure to the theater; generations of staff members who have built the theater to its highest level of expressiveness; and audiences who have demonstrated great intelligence in their interpretive willingess and loyalty in their engagement. We have gained the confidence to open the conversation to these informed and caring partners in determining our course. What have we gained by revisioning ourselves as conversation partners to our city? Greater diversity in our artistic, staff, and trustee constituencies; a livelier conversation in our theater; a commitment to making Steppenwolf a public square, a home to life-long learners, a repository of our stories, a soul in a neighborhood. We are fortunate to live in a city that recognizes that artists, and the institutions that support their work, are essential to the quality of life in the city, and to its future. Chicago is a city recognizes the great human need for beauty, for story, for the respite that the arts provide to engage our imagination. The arts permit us to shift our frame of reference, to see the world through the eyes of another, to see and hear the world anew. From an early age, books were my passport to a larger world. I remember my mother reading GOODNIGHT MOON to me as a child and the feeling of comfort I experienced in what I knew was a shared vision of the night's mystery. I remember seeking out books from my earliest school days. I was one of seven children and reading was my way to own a private space--a private space in which I was not isolated but rather where I found a larger community. Someone had felt what I was feeling, someone who came before me knew my heart's longing and I was not alone with my imagination and dreams. Soon enough, I discovered the creation of story--I organized plays with my neighborhood friends and we performed our pagaents for our moms in the basement of my house. It was child's play but it was also a great need to communicate, to share story with others, to engage collectively in an act of imagining. The enormous good fortune of my life is that I am still engaged in making story in community. This is the Steppenwolf story: individuals who came together to engage in their collective passion to story-tell, to inhabit the lives of others in the service of our common story. We know ourselves, and make ourselves known and knowable to each other through the touchstone of our imagining. We recognize ourselves when we stopped dead by a painting, when we are transported by music, when we are moved to tears in the theater. That sense of recognition, that shock of belonging to a long history of human imagining is the great gift of both Nature and Art--the stillpoints in our life of hurry and tumult, the arenas in which we can truly see and hear our universe and each other. And listen, I'm all for the hurry and tumult. I love the forward-pressing urgency of our city. I love all of the making and doing and the crazy unlikelihood of so many people living in such proximity coordinating their moves into a mostly workable flow. I am humbled by the untold acts of kindness that occur each day as we weave through each other's space, I am humbled by the fact that the mail gets delivered, that the airplanes take off, that we get to work each morning more or less on time. All of that movement is beautiful but you'll notice: all of that rush and doing is not enough. After a day at work, after wrangling our children into bed, after executing all of those tasks that secure our physical well-being in the world, we read a book, we go to a play or concert, we visit the library or museum--we make contact with others in the zone of our imagination. We crave the diversion, yes, but I think on a more fundamental level, we crave each other. We crave the knowledge that even in our privacy--even when we are most in conversation with the deepest parts of ourselves, we are not alone. We have the great solace of each other in our desire for a passionate engagement with our largest selves. This is what we most want to facilitate at Steppenwolf. A generous public square that is activated by the work on our stages in which we can recognize and reveal ourselves to each other. The questions that we are asking ourselves now are about how best to do that. The work that we have been doing in the last dozen years in new play development, with high schools students and teachers in our Steppenwolf for Young Adults program, with young Chicago companies through our Visiting Companies Initiative, and with young actors through our School at Steppenwolf are bearing rich fruit. Steppenwolf is now acknowledged as one of the leading American theaters in the development and production of new plays, and through the other initiatives just named as an significant site for the development of young audiences and artists. What is our next, best step? The success of our production of August: Osage County first, at Steppenwolf, subsequently on Broadway, and, opening in one week's time, at the Royal National Theatre in London, has shone a bright light on the theater. It shoud be noted here that even before the success of August, the Chicago Public Library honored the author of August, playwright Tracy Letts, with the 21st Century Award in 