Chicago’s Goodman Theatre still going strong after 90 years

SHARE Chicago’s Goodman Theatre still going strong after 90 years
SHARE Chicago’s Goodman Theatre still going strong after 90 years

Any theater that has survived and flourished in one form or another for 90 years, as Chicago’s Goodman Theatre has done, has not only accomplished a rare feat, but also has surely accumulated enough institutional history and artistic triumphs and disasters to fill an encyclopedia.

But as Willy Loman’s wife so memorably reminded us in “Death of a Salesman,” attention must be paid. So what follows is a highly abridged chronicle of the Goodman’s nine decades as an esteemed anchor of the Chicago theater scene — at once the granddaddy of them all and a serial innovator.

In a city renowned for theater companies with quirky names, the Goodman may well be the only one denoting an actual person. It was established in memory of Kenneth Sawyer Goodman, a businessman, theater fan and playwright who died at the age of 35 — one of the many victims of the influenza epidemic of 1918. His family, who had made a fortune in the lumber business, helped finance a professional theater and school in his name. Designed in classic Greek style by Howard Van Doren Shaw, it stood in the back of the Art Institute of Chicago at Monroe Street and Columbus Drive until it was demolished in 2001.

When the Great Depression struck in 1929, the trustees saved the drama school, which continued to produce student shows. But the Goodman only emerged as a resident professional theater again in 1969 — led by John Reich, William Woodman and, ultimately by Woodman’s young assistant, New York-bred Gregory Mosher, who initially was charged with producing new and experimental work beyond the mainstage. And remember, all this was well before Chicago’s now fabled Off Loop theater explosion.

In 1975, having teamed up with a hot young playwright by the name of David Mamet, Mosher staged the debut of “American Buffalo,” which headed to Broadway two years later. And working with Roche Schulfer (who was named managing director in 1980 and serves as executive director today), he instituted the company’s first production of “A Christmas Carol” to feature “rainbow” casting — a move that generated hate mail but set a standard that continues to this day.

Meanwhile, the Goodman, which had separated from the Art Institute in 1977, soon divested itself of the Goodman Drama School (among whose illustrious graduates were Geraldine Page and Jose Quintero), and it was subsequently incorporated into DePaul University.

Fast forward to 1986, as Mosher was lured back to New York to run the Lincoln Center Theater, and Robert Falls, who had forged a reputation as the maverick artistic director of Wisdom Bridge Theatre in Rogers Park, was named the Goodman’s new artistic director. He immediately hired the late Michael Maggio as resident director and Frank Galati as associate artistic director. And that triumverate became the model for Falls’ ongoing work with an artistic collective that is now composed of Steve Scott, Chuck Smith, Mary Zimmerman, Henry Godinez, Brian Dennehy, Rebecca Gilman, Regina Taylor, Henry Wischcamper and Seth Bockley.

“Greg [Mosher] was a master of the studio theater and had an extraordinary run of work by Mamet, David Rabe and others,” Falls recalled. “But the mainstage languished. When I arrived, Roche was struggling with a huge deficit and morale was pretty low. I saw my mission as digging the Goodman out of its hole by creating large-scale works.”

The 1986-87 season, Falls’ first, demonstrated just what he had in mind with its opening production of Bertolt Brecht’s grand-scale “Galileo” starring Brian Dennehy (the actor who would become Falls’ unlikely “muse” for years), Galati’s ingenious “She Always Said, Pablo,” and a major musical, “Sunday in the Park with George,” directed by Maggio.

The ride on the mainstage could be exceedingly bumpy at times, but to his credit, Falls made no small plans. He staged a dazzling production of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” in 1990 — a production he revisited at the “new” Goodman in 2012, with Nathan Lane and Dennehy co-starring, and which is now set to be remounted Feb. 5-March 15 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In 1992 the Goodman received the Tony Award for best regional theater.

It was another production at the “old” Goodman that Dennehy still recalls with a palpable rush of emotion. As he recently recounted: “Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ was to reach its 50th anniversary in 1999, but a couple of years earlier I got a call from Bob — who swears he had no thought of that anniversary — saying he wanted me to play Willy Loman. We opened in Chicago in 1998, having been warned we couldn’t even mention the anniversary. Soon afterward Miller came to see it, and the rest is history. We opened in New York on Feb. 10, 1999 — exactly 50 years to the day of the play’s original opening.”

“Salesman” would go on to win Tony Awards for Best Revival of a Play, Best Actor (Dennehy); Best Featured Actress (Elizabeth Franz) and Best Direction (Falls).

And the Studio thrived, too, with Mary Zimmerman’s “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” among the greatest treasures.

Of course as all this was happening, Mayor Richard M. Daley was working to revitalize the Loop and reestablish it as a bustling theater district. So as the Art Institute planned for a new wing, plans also got underway for the Goodman to move to a new home in the Loop where it could serve as a year-round downtown cultural hub.

That new, far more spacious, equipped-for-the-21st century theater, which is located at 170 N. Dearborn and now operates on an annual budget of about $21 million, opened in December 2000. Its inaugural production was August Wilson’s “King Hedley II.” (The Goodman was the first theater in the country to produce all 10 of Wilson’s “20th Century Cycle” plays about African-American life). And in his dedication speech, the playwright proclaimed: “From this stage will be raised a ruckus and a noise that will echo in the whirlwind.”

And so it has, with a slew of classics and new plays, including the world premiere of Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined,” which would go on to win the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Rebecca Gilman’s “Luna Gale,” which is about to be remounted at Los Angeles’ Center Theatre Group, and Noah Haidle’s exquisite “Smokefall.”

“Chicago is a very competitive environment, and that’s a good thing,” said Falls. “It forces us to always be playing our A-game. But I think one of the things that sets us apart is that we are an extremely functional, happy place to work — something born out by the remarkable longevity of our artistic and administrative staff.”

“The culture of the Goodman — everyone in every department, on and off stage — is to support the art,” said actress Mary Beth Fisher, the star of “Luna Gale” (and wife of Roche Schulfer). “It establishes a creative environment that is as stress-free as possible and sets you up to do your best work. The different directorial points of view of the artistic collective Bob has assembled keeps the work on stage aesthetically diverse and surprising. And I love the Goodman’s audience: They are smart, ready for a challenge, ready to laugh and to dig in, and over the 20 or more years I’ve worked here, I’ve seen an incredible growth of diversity.”

The Goodman’s plans for the future? According to Schulfer: “We want to continue to ramp up our new plays and New Stages programs and bring more young artists into the fold. We need to think about additional space to house our ever-expanding community programs. And we want to continue to do work on the scale of ‘Brigadoon,’ a revival that couldn’t necessarily rely on commercial producers.”

While Falls has no intention of turning over the ship to a new commander any time soon, in 2012 he didbring the gifted director Henry Wishcamper on board to serve as resident artistic associate.

“Henry is interested in the long game and has expressed interest in leadership,” said Falls. “And he is a unique artist who also has the ability to run a theater company.”

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