ADVENTURES IN YES

Random thoughts about watching, working and living in the arts, from HMS co-founder and executive producer Scott Silberstein.

November 19, 2017

ADVENTURES IN YES: "Better To Have Loved and Lost"

Reflections on knowing, losing and still being inspired by Steppenwolf's Martha Lavey and Mariann Mayberry

Mariann and Martha, in rehearsal for Steppenwolf's THE MARCH

It’s the Sunday before Thanksgiving as I write this. In a couple of hours, I’ll be heading down to the opening of Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s newest production, The Minutes.

Steppenwolf’s very much on my mind this afternoon. Not only is this a big opening for them, but it’s also only been a couple of months since the memorial service for Martha Lavey, the company’s former artistic director and a towering figure in Chicago theater. And it’s been less than two weeks since we said goodbye to Steppenwolf ensemble member Mariann Mayberry, a singular bolt of elegantly jagged lightning who electrified every stage onto which she stepped.

The fierce, funny, brutally honest and deeply felt recollections shared at those memorials by various family, friends and fellow artists left me wondering if I deserved to share my relatively puny responses. I think this is a big reason why I’ve put off blogging for so long. I feel jammed up with feelings, and not sure enough about my place in the world to know how to comfortably share them.

It's not like I didn't know them. I worked with Martha and Mariann many times over the years, producing multicam shoots of their live performances and collaborating on 25 Years on the Edge, HMS' PBS special about the history of Steppenwolf. So, yes, we have history. But many others had far more, and so I’ve been feeling unworthy to say much of anything about their passings, for fear of looking like I’d be grief surfing on the waves of others’ endless sorrows.

But with the benefit of a little distance from those nearly unbearably beautiful celebrations of their lives, I’m beginning to realize that this unworthy feeling is a little strange. Martha and Mariann were genuinely collaborative artists deeply interested in other people’s thoughts and feelings, and I doubt they’d ever marginalize the feeling of an audience member, or discount the attachment that person might feel to a story or even a storyteller.

In the spirit, I’ll hunker down, and express how appreciative I am for the life-affirming moments offered to me by Martha and Mariann.

I met Martha when HMS began its long history of archiving shows at Steppenwolf, beginning with 1994’s Libra, the John Malkovich-directed adaption of the Don Dilello novel which starred Laurie Metcalf. Meeting Martha Lavey is a momentous occasion for even the most brilliant individuals. I’m not a dumb guy, but I know a more formidable brain when I meet one (which is often), and there were few more formidable than Martha’s.

So a couple of years later, when it came time to interview her for 25 Years, I was decidedly nervous, not because I felt pressure so much as a calling to be the best possible interviewer in the world for her. I sensed that Martha was someone with much to say and a desire to say it, but who wanted – demanded, perhaps -- the right context in which to say it. This was clearly an interview, but I think she just wanted a good conversation, and to get that, I had to earn her time, her thoughts and her insights.

Interviewing is not an easy thing. I want it to feel conversational, and my tone and questions tend to take the form of a conversation, but it’s not a balanced exchange of information, and in any case, the general public will only hear the interviewees words, not mine. That said, I still feel it’s important to offer something of myself to the people I’m interviewing, so they don’t feel – in fact are not – alone.

Some interviews are personal and professional game-changers, ones that are not only exciting and productive but also make me a better interviewer on the spot, or at least aware that I want or need to be one. The Steppenwolf doc was filled with those, but Martha’s piercing presence and insights especially raised my game, or at least my awareness that it needed to be raised. Moments like that aren’t always comfortable, but growth seldom is, unless you’re in the company of someone taking care of you, or at least rooting for your success. I could feel Martha wanting me to be a good interviewer, egging me on to be a better improviser, and I will always be grateful for that invitation.

The irony of this – that our first lengthy conversation was one where I interviewed her – was that, generally speaking, it was Martha who asked the questions, not you. As my pal and fellow Lookingglass Theatre company member Andy White said at Martha’s memorial, Martha could successfully excise information from you that you might not even tell your spouse or therapist.

