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August 24, 2017

A Tribute to Martha Lavey


I had offered a role to Martha Lavey in 2016 as one of the pre-recorded performers in 10 out of 12. The show was intended as a spiky love letter to Chicago theatre and I wanted her in it, especially since the script was written so that four of the characters were pre-recorded. Like many in our community, I had been horrified to hear about her stroke shortly after stepping down as Steppenwolf’s Artistic Director. I knew she had been looking forward to focusing on her stage work. The stroke resulted in speech and physical issues which seemed to preclude her performing ever again. It was tragic. 10 out of 12 offered not only a unique opportunity to include one of our city’s greatest artists, but echoed a complex and painful truth about an art form that often takes as much as it gives from its practitioners.

I decided we wouldn’t talk about Martha’s stroke publicly. I believed that she would rise to the occasion. That — with a little judicious editing — the audience would never know she had had a stroke. I drove over to her care facility to drop off a script and offer letter.

I remember being very nervous. How would she take this? I was headed up to her room when I saw her in the lunchroom. I stopped by her table and just got the first sentence of my pitch out: “I’m directing Anne Washburn’s new play, and it has a part that I think you’d be terrific in —” and she burst out, “Yes! Absolutely!” Then she paused. “But Jeremy I can’t — I have —” I could see her groping for the word. Aphasia.

“It’s pre-recorded. You’ll be playing the Lighting Designer. You and I will rehearse separately, and we’ll just record until we get takes we like.” (I of course had no idea if this was possible.) She looked doubtful, but I asked her to read the script and told her I would come by to talk about the project in a week. She was grinning like crazy as I left.

And that was the start of one of the strangest and most wonderful rehearsal experiences I’ve ever had in my life.

The following week, I came by for a one-hour meeting; it lasted for four. We talked about the play, about Steppenwolf, about her stroke, about my theater, my family, our mutual friends, plays we’d loved, the job description of an Artistic Director. She was so crazy smart and insightful. Not being able to verbalize easily was a constant frustration to her.

She didn’t think she could read dialogue aloud. I asked her if she’d tried since the stroke, and she said no. She tried. Tentatively. Froze. Tried again. And, amazingly, the bulk of her aphasia disappeared.

But it was a complicated mind/text relationship. When she tried to put conscious interpretation on the line, her speech centers would engage differently and the aphasia would return. Sometimes odd phrase inversions would occur and she couldn’t shake them. We’d have to move on to a different section and then double back. We worked for maybe fifteen minutes. At the end, Martha looked at me, questioning. Her self-doubt was painful. I told her that the only difference I could see in her since the stroke was that now she didn’t believe she could do it. I told her she was hired, that she was doing this play, and that she should start working on the text. “I’m not doing a play about the Chicago theatre without you in it.”

We met a few additional times before rehearsal started: for lunch or coffee. She wanted to analyze the play, to discuss its aesthetics, to talk about what lighting designers were like. We were having fun (which was disconcerting for me, since I had previously only viewed her with awe.) The better a time she was having and the more invested she was in the conversation, the lighter the aphasia. Never gone, but eased. She was working, building a relationship with me, with the world of the play.

I asked her if she was rehearsing the text. She said, not yet. She wanted to hear the play. “How?” I asked. She asked me to come by and read it to her. Solo. Those of you who know Martha will not be surprised, but she stated this request as factually and casually as if she had asked me to get her a Coke Zero.

Now…10 out of 12 is a two-and-a-half hour play that takes place with a tremendous amount of simultaneous dialogue and action. The action of the play is embedded in a variety of sound sources for the audiences. Each audience member would hear dialogue from the stage, from four different point sources in the house, from the overhead speakers, from backstage, and over headsets. I was fairly sure that a table read would be impossible to follow, let alone a solo performance by a beleaguered director playing fourteen parts. But MARTHA FREAKING LAVEY asked me to do this for her, so I showed up and performed every word of the play (along with stage descriptions) for a solid three hours with one five-minute break. At one point the nursing staff ran in to see who was yelling at Martha. She waved them away happily. “We’re working.”

Rehearsals began. Martha attended the first two table reads: first read-through (we used a substitute reader for her because she didn’t want to slow the reading down) and a subsequent table work rehearsal for her sections. I could see her mouthing the lines from the page along with the assistant director who was reading in for her. She and I wanted to hear the other actors against her so we weren’t recording/performing in a vacuum.

The third company rehearsal was for music. 10 out of 12 ends with an enormous choral rendition of a painful hymn to tech and the theatre. The previous week I had casually asked Martha, “Do you sing?” “I don’t know. I used to. I haven’t tried. Let’s try.” Martha, Barbara Robertson, and John Mahoney rehearsed their choral parts for an hour, and then we shifted over to a space Steppenwolf had donated to record the show, courtesy of Martha Wegener and Rob Milburn.

