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Steppenwolf Co. Changes Direction

With its 20th anniversary season set to begin next September and subscriptions down about 17% from a 1991 peak of 18,000, the Steppenwolf Theater Company’s artistic leadership is changing.

Randall Arney will vacate the artistic director slot he has held for eight years on Aug. 31. He will remain a member of the ensemble. Arney cited a desire to focus more on acting and directing, two areas of interest he had infrequently indulged while Steppenwolf a.d., a post he held twice as long as any of his predecessors.

Martha Lavey, a Steppenwolf artistic associate and an ensemble member for the past two years, immediately will become acting a.d. Lavey, 38, takes on Steppenwolf s top artistic post with only minimal theater administrative experience, having worked with Arney for the past several months in programming and operating the Steppenwolf Studio Theater.

Though a relative newcomer to the ensemble, Lavey, who holds a doctorate in performance studies from Northwestern U., is a respected Steppenwolf trouper and the first woman from within the company’s ranks to ascend to the top post. Notes artistic associate Eric Simonson, who was passed over in the selection of Lavey: “Martha is an exceptional actress, and she has a great degree of intelligence.”

A protege of company member Frank Galati, Lavey has worked primarily as an actress. She first appeared with Steppenwolf in a 1981 production of “Naked Savage” staged by John Malkovich. Lavey’s taste in plays tends toward the serious; Pinter and Beckett are two of her favorite playwrights.

During the artistic transition, Lavey will be assisted by a newly created executive artistic board that includes company co-founders Gary Sinise, Jeff Perry and Terry Kinney. The trio will be in charge of rethinking the company’s artistic mission, as well as selecting Arney’s full-time replacement. Throughout Steppenwolf s history, ensemble members – rather than the board of directors – have chosen the artistic leader, and that apparently will be the case in this instance too, according to board sources.

“I think we’ll be trying each other out,” Lavey said of the situation.

Some of the Steppenwolf leadership has indicated the company might ultimately decide to go outside the ensemble for the first time in its history to select a permanent artistic director, though Sinise said the preference would be to stick with someone who has a history with the group.

“We plan on working with Martha,” said Sinise, adding, “right now we’re not launching a national search for an artistic director.”

Lavey is assuming the top artistic post at an internationally recognized theater company quite different from the one Arney took over in 1987. The company has appeared several times on Broadway, 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.”

In 1991, Steppenwolf moved from a tiny, poorly equipped theater space into an $8 million, state-of-the-art facility on the city’s near north side. The company’s modern home includes both a 500 seat mainstage and a flexible black-box studio theater and rehearsal hall.

Over the past eight years Steppenwolf s annual operating budget has ballooned to $5 million from $1 million, and the ensemble has grown to 30 members from 21. That corps of talent, most of whom now live far from Chicago, include many who have gone on to great success in films and television, as well as theater. They include Sinise, Malkovich and Kinney, as well as Laurie Metcalf, Kevin Anderson, Gary Cole, Joan Allen and Glenne Headly. Arney has struggled in recent years to organize Steppenwolf seasons around ensemble members’ hectic schedules – a problem Lavey also will have to contend with if she remains in the job.

More importantly, subscribers and observers have grumbled about programming, an issue that Arney must take responsibility for, to some degree. Productions such as “Road to Nirvana” and “The Mesmerist” in recent seasons provoked complaints from subscribers. According to managing director Stephen Eich, the company’s subscriber base peaked at 18,000 in the 1990-91 season, when the company moved into its impressive new home. In each season since, however, the number of subscribers has dropped, to the current 15,000.

Not surprisingly, Eich discounts any dissatisfaction with Steppenwolf s artistic product as a prime reason for the subscriber decline, adding that he believes there is a growing trend toward single-ticket sales instead of subscriptions.

Lavey says she will move immediately to beef up the artistic side of the company, and try to program a season with a more unified artistic vision than may have been the case previously. Lavey says she also hopes to hire a dramaturg/literary manager and another staffer to run a playwrights and directors workshop to begin next season.

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