Some people figure out what they should do with their life over time in a roundabout way. Others, like Laura Savia, get a jump-start as children.
Savia has served as Chautauqua Institution’s Vice President of Performing and Visual Arts for nearly 18 months now.
Exposed to live music at home and school by parents who not only were classical musicians, but also advanced music in public schools and in orchestras, she grew up playing the violin — including in her school orchestra and summer musical program.
Intrinsically drawn to theater as a schoolgirl when she saw The Red Badge of Courage at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, Savia was also involved with her school theater.
At Northwestern University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in theater in 2004, she gravitated toward arts administration, directing and community-engaged theater.
At 9:15 a.m. on Tuesday at the Chautauqua Women’s Club House, Savia will give the final talk in the CWC’s 2023 Chautauqua Speaks series: “You, Me, and the Arts at Chautauqua.”
“I want to talk about the spark that makes us follow the arts, or be part of the arts, or recognize it as important,” she said. “I think everyone knows what I mean and will have an idea. … It’s a universal thing that has to do with art, and may have to do with beauty.”
Savia sees Chautauquans as “by and large (being) so passionate about the arts,” and different from the audiences she has served previously. “They are both participants and watchers. … It’s not a passive audience; it’s a participatory audience.”
For instance, a Chautauquan may be a member of the Community Band and attend Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra performances, then happen to sit beside a CSO member in the Amphitheater during a lecture or a performance of a different kind. There’s also a group of theater-goers who take part in play readings, and potters who frequent the Arts Quad.
In fall 2004, after graduating from Northwestern, Savia moved from the Midwest to New York City for an unpaid internship at the off-Broadway, nonprofit Atlantic Theater Company. Founded in 1985 by playwright David Mamet, actor William H. Macy and 30 acting students they taught at New York University, it was taking off.
When ATC’s executive assistant left for family reasons, Savia was hired to fill her position. She was later promoted to literary associate, and spent five years as a member of ATC’s artistic staff.
For two years, she was part of the team that produced ATC’s world premiere of the musical Spring Awakening, which became a Broadway hit.
In 2009, Savia was awarded a coveted Drama League Directors Project stage directing fellowship.
During summer 2005, she had taken a break from ATC for an internship in Massachusetts at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, which produces seven shows each season. She returned to the Williamstown in 2011, and for the following ten seasons, and served as WTF’s associate artistic director.
Many of the dozens of shows for which she “played a major role in programming, casting, and producing … transferred to Broadway,” she said.
Savia’s WTF projects included Lucy Thurber’s Bareknuckle, which “brought together the local boxing and theater communities,” and two productions for WTF’s Community Works initiative, which she co-founded. Community Works provides monthly arts events throughout Berkshire County, Massachusetts.
“These shows featured casts of more than 100 community members, including formerly homeless veterans and participants from a traumatic brain injury group home,” said Savia in a video on her professional website. “Community Works is breaking down barriers and strengthening community in rural Massachusetts.”
She continued: “Through year-round workshops and conversation circles, lasting relationships are forming across generational, demographic and socio-economic lines. Community Works productions are written by professional playwrights who tackle stories that are important to the local population. They are professionally designed and produced and presented free of charge, and have played to thousands.”
For six years, Savia had also been serving as the director of Hi, Are You Single?, a play project by Ryan J. Haddad. Haddad “has a higher sex drive than you,” the Playbill article on the project opens. “He also has cerebral palsy.”
“It’s a play that celebrates how sexy people with disabilities are,” Savia said.
Based mainly in New York City each fall through spring, Savia became a passionate public school and university theater educator.
As a freelance director, she was asked to direct a small show at New York University’s program in the Strasberg Studio at The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute.
At Fordham University, Savia served as an adjunct faculty member for several years, and taught courses to two separate groups. One course was an introduction to theater for non-artists, including law and engineering students.
“I loved teaching (them),” she said. “I made them go into New York City and see shows. They had not had public speaking. That’s a human function. You have to do that in the boardroom and on the playground.”
Her second course focused on “serious acting for BFA students” in preparation for their senior showcase.
At The New School, Savia taught directors one semester a year for three years.
“I am a director, or was for the first 20 years of my career,” she said. “But I’d always taught actors. It was challenging, but very rewarding, to teach directors. I don’t miss performing and I don’t miss directing. I love teaching; I miss it.”
Which is why she particularly enjoyed leading two workshops for Groupers at Chautauqua Boys’ and Girls’ Club this season.
“I think all the parts of my brain are being used in this job,” Savia said. “… I was feeling ready to stretch. The leap to Chautauqua, which is much bigger, and my portfolio is much bigger, made all the sense in the world. I think the rhythm of summers at the Williamstown Theatre Festival prepped me well. I’m used to an intense summer season.”
Savis said she is passionate about her work, so it is never far from her mind.
“Even when I’m on vacation, I’m thinking about stylistic balance, genre, et cetera,” she said. “I’m looking for who is a teacher and a performer; who can bridge the stage and the classroom. I see Chautauqua as being many layered, so I will talk about any of those layers.”