“I always liked the visuals to be choice and at the same time minimalist. And, I love black boxes. After all, that’s what theatre is, it’s an empty space, and it’s both limited and unlimited because the space is the space, but what you can do with people’s imaginations is really endless.” — Harold Prince
Throughout his career, including the past 30 years as the Goodman Theatre’s artistic director, Robert Falls has found a seemingly endless wealth of plays with which to challenge and awaken the imaginations of an audience. You instantly recognize the titles: “Death of a Salesman,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “The Iceman Cometh,” “Night of the Iguana,” “King Lear,” “American Buffalo,” to name a few. And there are the accolades: the Obies, the Tonys, Drama Desk and Jeff Awards, not to mention the Theater Hall of Fame.
When: In previews; opens Feb. 21 and runs through March 12
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
And before the Goodman, there was a decade spent at the (now-defunct) Wisdom Bridge Theater, where Falls, the recent college graduate, honed his skills as a director, working with “a most wonderful company of actors and directors.”
It’s been a very good life, indeed.
“Robert Falls is an brilliant director, extraordinary artistic director and a tremendous colleague. Working with him over the past three decades has enabled me to have a wonderful life in the theater,” said Roche Schulfer, executive director of the Goodman Theatre. “What the Goodman has achieved through his vision and talent is unprecedented in the American theater. But beyond Bob’s abilities as an artist is his incredible modesty, his generous support of other artists, his belief in collaboration and his passion for social justice.”
Falls recently reflected on his three decades of work at the Goodman Theatre, recalling some of the key moments and productions that changed his life and the direction of the company.
Q. What was “the moment” in your life that turned you on to the theater?
A. I was about six years old growing up in [Ashland, Illinois] a town of about 1,000 people. My father, who was a journalist and a writer, was playing a frontiersman in the Ashland Pageant, celebrating the founding of the town, I guess. And there was this scene where he was rolling a cigarette using a little tobacco pouch. I remember seeing my father in that moment rolling the cigarette and thinking, well, he doesn’t smoke, what is he doing? And I found that moment just really moving, even at the age of six. I remember it vividly, being in that room, people watching him. I’d never seen a play before, but there was my father being somebody other than who he was. And I was sort of aware at that moment of this concept of performance.
And I loved movies and watched a lot of them on television and then would make them up as little plays with all of my friends [in the cast]. I was about 8 or 9 at the time. …I was always organizing everybody on how to put on a show. It was just part of my natural personality and it never really changed!
The other key factor at the time was that my parents would take me to Chicago starting at a fairly young age. We saw a production of “The Music Man.” That was my first professional production I’d ever seen, and from that moment on I started listening to original cast albums of musicals and I would imagine staging them while I was listening to the music, seeing these pictures in my brain of how I wanted it to look and play out.
If [the moment] with my father was about acting, this was really about stories being told.
Q. Every artistic director has a vision for the theater they head up. What did you envision for the first five years of your tenure at the Goodman? How did that evolve over 30 years?
A. I had an image of what I felt the theater should be doing. A lot of which had to do with redirecting the energy of the theater from new plays toward classic plays. I think that was because I was coming out of such a small theater that the productions that were becoming meaningful to me were the big ones — “Hamlet,” “Mother Courage and Her Children.” So it’s no surprise that when I arrived at the Goodman in my 30s I really wanted to do those big, classic plays. Over the 30 years I’ve tried to balance the seasons between new works and classic plays, and enlarge the repertoire with [a wide variety] of writers. Clearly diversity has played a greater and greater role in our seasons. The complexity of Chicago needed to be reflected on our stages. And over the years, works by writers of color, works by women, works by people whose voices may not have been heard on stages before became and still are increasingly important here.
Q. You’ve staged works from some of the greatest playwrights in history, from Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams to Eugene O’Neill. What do their works say to you now as opposed to your earliest days as a director? Has how you approach a particular playwright’s work changed over the years?
