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Letter from the Artistic Director on the 2008-2009 Season

by Martha Lavey

Welcome to Steppenwolf’s 2008-2009 season. We are dedicating this season to an exploration of the imagination. We have chosen five plays that burrow deeply into the zone of our imaging, that ask us to consider the imagination an essential realm of the human experience, that interrogate the boundaries we construct in our lives between our “reality” and “fantasy.” We spoke of the 2007-2008 season’s theme in the context of the current Presidential election cycle. The question of “What does it mean to be an American?” has an urgency within the current political debate. I suggest that “the imagination” has a similar urgency. So many of the deficits in our current socio-political discourse seem to be the result of literalistic thinking. Fundamentalism, whatever the core belief: religious, economic, a governance philosophy—is alive and well. That thinking—the belief in first principles that are literal in their expression—shuts down a conversation about a negotiated reality. It shuts down our access to psyche, to the zone of our experience that is intuitive, that is derived from our fantasies, dreams and unconscious motives. This deficit of imagination, this aversion to play, to the zone of not-knowing, is crippling our capacity for innovation and, I would argue, cripples our capacity for compassion. For us, for makers of theater, the imagination is the realm of our being. We issue up stories, we produce life in the key of the “make-believe” with the intent of intensifying our grasp of our collective “reality.” We make up stories to make more vivid the lives we live unconsciously. We highlight, we cull, we dramatize, to elucidate the structure of the stories under which we weather our experience. We produce metaphor, we shift the key of understanding from the denotative to the analogous. This use of a “theme” is less a filter (a principle of exclusion) than it is an invitation to think about any range of plays from a particular angle of vision. The establishment of a seasonal theme is useful because we see our work at the theater to be the instigation of a conversation: the discourse of plays on stage is dialogue; there are two parties in the auditorium (between whom a “conversation” is being conducted); and the hope is, that a play engenders a further, on-going conversation outside of the theater. The idea in centering the conversation around imagination is to unleash the idea of imagination from its oppositional positioning as “not-reality.” The point is, imagination seems to be an inevitable fact of being human—we project, we dream, we fantasize. And my observation (of myself, certainly and of people) is that our imaginings, our fantasies, our stories, are the very things that determine our reality. We narrate ourselves and the events of our lives as story—and the “story” of our lives is this completely heterodox co-mingling of what we witness and experience, and what we believe (what we imagine). A consideration of the imagination is the shared province of philosophy, religion, art, psychology, politics, culture and science. Our participation in all of these realms depends on a moment of the “What if?” The theater, as a communally-engendered and -received imagining, is a particularly potent arena in which to investigate this profound human resource. The imagination is the zone of our contact, the place where we meet and begin our conversation. The five plays that we have chosen for this season all traffic in the liminal realm of our dreaming and imagining. We begin with Frank Galati's adaptation and direction of novelist Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore. Steppenwolf audiences are familiar with the staging of Murakami's work through Frank’s production of after the quake. Like quake, Kafka moves fluidly between the outer world of our shared experience and the inner landscape of our imagining. As a longer-form story—a novel rather than a collection of short stories—Kafka on the Shore takes our hero through a complex journey that lands him on the far shore of his crossing-over. It is a story of a young boy’s growing up, the story of a culture traumatized by war, and the story of our collective awakening to the urgency of our compassion. The Seafarer, by Irish playwright Conor McPherson will be directed by ensemble member, Randy Arney. The Seafarer is a great yarn—the story of Sharky, a man in mid-life, returning to the home of his brother, to right his life and start afresh. In their long evening together over the course of Christmas Eve, the brothers and their friends are visited by a mysterious stranger, Mr. Lockhart, who challenges them all to a card game on which their very souls depend. The production features a cast of Steppenwolf ensemble members: John Mahoney, Fran Guinan, Tom Irwin, and Al Wilder. Mr. Lockhart is borne of the night and returns to it; a fantasy and the most urgent presence in the room. In our Upstairs Theatre, we present Yasmina Reza's Art in a translation by playwright Christopher Hampton. Ensemble member Rick Snyder directs our actors in this witty exploration of the dynamics of male friendship. Ensemble members Fran Guinan and K. Todd Freeman anchor our first cast and we intend to use the long run of the show to re-configure the actors, witnessing the subtle shifts in the dynamics of relationship as different actors shape character. The “art” in question in the play is the blank screen of a painting that starts the conflict among them. The painting comes to represent each of the men themselves—the blank screen that they provide to one another’s projections over their long friendship together. We are, in that sense, a creation of another’s imaging—less authors than authored. The fourth play of our season is Steppenwolf's first production of a Shakespeare play, The Tempest. Ensemble member Tina Landau directs this late, great play by Shakespeare with a cast of Steppenwolf ensemble actors that features Frank Galati in the role of Prospero. The Tempest is a profound meditation on the imagination and one deeply expressive of the particular imaginative realm of the theater. The opportunity to pair the mutual passion of Tina and Frank on this philosophically rich and dramatically brilliant play was irresistible. We conclude the season with a new play by Bridget Carpenter, Up, under the direction of ensemble member, Anna D. Shapiro. Up is the story of a man who fulfills his dream to fly by rigging his lawn chair with helium balloons. His flight is the apotheosis of his life and is joined, in his mind, with the daring highwire walks of aerialist Philippe Petit. Philippe becomes Walter’s inspiration, his sole companion in the flight of his imagination. The range of plays we were able to assemble to explore the idea of the imagination is expressive of the depth, playfulness and mutability of this essential human resource. We look forward to the season-long conversation these plays will inspire. You are the final component to our season.