Laura Savia wasn’t expected to live for more than a day. Born with a rare congenital heart defect that threatened to claim her life just hours after it began, the newborn lay hooked up to tubes and monitors as her parents, Alfred and Kitty Savia, summoned their minister to the hospital to pray for their dying daughter. The minister brought his wife, a nurse, who peeked into the nursery at Laura, then returned to Kitty’s hospital room smiling. “She’s going to make it,” the nurse said. “She’s a fighter.”
Twenty-six years and three heart surgeries later, Savia has proven that statement true. The Evansville native’s lifelong passion for theater is blossoming into a New York City directing career. In the past year, she has assistant-directed New York’s famed Shakespeare in the Park and earned a prestigious fellowship from the Drama League Directors Project — with only the distraction of major cardiac surgery and recovery to briefly waylay her.
Now, at only 26, beginning her career in earnest — cardiac rehabilitation no longer dominating her daily life — Savia has a renewed appreciation for her family and friends, a stronger commitment to art, and the confidence to pursue her dreams.
As the daughter of Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra music director and conductor Alfred Savia and musician, teacher, and Philharmonic violinist Kitty Savia, art filled Savia’s childhood. “Passion for art was everywhere growing up: in conversations at the dinner table, in Mom’s teachings to her students, on our walls, in our family’s weekend activities, among Mom and Dad’s friends,” she recalls. “I absorbed the ideal that art and culture are noble, to be cherished.”
This environment nurtured Savia’s desire to pursue an interest in theater many parents might have balked to support. “Laura was always producing shows with her cousins around the house,” Kitty remembers, “and she was always the director.” Because of their parents’ involvement in the arts, Savia and her younger sister Julie (now 22, a recent graduate with a biology degree from Millikin University in Decatur, Ill.) were constantly backstage at performances: “I think it was awhile until they learned how to go in the front door of an auditorium,” Kitty jokes. She also remembers bringing a toddling Laura to watch Alfred conduct The Nutcracker in Orlando. At the end of the first act, paper snow fluttered down onto the stage and the bare-armed dancers. Savia, on her mother’s lap, exclaimed, “Oh, Mommy, they must be so cold!”
“She really bought the magic of the stage,” says Kitty, “and then she grew up to help create it.”
Savia didn’t initially set out to pursue a behind-the-scenes role. Awestruck after seeing a stage performance of Annie and convinced she wanted to act, she joined a national touring production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in Indianapolis as a youth. After pursuing theatrical opportunities in the Evansville area throughout school, she left for Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., to study acting.
Her 2003 summer break found her working as assistant artistic director at the New Harmony Theatre. Under then-artistic director Scott LaFeber, now a performing arts professor at Boston’s Emerson College, Savia moved away from acting and toward directing, much to her surprise. “LaFeber opened my eyes,” she says.
It was a great summer for the theater’s program, LaFeber recalls, and Savia made valuable contributions. “I trusted Laura: She came from a supportive, creative family that had high artistic standards,” says LaFeber. And where other would-be assistants cited their desire to “boss people around” as their draw to directing, LaFeber remembers, “Laura had none of that.” She inherently knew, he says, what was important about directing: listening to people and sharing a vision of the script.
Savia found the rigorous organizational requirements of directing suited her no-nonsense managerial side. “But under Scott, I also realized there was a place for art in directing,” she says. “After that experience, I knew directing was what I was wired to do.”[pagebreak]
In September 2004, Savia moved to New York City for an internship under artistic director Neil Pepe at the famed off-Broadway Atlantic Theater Company, co-founded by actor William H. Macy and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet.
“It was clear to me right away that Laura was incredibly smart, sincere, passionate, and curious,” says Pepe. “She knew quite a lot about writing and theater, and she quickly made herself invaluable.”
Pepe rewarded her ability with incomparable opportunities: She worked as assistant director on a production with Woody Allen and was entrusted with maintaining rewrites for the world premiere of a Mamet play, Romance.
When the internship ended, she was hired full-time at the Atlantic, and in 2006, she transitioned to the position of literary associate, in charge of reading and overseeing the input and output of all scripts.
