CHICAGO: On Oct. 2, Steppenwolf Theatre Company stunned the theatre world by announcing that its artistic director of 19 years, Martha Lavey, would step down at the end of the 2014-15 season, and that director and ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro would succeed her.
The theatre also confirmed that its executive director David Hawkanson, who has been with the company for 11 years, will leave his position at the end of the year, and managing director David M. Schmitz will take over in January 2015.
The transition had quietly been in process since January, and happens concurrently with a planned campus expansion, also announced in early October. Though the project is not yet fully funded, Lavey and Hawkanson felt that the longterm process would benefit from the energy of new leadership at the 40-year-old theatre.
American Theatre spoke with Lavey and Hawkanson about their decision to leave and what it means for the future of the company.
American Theatre: How did this executive and artistic leadership change come about?
Martha Lavey: I started working with Anna in 1995 when I became artistic director. She was the director of the New Plays Lab, then she was our resident director. After that, she became an ensemble member, and I’ve always thought of her as the next leader of Steppenwolf. And, of course, her career in the last number of years, really since her success with August: Osage County, has been wide and has been so inclusive of, for instance, Broadway. I began to fear that the moment may be passing—that she may be slipping out of Steppenwolf’s hands. I had approached her a couple of times over the years to say, “Anna, is it time now?” She would say, “No, no, no.” This time, as I was thinking of transition, she began to realize that she wanted to be in Chicago, and she really wanted to take the mantle, so happily it’s worked out for both of us in passing the baton right now.
Did you anticipate making all these changes at once?
David Hawkanson: Well, we were wrestling with this idea that it’ll be four to five years to complete the campus project once we funded it, and then it’s going to take at least another two years to figure out how to make it operate. So my concern was, at my age, how much longer did I want to do this? When this artistic transition came up, it seemed to make a lot of sense to me to try to put someone in place who could manage the arc of the transition, and frankly let me just focus on the building project and the fundraising part. I’m going to be working part-time on that and transition to a new and other life.
Luckily, we had the depth in our bench. David Schmitz has worked for us for 10 years, starting as director of finance and then general manager and then managing director. He understands this company. It’s not always easy for a manager—or an artistic director, for that matter—to come in from the outside into an ensemble situation like this. It works a different way; it has a different logic at times. So why not look seriously at someone who’s qualified and knows the animal, knows how to work within the environment in place and shares the values of the company?
Lavey: If I can speak on David’s behalf, really, we never had the sophistication in the institutional side of Steppenwolf to mentor someone who could then take over the organization. It’s with the advent of David Hawkanson’s leadership and the kind of professionalism of management within the company and his deliberate and intentional mentoring of David Schmitz—this is the first time it’s ever been possible.
Hawkanson: You’re very kind. I think the issue of succession planning is a giant issue in our industry, as well as in performing arts organizations in general. You see over and over again leadership coming out of the wild blue to organizations that are just not set up to deal with it. And I think increasingly, with management issues, a lot of our theatres are developing, much to their credit, very distinct cultures. It’s not as easy as it used to be 20-30 years ago to move managers in and out of those cultures with this kind of fluency that we did then versus what we can do now.
Looking back on your history of leadership, is Anna the first artistic director who is just a director and not also an actor?
Lavey: H.E. Baccus, who was the first artistic director, was pretty exclusively a director, but everybody else has been an actor or an actor/director.
Will that bring a different dynamic to the company?
Lavey: Oh, sure. I don’t think it will show up in the work. I think where it will show up, perhaps, is how Anna shapes the artistic office. The way that Anna and I can give notes to a production is different. She’s talking from the bias of being a director, which is very helpful to other directors. So I think, in a lot of ways, that will be fantastic for the work on the stage. But I think even in the ways that Anna and I have talked thus far, her vision for the artistic office, perhaps, is that the notes have more of a producorial function. And I come from an actor place, so the notes that I give come from living inside of a feeling for the play and for the acting.
Look, Anna’s very actor-biased. I’ve been in shows that she’s directed, and it’s wonderful because she’s wonderful with actors. She’s married to an actor. She totally resonates with actors.
Do you think with Anna’s relationships in New York will result to taking more Steppenwolf shows to Broadway or elsewhere?
Lavey: I don’t think Anna would state that as an objective. We’ve been very fortunate in being able to move our work, whether it be internationally or in many cases to New York, but that has always depended on us sticking to our knitting—which is to say, we do a play with our artists and we do it for this audience. That’s the basis of the success, because that’s a very specific artistic agenda, and it’s a very specific audience. I’m sure Anna will continue in that tradition. What Anna’s experience in the world really provides—we all know this, right?—is that what a theatre wants, what artists want, is access to the very best people. And Anna has relationships with playwrights. She has relationships with great designers. And in the cases when we cast outside of the company, she has great relationships with actors. I think that’s where it’s an advantage.
Do you think with new leadership you’ll add more ensemble members?
Lavey: That’s really a decision that’s made by the entire company. That’s an ongoing conversation, and one that’s been particularly warm in the last couple of years, because we recognize as a company that we need younger members in the theatre and we also want to continue to increase the amount of cultural diversity in our ensemble.
What role will you have as you transition in the new leadership? Will you stay on board to mentor them as David and Anna take on their new roles?
Hawkanson: David’s been mentored to death. In the next three months before I leave, we will be spending a lot of time together. There are areas of the operation that he has not been close to—the fundraising areas, the marketing areas, the communications areas. We will start doing more joint meetings on those functions over the next three months. He, at the same time, is starting to restructure the staff right now, to make sure he’s no longer a day-to-day person, but to make sure he’s the overall management operations person.
Do you have any plans for what you’re going to do with your time once you step down?
Lavey: I’m the artistic director through this season, and then I’m just going to see what opportunities open up. I don’t want to make any giant decisions right now. I’ve been doing this for 19 years and am very excited to find out what the next phase of my life is.
What’s a moment from your time at Steppenwolf that you’re really proud of?Hawkanson: For David Schmitz and I, one of our high points was when we got the Wall Street Journal Top Small Workplace [in 2009]. That was a result of a multi-year effort to really try to make this the best place to work, and it was recognition from the employees, not from us. We had made some significant headway, and I think it’s a big issue in our industry.
It’s also the body of work that Martha has produced over this 11-year period of time that I’ve been here. I think it’s been ambitious, and I think we’ve been able to find the resources and the personnel necessary to produce it.
Lavey: When I came in, the founders stepped in and spoke to me about what they felt like the company needed. One of those things was to be more outward-facing, to engage more deeply with the community. Another was to cultivate new artists and new playwrights, and another was to reengage the ensemble. And I feel like all of those are an ongoing work in process, but I feel like a lot of progress was made in those ways. I’m just very proud that the ensemble continues to care about the place and be engaged and do their best work.