2005. The Library's attention to this Steppenwolf playwright may have evolved from our partership with the Library on Chicago's One Book/One Chicago initiative. Steppenwolf and the Library discovered, in working together, a mutual interest in the cultivation of the public square. We discovered common ground in our desire to create a civic space to encourage critical thinking and to support our citizens in their hunger for a rich, nuanced conversation about how we live now. Increasingly, I find myself attracted to thinking about Steppenwolf through the prism of a library. Theaters are, in some sense, the repository of our emotional knowledge--keepers of the story, our bridge to our past, the open shelf of our future. We come to the theater to find our connection to those who came before us, to those whose lives are lived elsewhere and elseways but to whom we connect in our common human experience. This is the same pursuit of our reading. Importantly, in the theater, those lives are "read" out loud, engendered by a collective and received collectively. Theaters and libraries, of course, share an ancient past. At the very beginnings our recorded history, libraries and theaters were important centers of civic life. Theater was born in the city that also gave birth to Western democracy, a not incidental fact. My colleague, Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theatre in New York, speaks persuasively about the way in which the theater became the first forum for civic dialogue, the negotiation of point of view in a public space. The idea of inviting an audience into a sympathetic identification with conflicting points of view and an opportunity to negotiate those sympathies in a collectivity is the engine of democracy. The library provides another, and essential, engine for our democratic union: free access to knowledge in the service of an informed citizenry. Small wonder that both libraries and theaters have found themselves on the frontline of free speech issues. The arts and literature in particular have been the test ground for censorship issues, and theaters and libraries are often the contested sites of these struggles because, I think, both sites raise the spectre of a collective action. Both libraries and theater produce a public space in which the free flow of ideas is particularly powerful and potentially upsetting because both libraries and theaters gather rather than disperse their audiences. It is this, the cultivation of a public square, that makes urban life so thrilling, so powerful, and so in need of our mindfulness and care. The conversation that we cultivate in these public squares depends upon the voices we include and encourage. How do we set the tone of that conversation? My conviction is that the inclusion of the arts in our city's public discourse encourages our most generous selves, our most inclusive impulses, our largest dreams. We imagine the world in a vocabulary inspired by metaphor, we lift our heads from the tumult of our coming and going to see more clearly. We honor Emily Dickenson's instruction to tell the truth but tell it slant. And how do the arts help sustain the coming and going of our urban life? Speaking of the impact of the arts on the life of our cities, I quote my colleague, Ben Cameron, currently the Director of Arts Programming at the Duke Foundation, formerly the Executive Director of the Theatre Communications Group, and a veteran of the National Endowment of the Arts. Speaking to an audience in Seattle, Ben said: The size of this gathering today is indeed evidence of the impact the arts have had here—impact that many of you can cite with me: impact on the local economy, with every dollar spent on a performing arts ticket leveraging $5-7 additional dollars for the local economy, for example; impact on educational achievement, as tests have shown, where students engaged in the arts typically are four times more likely to participate in science fairs, four times more likely to run for class office, demonstrate greater verbal acuity, greater self-esteem, greater tolerance for ambiguity, are exponentially more likely to graduate from high school and score more than 120 points higher on their SAT’s than their non-arts colleagues; and impact on our social fabric—indeed, as a UCLA study notes, showing that a kid who has been in a play is 42% less likely to tolerate racist behavior than a kid who has never been in a play. For these reasons and more, all of us can stand together and proclaim If you care about the local economy, you must care about the arts; If you care about educational achievement for your children, you must care about the arts; if you care about a tolerant, inclusive society, you must care about the arts. Ben's insights point toward the instrumental value of the arts--a value measure by our collective performance. Citizens exposed to and engaged in the arts make our city a more functional, more prosperous, more effective environment. We must cherish the arts if we care about the future of our city because it is with the support of the arts that we cultivate a culture of innovation, a forward-leaning vision, a world of possibility. I would argue, too, that our civic future depends upon on our