Those kinds of conversations with Martha came later for me, memorably at the several shows at which I saw her that we both attended alone. “Isn’t it great to see theater by yourself?” she asked me one time, when we happened to sit together at a matinee at Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theater. In truth, that’s not the case for me. I go to shows alone a lot, but I would always prefer to share the experience with someone. Driving home after Martha posed that question, it hit me that for all of the declarations she made that day about the joys of solitude, in theater going and in life, she was still the artistic director of an ensemble theater company, and an ever-present face in a sea of audiences and theater makers throughout the city. Like all of us, Martha never really did theater by herself. Whether making it or watching it, and no matter how lonely or irrelevant we may feel – and a whole bunch of us do – none of us ever really do theater, or life, alone.

A few months after meeting Martha, when HMS shot Barbara Gaines’ beguiling production of “As You Like It” for Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (the known as Shakespeare Rep), I met Mariann. Barbara had transformed the Ruth Page Theatre into the lushest of green forests, through which Mariann’s Rosalind bounded joyfully and irresistibly. She positively glowed, and I was helplessly crushed on her. Who wouldn’t be?

I sheepishly inquired of Barbara what Mariann’s social status was. I learned that yes, she was single, but had just come out of something serious, so while Barbara would put in a good word for me, I’d be well-served to keep my expectations low.

That was good advice. Mariann did indeed call a few times, but when I answered, she always hung up, unaware, I assume, about a new technology called Caller ID. Years later we joked that somehow she knew I was simply the wrong Scott, and that she was, very wisely, waiting for the right one. I can’t imagine what her wonderfully gifted husband, the very special Scott Jaeck, is going through right now, but his gorgeous and brave recollections of his bride at her memorial service will forever haunt and inspire me. Thinking back on Mariann’s wholly original performances – her profound and heartbreaking Ophelia, her electrifying turn in Good People, her brave work in her final Steppenwolf show Grand Concourse, among many others -- I am thinking that perhaps it really is better to have loved and lost, even if I'm not feeling it.

That idea filled my mind as I tearfully listened to Scott’s astonishing eulogy, and the ones offered by other remarkable souls in her personal and creative worlds. What I take away from knowing Mariann and having seen most of her body of work -- what I've loved about that, and hope never to lose -- is the notion that whatever we feel is worth feeling and expressing through art, in large, expansive and communal ways. That what really matters is how we, in every sense of the word, act.

Several times during Martha and Mariann’s memorials, people spoke of theater being a refuge for the wounded. That it most certainly is, but a lot of people – theater people included – misinterpret this to mean it’s just the theater practitioners themselves who are wounded, because they choose against common sense and in the face of genuine anxiety to publicly reveal these wounds – revel in them, even. In our 25 Years doc, Amy Morton describes that as a freakish choice, and Andy has gone so far as to describe it as addictive.

But Amy also said it was a very tasty choice, and the kind of addiction Andy’s talking about can actually benefit everyone. To choose to be a part of the theater world, to indulge that addiction, is to open one’s self up to the mysteries and miracles found in the sacred space between the story tellers and the story listeners. In that space, we seek and often find healing in fellow players and audiences alike.

We are all the walking wounded, but in theaters – in all of the arts – we offer each other, whether knowingly or not, solace and comfort, simply by partaking in actions that on the surface look very much like the buying of tickets and the putting on of plays, but are actually perfect gestures of communion, confession and confirmation. And in the pursuit of the perfect pretending, we safely and joyfully bump smack face first into truth, fall headlong into community, and barrel helplessly into love.

In this act of surrender we hit upon one of life’s few certainties – perhaps it’s only one – a certainty Martha Lavey and Mariann Mayberry bestowed upon me and so many others, and it’s this:

That wounded as we are, and vulnerable to the temptation to go through life alone as we may be, it is better to be scared in the company of good people than comfortable in the company of none.

So I thank you, Martha. And I thank you, Mariann. I’m off to Steppenwolf now. See you both there.

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