We were scheduled to record in small pieces (thirty to sixty minutes a day) because she wanted to keep her concentration sharp. Of course, the first day we recorded for four hours.

It was hard going. Martha was stuck alone in a sound booth and was frustrated when she wasn’t able to get a phrase out. She hated doing the text in single-sentence attacks. She wanted to act freely, but couldn’t quite manage it. We ended up postponing whole pages and doubling back. There were sections where she had to speak in rhythm, get the timing right for a joke, juggle all the different audio focuses the Lighting Designer would have in rehearsal (over the headset, to the Stage Manager in the house, to an actor on the stage, to the board programmer next to her, etc.). Large chunks of her lines were very detailed technical programming instructions with a ton of channel numbers and light levels that were very specific to the action.

We stopped for a Coke on the way home. She was tentative about the session. I thought that we were way ahead of the game, since I expected to be recording for a full week with her. I told her we’d listen to it and then come back and plug in the gaps where we didn’t have quite the right take after we could rehearse it against the live performers for a few days.

When Joe Court, the sound designer, and I listened to the outtakes, it was apparent that almost none of them would suffice. Martha’s voice was weak so we’d turned up the gain on her mic, but
now the recording didn’t match the other audio performers. The readings were thin and didn’t seem to have the hard edge of someone really focused on her task.

That was my fault; I had been so focused on getting clean recordings with good diction that I had neglected the environment of the play. I asked Martha if she could rehearse again with me and Joe at her place that weekend. “Just a few bits we need to tune up,” I told her. Joe brought a recorder to the room in case we could capture anything useful for rehearsal.

I brought diagrams of the room so she could see where every cast member she was talking to was located in proximity to her speaker location. We talked about the situational time pressures, the efficiency required of a lighting designer in tech. Then she started reading against me, and it was…substantially better. Just having someone to talk to directly helped, but so did the specificity of action. We grabbed a few bits of recorded text to use in rehearsal for the weekend and scheduled another recording session at Steppenwolf.

The third session was a revelation. Martha asked me on the way over if we had to re-record everything, and I told her it wasn’t that bad. What I didn’t share at the top of the day was that we had to do about ninety percent of the material again. And that rehearsal was…


It was a different process. We took down the blanket that covered the window so she should talk to (or at least, toward) me. Her voice was strong and directed. She took a few moments before each section to run through it sotto voce, then made a strong, clean attack. She clearly had a picture of the environment in her head. Her character was full of purpose and energy…fearless, running against the clock, in control.

We finished recording in one hour. The entire part. From scratch. One to three takes per line. Full paragraphs. Every number, every channel and level. Word perfect.

I didn’t ask her if she had been practicing the lines independently. I don’t think she had. I think she had managed, in just two short weeks, to reroute her actor self in parallel to some of the damage her stroke had done. I kissed Martha goodbye and told her I’d see her on the other side of tech. I was sad about our rehearsals ending, but Martha was glowing with pleasure. I think she felt she had a really great day as a professional actor.

I met Martha after she saw the show three weeks later. She was so thrilled with it (as was I). In that theater, every night was a full-on Martha Lavey performance: a little wry, occasionally grim, often amused. I don’t think anyone who didn’t know Martha’s history could have guessed about her stroke. It was obliterated in the face of her interpretation. Martha’s health condition wasn’t mentioned in a single review. No audience member ever asked me about it. The show just had Martha Lavey in the ensemble.

We spent about three hours hanging out, talking about the show, the audience, the responses, and the technical process. In the interim, she grilled me about the theater’s goals for next season. When I left, I told her how much I loved working with her, and she said, “Promise me we’ll keep working together. On whatever.” I promised.

I had missed seeing her one last time last Wednesday by less than an hour. I had dropped by her place to drop off a replacement for her final paycheck. I knocked but she wasn’t there. I left her check in her mailbox and figured I’d catch up this week. We had spent about fifty hours total together since that first pitch, and I had a new confidant and mentor. I thought we’d maybe attend closing together.

Just before our final weekend of 10 out of 12, we heard the news that Martha Lavey, our castmate, had a second severe stroke on Wednesday afternoon. On Friday, I told the cast that she had moved into hospice.

Attending that final performance on Sunday wrecked me. I was with a small group, none of whom knew that Martha was in hospice care. I didn’t tell them. I wanted their experience of Martha’s last performance to be untainted by her personal extremity. I wanted them to just enjoy the performance. Which they did.

But I was crying as I listened to Martha’s last line, and heard her voice in the choral mix at the end. Fierce. Transcendent. Luminous.

Thank you Martha. You were a gift.