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Artistic Director Martha Lavey looks back at the 2003–2004 season

by Martha Lavey

It is gratifying to reach the end of a season, to have launched all five of our subscription-series shows — to have all of them "in play." What begins as a series of ideas becomes a series of experiences — experiences that coalesce with, reverberate against, and inform each other.

The season began, and ends, with the story of two people in a closed room, struggling to define their relationship. Both are urban stories: TOPDOG/UNDERDOG, the story of two African American brothers; FRANKIE AND JOHNNY, the events of one night between a man and a woman. In between, we encountered the stories of two families: a contemporary Midwestern home in MAN FROM NEBRASKA; a family of the 1960s in northeastern America in I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER. At the center of the season, OUR LADY OF 121ST STREET surveyed the lives of a diverse group of former classmates in present-day Harlem.

It has been illuminating to collect the responses to and interpretations of these five plays from our audience. In post-show discussions, in emails, letters, phone calls, and reports to our staff, you have registered your delight, your dismay, your empathy, your outrage — your intellectual and emotional responses — to our work. The very plays that speak most eloquently to some are impenetrable to others. The play that is, to one subscriber, the quintessence of the Steppenwolf experience is, to another, seriously off-mission. To experience the latitude of these responses is profoundly thought-provoking.

As emotionally tumultuous as this barrage of responses can be, it is a testimony to the unique and powerful character of the theatrical experience. What is so fantastic about theater is that it lives so vividly ON THE NIGHT and then dies away, retrievable only through the imperfect screen of our personal remembering. A particular play makes sense to me because I open up my own experience to let it in: I allow that person up there onstage — that not-me — to speak of and to me. (For example, TOPDOG/UNDERDOG was a challenging piece — the brothers were desperate, profane, socially unsuccessful. It was vivifying when one our of board trustees — a man prosperous, astute, appropriate — felt an immediate identification with the brothers of TOPDOG. His comment: "That could be a room in the Four Seasons. It’s two brothers, living in a closed space." His identification was immediate, and palpable. The particulars of race and social class were effaced, in his experience, by the driving forces of masculinity, of family, of environment.)

The imperatives that drive Steppenwolf in our programming have evolved over time. Certainly, we feel an obligation to reflect the growth of Steppenwolf as cultural institution. It is our good fortune to have achieved a stature in the Chicago, in the national, and in the international landscape. With that good fortune comes the responsibility of encouraging new voices through commissioning writers and premiering new work, of refreshing canonical work with the extraordinary artists and craftspeople available to us at Steppenwolf, and of producing challenging work that meets the sophisticated appetite of our audience. My hope is that whether or not you identify with a particular play, you feel confident that it was produced with integrity and fervency. My further hope is that your confidence in the quality of our work encourages your open-mindedness — that, like the board member cited earlier, you find yourself in a play wildly outside of your own experience (and find, therefore a common humanity with another).

Please know that I encourage you to respond to our work. Your participation in post-show discussions, your letters, emails, and responses to audience surveys are all welcome and carefully regarded. I particularly welcome your reflections on the season as a whole. Having come to the end of this season, I also encourage you to reflect on how the plays you have seen talk to one another (and in that discourse, how they reverberate with your own experience).

Finally, I want to invite you to survey the entire range of our work at Steppenwolf. Our five subscription-series plays are the most visible facet of our work. We also produce a season of work in the Upstairs Theatre comprised of both Steppenwolf-produced plays and visiting companies. The most recent Steppenwolf production in the Upstairs Theatre, The Fall to Earth featured ensemble member Rondi Reed who has received unprecedented critical acclaim for her role as Fay. In our Garage Theatre one can see a season of new work in our most intimate theater. This season’s acclaimed Orange Flower Water will be traveling to Dublin this summer. Through our Arts Exchange program, we produce two shows each year for student audiences that are available to the general public on Saturday afternoons. Our Traffic series features performances by an eclectic mix of actors, writers and musicians throughout our season. Work from each of these venues has traveled to other theaters in the local, national and international arenas. You have the opportunity to see it first, and at home.

All of us at Steppenwolf feel tremendous gratitude for the loyalty, probity and vigor with which you participate in the theater. I ask you to regard yourself as a participant in a conversation — know that your voice is valuable and valued.

Martha Lavey
Artistic Director