PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Robert Falls

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Robert Falls In 1986, a 32-year-old Robert Falls was given the daunting task of following the triumphant reign of Gregory Mosher as artistic director at the Goodman Theatre, the largest, most important theatre in Chicago.
Robert Falls
Robert Falls Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Twenty seasons, six collaborations with Brian Dennehy, four Rebecca Gilman plays, nine August Wilson dramas (with one more to come), four Mary Zimmerman productions, two new theatres, and a few Tony Awards (including one for Best Regional Theatre in 1992) later, he's still there. He opened his 20th season with an ambitious mounting of Shakespeare's King Lear and is currently rehearsing Richard Nelson's Frank's Home, which will come to Off-Broadway later the season. The 2006-07 line-up also includes new productions by longtime Goodman associated Frank Galati, Zimmerman and the late August Wilson. Falls recently talked with Playbill.com about a career spent in and about the Loop.

Playbill.com: Your first production as artistic director of the Goodman Theatre was Brecht's Galileo with Brian Dennehy. That became one of the cornerstone collaborations of your tenure.
Robert Falls: I really wanted to do, as my first production, something really epic. I had settled upon Galileo partly because I had worked with Dennehy as a producer at Wisdom Bridge Theatre. He had done a play called Rat in the Skull. I just thought Brian was the actor with the size and scope to play Galileo. It just began a series of productions lasting 20 years.

Playbill.com: Would you say that is the most important artistic relationship you've had during your tenure?
RF: I would call it one of the most important artistic relationships, yes.

Playbill.com: What are some of the others?
RF: One of the great prides of my tenure and one of the reasons I remained refreshed and rejuvenated is because I've always had an extraordinary group of associates around me, beginning with the late Michael Maggio, and also Frank Galati, my original two pillars. I remain very close to Frank. I've also added over the years such people as Mary Zimmerman, Regina Taylor, Chuck Smith and Henry Godinez. It's been fantastic to create this sort of director's theatre. And I feel particularly attached to the work of Rebecca Gilman. We've produced all of her commissioned work over the years.

Playbill.com: Gregory Mosher's term as artistic director of the Goodman is forever associated with David Mamet. Would you say Rebecca Gilman is that playwright for you?
RF: Yes, she and August Wilson. August Wilson was a very close friend and collaborator for the exact same 20-year period. During that 20 years, we will have done all 10 of August's plays. Playbill.com: Zimmerman was a very distinct style. Her productions are like no one else's. Do you think bringing her aboard significantly changed the artistic profile of the theatre?
RF: No, I wouldn't say that, although I think we were able to provide her with an artistic home, so she could take a new leap into her work in terms of scale and scope. It's certainly been a mutually happy relationship. One of the good things for the Goodman has been diversity and eclecticism.

Playbill.com: You mentioned Wisdom Bridge, which, of course, is the theatre you ran before you came to the Goodman, and one of the seminal companies of the Chicago theatre movement in the 1980s. Do you think any part of Wisdom Bridge lives on at the Goodman?
RF: Yeah, I do. I think the fact that I was really formed in the Off-Loop theatre movement of the '70s and '80s — [of] that there's no doubt. I've never lost a sense of that. I just did this huge production of King Lear to open this season and it was interesting, because I related it to both Galileo of 1986 and, before that, Hamlet, which was a defining production at Wisdom Bridge. I was struggling. How does a 52-year-old director get back to that sort of energy and wildness when I was in my 20s? It's not easy to do. But I think I was successful in trying to connect myself to a sort of wild and woolly aesthetic I had toward classical theatre that I had over 20 years ago. I always keep a sense of that with me. I mean, I accept the responsibility of being the fattest cat in Chicago, or top dog, or whatever animal imagery you want to have, as the director of the Goodman. But I've always had a great empathy and understanding of the small theatre movement, which I think ultimately is what theatre in Chicago is all about.

Playbill.com: The Goodman is about the most "in-Loop" theatre there is. You're actually in the Loop, since you moved six years ago to the historic site of the Garrick and Woods theatres and the landmark Harris and Selwyn theatres. Do you think the Goodman is a different theatre artistically for having made the move?
RF: It is. I feel far more in tune to the city of Chicago, more connected institutionally to the city and the people. There was something almost symbolic about the theatre being within the bowels of the Art Institute [of Chicago], at the edges of the park, near the lake. There's something very different about being in the heart of the Loop, kitty-corner from City Hall. We're accessible to people. People can walk up, buy tickets. People walk by the theatre. There is street traffic. There is a connection to the city.

Playbill.com: Do you have a single production of which you are most proud?
RF: I have so many I'm proud of, but I think Death of a Salesman in 1999. It was for me a production in which everything came together. It certainly was a collaboration with Brian Dennehy, and a lot of other Chicago actors. We were trying to do something strong. It was really designed and created for the Goodman Theatre. The fact that it went on to become the 50th anniversary production [of the play] and have this enormous success on Broadway, around the country and in London; the fact that it continued to have a life for almost eight years after it was created—that is symbolic to me of things coming together. It becomes a sort of signature production for my time period at the Goodman.

Playbill.com: Twenty years is a long time for an artistic director by any measure. Are you thinking of moving on anytime soon?
RF: No, I'm not. I feel Chicago is my home, it's where I'm raising a family. It's been my artistic home since the '70s. I can't really imagine creating work out of any other place.

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