Addison — I am a firm believer that theatre happens in the present. The actual art of theatre is in the present-tense moment between actors and audience, the indescribable energy of sharing space and participating in a moment that will never happen exactly that way again, because it is about the chemistry in the room that night. Our work is ephemeral, we keep records of it, photos, videos maybe; but those performances will never be seen again. It’s one of the special and unique things about the art of theatre.
But it also leads us theatre artists to question sometimes: what do we leave behind?
I was confronted with a stack of file boxes during my move to Dallas last week, in which I keep all my old scripts and notes, 20 years of my life as a director. Why do I keep it? Why does it need to go on the truck and come to Dallas? I’m not always certain, except somehow, it’s proof that my work existed. I can look back on my notes in those scripts and prove to myself that I once created art. I occasionally fancy it my legacy, and dream of someone putting it in a library someday for students and young directors to sort through.
But those notes, research, photos, journals, are not the legacy of our work. Our legacy is more intangible than that because it’s the imprint we leave on people’s minds, souls, hearts, for years to come. It’s the empathy, emotions, curiosity, and catharsis our audiences gain from the work. And it’s the imprint that we have on each other as a community of artists. How we support each other, question each other, push each other, teach each other, and make space for each other, is a significant part of our legacy as theatre artists.
DFW is gathering on Saturday to remember a man who clearly marked people. A man who brought light to this community, opened doors for people, made people feel seen, and created work that has left imprints on those who were lucky enough to see his productions. I’ve gotten to hear such wonderful stories about René Moreno since I began my position here. Unfortunately, I only corresponded with him by email and didn’t get to meet him or work with him before his untimely passing. But I know as an artist here in DFW that everything I encounter has been touched by him. His legacy in this community and beyond lives on.
It feels odd to be in Dallas right now, a community in mourning, while being away from Chicago, also a community in mourning. Just this week we lost a significant artist, Martha Lavey, the former Artistic Director of Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and a mentor of mine that has certainly left her mark.
My first job out of college was the receptionist at Steppenwolf. To be honest, I didn’t want anything from the job artistically, I had actually written a manifesto railing against Steppenwolf and all of the companies “trying to be Steppenwolf” in Chicago. (I’ve come to believe as I’ve gotten older that is the job of young artists to rail against our larger institutions to keep the art-form moving forward). But, I needed a stable job and as I had recently started my own theatre company, I knew could probably learn some things at Steppenwolf.
Little did I know that it would become what then Associate Artistic Director, Curt Columbus, would call my “Steppenwolf MFA.” The artistic office, under the leadership of Martha Lavey, became mentors to me: Martha, Curt, Erica Daniels, Ed Sobel, and Hallie Gordon took an interest in me and my work within a year at the theatre, after seeing the first full-length play I directed with my company, Acts of Mercy. I was given opportunities to assistant direct, observe training and eventually direct at the School at Steppenwolf, read scripts, attend artistic office meetings, and in my final year before I went to get my actual MFA, I also served as Martha Lavey’s assistant. This was all while I continued working in the business office and became the Office Manager of the theatre, served as Artistic Director of my own small company, and directed both for my company and around Chicago. The Steppenwolf staff mentored me constantly; they discussed my questions, attended my performances, and treated my work and artistic point-of-view seriously. My relationship with Steppenwolf and Martha has continued through the years, but it’s that launching point that was so formative, and at the time I didn’t even realize how lucky I was.
I walked past the conference room one day shortly before I moved on to grad school, and heard Martha Lavey say, “how do we provide opportunities for the Joanie Schultzes of the world, working class people who don’t have financial means.” And I realized exactly how fortunate I was to have the support of that artistic staff. I made a salary that sustained me, while receiving training one might get from being an intern or a student at the school, but deeper even because I was there for three years. Martha made space and provided opportunities for me to learn and develop my work, and I certainly wouldn’t be the artist I am today without that mentorship.
One of the most inspiring things about Martha was her way with words. She could write a program note or give a speech that would be so powerfully about the importance of doing theatre that it would bring tears to my eyes. Regularly. When I became her assistant, I had the job of typing her words on a computer, she often typed them at home on a typewriter, correcting words with “xxxx” typed over them. I loved seeing her unedited brain at work; typing those was one of my favorite parts of my job. I remember one, in particular, was about a time she was studying acting, and her teacher began the class by tracing a lineage from those students, through them, to a mentor of theirs, and a mentor of theirs, etc., back to Shakespeare. It was a powerful reminder that we do have a legacy, history, and lineage through the theatre. It’s a family tree you can trace just as much as the one you have on ancestry.com. I feel very fortunate to be a descendant from the Martha Lavey branch on that tree, and I see in my own work and life what I’ve inherited from her.
Theatre is an art that only lives in the moment but is passed on in the most human ways from artist to artist. We do have a legacy and live on, inside of our audiences and our fellow artists. Even if people don’t remember our names someday, even if the papers in our file boxes are eventually recycled, we are part of something bigger than ourselves. I look forward to exchanging my lineage with that of this community.
René Moreno and Martha Lavey were perhaps never in the same room, but the part of them that lives on within us, will be.
» Hear an extensive interview with her on the current episode of the Little Big Scene Podcast, here.
» An Artistic Director Prepares will run on the last Friday of the month in TheaterJones.