ability to promote Chicago's position as a global city. A global consciousness is clearly a priority of our mayor and the arts can play a vital role in realizing this objective. The arts are our soft diplomacy--a shared language for our common human concerns, a site for transnational collaboration, a welcoming platform for young artists and audiences to find voice and share their dream for a shared future. As we look toward our Olympic bid, the arts community of Chicago can play a vital role in the crafting signature of our city, giving voice and story to the unique history of our city and its people, and serving as ambassadors to our international visitors. The arts can serve as the access point to our visitors into the deep heart of our people and place. We have been blessed, at Steppenwolf, to represent Chicago in the international arena. The conviction we have always held at the theater is that we do our work for our Chicago audiences--if the work is receives a life elsewhere, we consider that a happy outcome for our artists and the work. In this, we participate in the Chicago ethos--we are a city of neighborhoods with a global reach. Always, always, the arts look toward the particular and the more they explore that particularity, the more they resonate with the universal. One of the joys we have experienced as a theater company performing outside of our country is to feel audiences in London, in Ireland, in Australia, moved to laughter and tears by the same drama that so compelled our audiences at home. One feels so suddenly, so happily welcome, so connected to the great human story that is ours collectively. The prospect of meeting international visitors on our home turf of Chicago is thrilling. For Chicago's cultural institutions to open their doors to visitors from around the world is to create a the global village animated by story, image, and sound. It is an opportunity to join in the global conversation with a deeply nuanced, humane, and passionate voice. Steppenwolf's story is a proud Chicago tale: young artists drawn to Chicago--this aspirational space---who made it their home. The great magnifying effect of our city is evidenced in the now, international awareness of our company. I deeply believe that Chicago continues to offer that platform to young artists. My fervent hope is that our city will continue to nurture its artists and cultural institutions, that our leadership will continue to value the beauty, expressiveness, and inclusiveness that are at the heart of every artistic endeavor. It is clear that the outstanding global cities the world over have a rich artistic life and tradition. I suspect that this is because the arts are necessary to a truly functional urban life. The rush and tumult, the growth of industry, the press of necessity that motor urban centers require the balance of reflective space. We keep our balance in the great motion of urban life with the ballast of our cultural memory, with the particularity of story, with the mirror of image, with the order of music. The arts are constituted in that beautiful tension between memory and innovation--the very dynamic that lives at the heart of every vibrant city. The theater, in particular has a place in the center of our global city. Like the library, in whose friendly confines we now sit, the theater is an important zone of free speech. Both institutions--the library and the theater--are repositories of cultural memory and living zones for the exercise of free speech. The theater both holds cultural memory and makes culture--it is the living, breathing language of how we live now to an audience in active negotiation of meaning. It is a public square in which we negotiate meaning in collectivity, in which we tolerate one another's differences in the service of receiving a common human story in community. I always know we are doing our job at Steppenwolf when the same play that elicits enthusiastic support then elicits exasperation and dissent. Few things are more exciting than to register both responses from a single theater-goer: I recently ran into a Steppenwolf subscriber at another theater in town. She told me that when she had seen a recent Steppenwolf production, she decided, as the curtain came down, that she didn't like the play. But that she had been unable to get it out of her head. And now, two weeks later, she felt proud of herself for having gained an understanding of an experience that she originally resisted. She had spent the time since she saw the play, querying her friends, and by their talking through the play together and through their impromtu colloquies on the play, she felt situated in an interpretation and illuminated by the experience. What an honor, to hear the narrative of an open mind, to witness the collective action of interpretation and discourse. It is to this--a shared conversation in the public square, activated by the work on our stages--that Steppenwolf dedicates its mission and its future. When we look to the future of Steppenwolf, we look to the enrichment of our public square. Our first concern, always, will be the excellence of the work on our stages. It is the work on our stages that starts the conversation. But how do we get more people into the