A. I don’t know if it has changed. I think that every time you work with a playwright it’s an absolutely new adventure. It’s different when you’re working with a playwright of the stature of Arthur Miller as I did when I was quite young. I worked briefly with Tennessee Williams on a play that never happened because he died a year and a half after we met. I was in awe of those writers. They were legends, yes, but they were still roll-up-their-shirtsleeves guys who just wanted to go to work on a new play. But that’s no different from working with a playwright who’s 28 years old and is having their first major production staged. They’re nervous, they’re excited and they want your feedback, your support. I’d have to say that over the years the way I work with a playwright hasn’t really changed that much at all.
Q. Is it daunting to give a playwright feedback on their work when something is just not working for you as you get into directing a play?
A. If it’s Arthur Miller it’s a little daunting. If it’s my good friend Rebecca Gilman, not so much, because we’re colleagues and we’ve done a lot of productions together. She’s expecting feedback from me, guidance. When I work on a new play it’s really about making that first production for the playwright; it’s not about my ego or what I want. It’s really about serving the playwright and doing the best for their play. Am I helping them achieve what it is they need to see? That’s part of the give and take, the collaboration. And I want the playwright to be as honest as possible with me, to tell me what they think about the actors or the set design.
Q. Can you pick three plays from the past 30 years that were a revelation for you as a director, that truly excited you, and why?
A. Obviously, working on “Death of a Salesman” was probably the biggest success of the past 30 years. I’d been working with Brian Dennehy on a couple of other plays and we were walking down the street one day and I looked over at him and thought, he’s Willy Loman. Brian had these bad knees from playing football back in the day and he was just hobbling along. He had just turned 60, and I really hadn’t contemplated “Death of a Salesman” till I looked over at him that day and saw Willy Loman. I told him, and he just laughed at first, but then he said why don’t we do the play? That production [in 1998] ended up being a breakthrough for both of us. We never dreamed it would end up on Broadway.
I would say Rebecca Gilman’s work the second. We had worked together on a couple of plays over the years and then she sent me “Luna Gale.” I already loved her work and I felt very connected with her as a collaborator. And reading that play I knew it was a fantastic work; I knew I had to do that play. It was a very joyous experience. Of all the new plays I’ve done over the years it’s the most successfully realized.
The third is related to “Uncle Vanya.” I’d been wanting to explore Chekhov and the works of Constantin Stanislavski, who was the original director, writer and actor in “The Seagull.” I thought I knew all of what was known about the Method he developed and I realized I didn’t. That sent me into a five-year journey into the study of Russian theater and Chekhov, which led me to adapting and directing “The Seagull.” Most plays have four weeks of rehearsals. For “The Seagull,” [and now with “Uncle Vanya”] I doubled that to eight weeks. And it allowed me to explore a play in a way I hadn’t done before. That was a real breakthrough for me. It changed the way I work. And every production I’ve done subsequently has been informed by that production of “The Seagull.” And that’s why I thought the production I’d like to do most for my 30th anniversary was Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.”
Q. We talked about your initial five-year plan for the Goodman back in 1986. What do you see for the Goodman over the next five years?
A. You know, I don’t have a five-year plan. I think I want to try to continue to do what we’ve done as well as we can do. I think the issue of diversity is more important than ever. It’s been a complicated time for everybody following the election, and looking at the division in our country right now, I feel it’s a pretty dark place that we’ve entered into. But I have a tremendous sense of hope.
As an artistic director and maker of theater, it’s all about how do we confront our audiences? How do we nurture them? How do we give them entertainment? How do we challenge them? How do we awaken them? I’ve always felt theater was important, and the work we do here is essential in that it has an impact on people and that it changes people, and people’s lives are altered by coming to the theater in ways they may not even know. … The Goodman, long before I got here, was one of, if not the leading theater companies. I’ve been very lucky to work with the extraordinary people I’ve worked with, from actors, to playwrights to set designers and everyone who brings a production to the stage.
Q. I believe an artistic director gives voice to a theater’s mission. What do you want its mission to say to Chicago going forward?
A. I want the Goodman to say we are your theater. This is the theater that reflects our audience. We live in an incredibly diverse population with diverse points of view, diverse ideas. And I think the Goodman has been and continues to be a place where dialogue takes place, where you can discuss and argue, where you can come in and be extraordinarily entertained. Theater supplies a safe place where an audience can come for an hour or two and engage in a work. That remains as important to me now as it did 30 years ago.