Gratitude. That’s the word Linda Levy keeps coming back to during the course of a nearly two hour-long interview.
After 27 years with theatreWashington, the organization’s ailing president and CEO retired suddenly in April. Her departure was not planned.
With a background in theater management, Levy had worked independently in the performing arts circuit for years before coming to The Helen Hayes Awards, the organization’s precursor, as a contractor.
Her work and roles with The Helen Hayes Awards evolved from there.
“I worked as a publicist. I worked as a marketing specialist. I was the director of institutional advancement. I did all of the event management and production for years,” she says. In 1999, she was named associate director and rose to executive director in 2001. She was named president and CEO of The Helen Hayes Awards seven years later. She kept that title when the organization officially became theatreWashington in 2011.
Over iced tea at Rockville’s Silver Diner, the 55-year-old Levy says she has good days and bad days. She’s thankful for the simple joys that those “good days” afford her. She’s happy to get a solid night’s sleep, to walk her dogs more than one block, to go grocery shopping and maybe even whip something up for dinner.
“A good day is when I can walk down to my garden and water the flowers, the vegetables and the herbs, maybe bend to take cuttings, pick zucchini and basil,” she says. “That seriously thrills me.”
A July 18 profile in The Washington Post detailed her personal struggles. Two days after that story went live, Levy wrote a Facebook post in response. “Yep, a whole bunch of really icky things happened in pretty fast succession.”
In less than one year, she experienced a string of heavy losses. Her parents died within two weeks of each other. Four months later, she was sitting shiva for her aunt. Soon after that, her partner fell to the ground and died right before her.
A straightforward surgery in 2014 turned her world upside down; doctors found something unexpected. She was scheduled to be in the operating room for four hours. Instead, the procedure took 10 hours, as a neurosurgeon worked to strip her spinal cord and nerves of an invasive mass.
After the surgery, she was determined to heal, not just physically but spiritually.
And yet the Post article, accompanied by a photo of a somber, unsmiling Levy, was a downer. “I think I came off as pitiful and I didn’t want that,” she says. “I never ever wanted anybody to think ‘poor Linda,’ ever.”
She says she retreated for the past seven months in order to avoid dominating the theatreWashington conversation with sympathy for her medical woes. She knew soon after the surgery that returning to work would be impossible, but the announcement wasn’t made until April.
“I wanted them to figure out what they needed to do, and I didn’t want my story to interfere at all with the preparation for the Helen Hayes Awards.”
This year, changes to the award system culminated with a much-maligned ceremony. Award recipients had little time to say their thank-yous before being rushed off stage. After the ceremony, attendees idled outside the Howard Theatre, waiting for the after-party to kick off.
Then there were the substantive changes. New guidelines resulted in nearly double the number of awards; Hence the rushed ceremony. Productions are now split into two categories: Helen and Hayes, depending on whether a majority of cast members are Equity, or union, actors.
Levy says the goal was both to expand categories to reflect the diverse work being created in Washington and to build a system in which small, up-and-coming companies wouldn’t be competing against local theater powerhouses with more than double their operating budgets. The new guidelines also call for a pay floor that some smaller companies felt, while well-intentioned, would make it financially impossible to produce the same level of work, or number of shows in a season.
But Levy says, “You can’t make everybody happy.”
That has been one of her new mantras lately.
“I lived a life where I tried to make everybody happy. Guess what? Not possible, just not possible. Accept it. Period. Don’t lament over it. Don’t cry over it. Don’t freak out over it, she says.
“We came up with what was probably the best solution. But we … can’t lose sight of the fact that theater, like every art form, is completely subjective, which is probably the challenge with any awards program to begin with,” she says. “There can’t be an absolute winner.”
Rather, she says, the goal is to highlight the work both collectively and on an individual basis. Levy says the Helen Hayes Awards continues to shine a light on Washington theater, which is why she joined the team to begin with.
“I loved what it was about,” she says. “It was about bringing attention to Washington as a theater capital, and that was something in which I wanted to participate.”
Even in the beginning, she knew she’d be with the group for a while. “When I first came on board, I envisioned myself staying for a very long time,” she says. “I knew it was a place where I was going to be able to put down roots, and it was going to be my professional home.”
And it was — perhaps too much so. Levy says her work was important to her and to other people, but that level of commitment came at a high cost.
“‘No, Mom, I can’t go to the seder because the Helen Hayes Awards are next week,’” she recalls telling her mother on multiple occasions. “That’s my regret, because I will never have that seder again with my mother.”
Other regrets include the long list of ideas she never saw implemented. “I’m disappointed that I wasn’t able to do some of them, such as see the artist database come to fruition,” she says. Her goal was to connect Washington-area theaters with local actors, directors, choreographers, music directors, designers, stage managers and beyond, using an online database.
Brad Watkins, vice president of theater communications for theatreWashington, says he and the team are making a serious effort to finish the project. “It’s just a huge scope of work that needs to be done.”
But when asked about her proudest moments with theatreWashington, Levy glows. In addition to the Helen Hayes Award, “we spent about 17 years in Washington-area public schools and Boys & Girls Clubs with our Washington Theatre Legacy Project teaching the origins of this community as a theater capital.”
Participating in the Capital Pride Parade, “throwing Helen Hayes Awards tchotchkes and candies and stuff all over the place,” was another highlight.
“It was the most extraordinary time of my life,” she says of her time with theatreWashington. “It didn’t define who I was as a human being, but it sure contributed to the recipe.”
She is more circumspect about theatreWashington’s future.
“I think that there is a dedicated board of directors and staff, and if there’s any way to make it work, they will.”
In Levy’s absence, Watkins says the board is working to clarify theatreWashington’s mission and find its new leader.
“On one hand, I wear my friend hat and I just wish her the best of health,” he says. “In a professional way, I think the big, big strength of the company is going to go on, and I think that Washington theater is going to grow, and theatreWashington is going to continue to help it grow.”