conversation? How do we increase access to our work so that the conversation is a rich and nuanced as Chicago's citizenry? How do we better serve our neighborhood which is shifting and changing in front of our eyes? How do we engage our younger audiences whose entire development as citizens has been shaped by technologies of communication that give them access to all of the information they could ever want but efface their connections to the communities in which they actually spend their days? We believe in the value of theater precisely because it is borne out of community--the ensemble, the staff, and the trustees who have committed their talent and time to the making of our ephemeral art--and because it makes community--it gathers people together in the witness of speech. Theater produces a zone of human activity that depends on a fundamental pact of democracy: we sit together, tolerating our differences, to listen to the collision of forces that is the drama and we make meaning in our collective response. We laugh and cry together and we feel suprised, aggravated, informed, by the fact that others laugh at what makes us cry. WE are the drama we came to watch. How surprising (how aggravating and informing) to learn that it is our own lives that live on stage--that others can see us in our triumphs and our failings. How humanizing to recognize that we are not alone. The original artists of Steppenwolf came to Chicago because they wanted to widen the conversation. They migrated here from the small towns in southern Illinois, most, through the filter of their universities, and they found a platform that gave them access to the world. We want Steppenwolf to continue to be this access point to another generation of artists and audiences. We want Steppenwolf to be the gathering place for the community that stimulates the conversation you want to have about how we live now--in the terms most passionate, most connected, most generous to your whole self. This is the great promise of the arts in Chicago: the neighborhoods of our interpretive communities, the global city of our dreams. Two important events, germane to our conversation about Chicago, have occurred in the past several weeks. The first is the passing of one of Chicago's great storytellers, Studs Terkel on October the 31st. Studs' life, which spanned 96 years, bore witness to remarkable changes in our world. But what remained central to his life, and to the life of our community, was his dedication to giving voice to the stories of our fellow citizens. By bearing witness to, and providing a platform for an incredible compenium of individuals, Studs opened a space for the famous and forgotten to meet in our common human concerns. Storytelling became, through his witness, a catalyst for community--speech became an activity of citizenship. The second, and remarkable event of the past few weeks is the election of Chicago's son, Illinois senator Barack Obama, to the presidency of the United States. Would that Studs had lived those four extra days to see the election of America's first African-American president. Of all of the changes in American life over the course of his life, certainly the election of Barack Obama would have been among the most surprising--and the most gratifying. Gratifying because one of the truths that Senator Obama's success most confirms is the power of the word. The eloquence with which Barack Obama captured our aspirations as Americans moved us to a common purpose. Senator, now president-elect, Barack Obama made speech an action, a catalyst to a refreshed national identity and vision. Both Studs and Barack Obama understand the transformative power of the word, the healing power of story. This is the central conviction of the theater--that by listening closely to the lives of others, we will know ourselves more fully, and locate ourselves in a more generous world. I am very grateful to have made Chicago my home. I was drawn to Chicago by a university and discovered, to my great joy, a universe. Steppenwolf's Executive Director, David Hawkanson, another Chicago transplant, has caught the passion of this city and is now a huge advocate of the rich life of our town. We thank all of you, on behalf of Steppenwolf, for your dedication to Chicago. All of us at Steppenwolf hope that we have been a friend to this city which has been so generous to us. I thank Mary Dempsey, the Commissioner of the Chicago Public Library for inviting me to speak and I thank our Mayor, Richard M. Daley and our First Lady, Maggie Daley, for the support they have given to the arts in Chicago. This is truly Chicago's moment. The eyes of the world are upon us. Our nation's president has emerged from our midst, we are among a select handful of world cities being considered for the 2016 Olympics. Let us use this time to feature the rich cultural life of our city, to demonstrate the great bounty of a global city animated by the eloquence, by the balance and beauty of its artists. Let this be our message to the world--that our citizens cherish beauty, that we resonate to eloquence, and that we seek a common purpose in the stories we share. Thank you again, for all you have done to make our city a gracious and generous place.