Her family’s attitude about her move to New York City helped Savia immerse herself in her work. Remembers Savia, “They never once said, ‘That might be a little too ambitious,’ or, ‘Don’t you know how many people go to New York City every year and fail?’”
Able to live and breathe theater with such standouts as Oscar-winning writers Martin McDonagh and Ethan Coen, British dramatist Jez Butterworth, and Tony Award winner Michael Mayer, Savia was on top of the world. She had a sixth-floor walkup apartment, enjoyed a thriving social schedule, went to parties, worked full-time, and was taking on ambitious directing projects outside the Atlantic.
Then in fall 2007, she began experiencing strange symptoms of what seemed like anxiety, though she “never felt slow or weak or sick,” Savia recalls. Her doctor sent her to a cardiologist in the following spring, however, where Savia, just 25, received shocking news: She needed open-heart surgery.
Savia had already undergone emergency cardiac surgery only three hours after birth to correct a congenital heart defect, tetralogy of Fallot, which affects just five of every 10,000 newborns. The initial surgery removed Savia’s completely blocked pulmonary valve and placed a shunt to circulate blood to her lungs. At age 3, she underwent a follow-up intracardiac surgery.
Savia came through both to enjoy a “totally normal, rambunctious childhood,” she says. “So here I was, going about my business for over 20 years, and then to be told I needed open-heart surgery to install a new pulmonary valve … It was horrifying.”
Savia elected to have the surgery as soon as possible, only three weeks later. Everything else was put on hold. “The anxiety anticipating the surgery was the worst part,” Savia says. “But I knew if I got it over with quickly, I had a chance to return to directing as soon as June or July. That possibility motivated me to look ahead.”
On April 3, 2008, Savia walked unassisted and unsedated into a different type of theater, an operating room at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Four hours later, a family blog that chronicled the ordeal reported: “Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Savia and Dr. Ralph Mosca proudly announce the union of Laura E. Savia and her new bovine valve, ‘Bessie.’” (Read the blog at http://howislauratoday.blogspot.com.)
For a month after surgery, Kitty stayed with her daughter in New York, and an outpouring of generosity and care overwhelmed them. Savia’s roommate’s parents loaned their West End apartment for her recovery (Savia says, “I could never have gotten up the five flights to my apartment after surgery — no way!”); a group of close friends, dubbed “Team Naked” for their intimate clearance status, assembled to support Kitty’s caretaking efforts; and the New York theater community offered encouragement.[pagebreak]
Savia bounced back even faster than her doctors expected. As soon as she was well enough to resume a rehearsal schedule, directing fueled her holistic recovery. “By day, I was a sick person in cardiac rehab,” she recalls. “But by night, in rehearsals, I was the best, healthiest version of myself.”
Ultimately, a positive change of perspective remains. “My priorities became cemented: Let me never again prioritize work over my family and best friends,” Savia says. “And heart surgery taught me to say no to more — to choose only to do things I truly love — yet I’m busier than I ever was before.” Still, she’s hesitant to wax philosophical about the experience “because it was really ugly,” she says. “I have to be true to that.”
Directing remains Savia’s lifeline and her joy. Her directing technique is mature enough to have earned her accolades, opportunities, and awards nearly unheard of for a young director. Savia applied for and, in May, was awarded the Drama League Directors Project fellowship, which will expose her to a vast network of resources and contacts within the theater community and conclude in December. She is one of the youngest recipients ever to receive the fellowship.
In the meantime, Savia made a short Broadway debut in May that has already garnered the attention of producers, and, on temporary leave from the Atlantic this summer, with Pepe’s blessing, she was assistant director for Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, featuring actress Anne Hathaway in the role of the protagonist, Viola.
None of this success surprises her colleagues or loved ones. From the first few hours of Savia’s life, when her parents called their minister to pray for the dying girl, her will to live — and thrive — has shaped her existence. That attitude, says LaFeber, is essential for someone pursuing a theater career: “It’s a rough business. It’s a hard road, a hard journey, and you don’t just luck into it.”
One day, he hopes to give Savia a job. “Or,” he says, “she’ll give me a job.”