Q&A with Robert Falls
Willowbrook High School alum and longtime Artistic Director at the Goodman Theatre
This season marks Robert Falls’ 30th anniversary as artistic director at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, where he is currently directing the world premiere of Jim McGrath’s Pamplona, starring Stacy Keach as Ernest Hemingway. Working across genres, Falls has earned multiple accolades for critically acclaimed productions, notably The Iceman Cometh at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Don Giovanni at The Lyric Opera of Chicago, the world premiere of Arthur Miller’s Finishing the Picture, and the Broadway premiere of Aida by Elton John and Tim Rice. He has won a Tony Award for Death of a Salesman, a Drama Desk Award for Long Day’s Journey into Night, a Helen Hayes Award for King Lear and multiple Jeff Awards. Falls is admired for his ability to push boundaries and to reinvent himself as an artist. He is best known for his collaborations with actor Brian Dennehy, particularly their large body of work reviving the plays of Eugene O’Neill. In his teen years, Falls lived in west suburban Lombard and attended Willowbrook High School. Falls later
graduated from the University of Illinois.
Let’s start at Willowbrook High School, where you first got involved in theater.
Yes, yes. That was a long time ago. I’m 63 years old, so it’s not as if it was yesterday. From a very young age I was interested in plays. I would say that everything that I have been led to now began at Willowbrook. I was cast in my first play when I was a sophomore and very soon after that I was not only acting a great deal, but I was also putting on productions myself in high school. My experience there was fantastic. I had amazing teachers — an English teacher, Ralph Amelio, introduced me to films, as well. It was a tremendous place and time. I loved being there. It really did pique my interest in theater.
Some of your greatest successes at the Goodman have been in bringing classical theater to modern audiences. Was that always a goal?
My interest in classical theatre work began when I was at the University of Illinois but really emerged when I was running a small theatre on the west side of Chicago, Wisdom Bridge Theatre. I directed a quite successful production of Hamlet that is still well thought of to this day. The actor was Aidan Quinn and the play was produced very much from the perspective of young people. We performed a lot of student matinees, which is very, very important, and I continued that once I moved to the Goodman. This was in the mid 80s, and the stage at the Goodman was rather dormant during that period. But I loved the energy of great Chicago acting in productions of contemporary plays like those of David Mamet or Sam Shepard. I felt that same energy could be harnessed and focused into classical pieces, and that led me over the years to directing new productions of Ibsen, Chekhov and Shakespeare.
Is it difficult to interest people in older works? How do audiences respond to classic theatre as opposed to more contemporary plays?
I don’t think there’s any difference. The Goodman audience is a serious audience. I certainly enjoy musicals and works that are more comedic, but what I love about our audiences is that they’re open to everything. When I think of productions I’ve done, going back to Hamlet or King Lear or Measure for Measure, they’ve been set in essentially a modern world. There’s been some controversy about doing that, but those plays did draw younger audiences and they’ve been successful.
So you wouldn’t consider yourself a traditionalist when it comes to classical works like Shakespeare?
There are theaters that are very oriented toward keeping classical theater “pure.” But I like to experiment with the work. Sometimes you have to look for actors who are “verse speakers” or who have experience with Shakespeare. You do need that, not always, but you really have to put it into the mix. I have worked with many, many actors who have alternated wonderfully between classical pieces and works by new playwrights.
Of course, you also work with new playwrights. How does that experience compare?
I’ve always liked to alternate between classical and modern plays. Obviously when you’re doing Ibsen or Shakespeare you’ve got a lot of leeway as a director. It’s about your point of view. With a new play, side by side with the writer, your responsibility is to the play, to the playwright — to give them the production they want. And they don’t always know what that is, so the director’s job is to help them see the play. It’s about protecting the work, really collaborating to create the play for the first time.
How would you compare Chicago theater with New York?
Chicago really is my home. I was formed in Chicago, you know, in my early years. When I was living in the western suburbs and had friends who could drive, we would come into the city to see a lot of productions. That’s when Chicago theater was in its infancy. Right now there are approximately 250 theaters that operate here. But back in the early 70s there were really only about 15. Back then, I would see a lot of the work. I’ve always felt that Chicago audiences are very, very open. New York tends to follow the trends, follow the fads, and is very much about what is new and what is happening in the moment. I loved New York theaters and I’ve had wonderful experiences working in them. But I think Chicago audiences develop and build a loyalty to their theatres in smaller neighborhoods. And certainly the larger theaters have been able to build wonderful audiences.
You’ve worked with some very big names. Do you work differently with celebrity actors?
No, I have the same process, developed over the years. I’ve worked with just wonderful actors. They roll up their sleeves and get to work like anyone else. There’s no real special treatment. Everybody is working on the same production, with the same intensity and the same love of the project. It’s always collaborative. It’s not about me telling the actors what to do. Good work really comes out of exploring a play in the rehearsal group with the actors. We find the play together. For instance, last season I was very proud of our production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. It was a play that I’d always struggled with, that I never quite understood. I told the actors, you know, you’re really going to have to help me with this and we’re going to have to get our hands dirty. I actually turned that play over to the actors to help me see what it was.
Tell our readers a little about Pamplona, the Goodman’s new production with Stacy Keach.
It’s a marvelous new play. It fits within a difficult genre of solo-performer pieces. You have to have, as we do, a brilliant actor at the center. This project was initiated by Stacy, who is, I think, one of America’s great, great actors in film and television as well as theater. We’ve worked together on other plays, twice on King Lear. Stacy loves Hemingway and played him in a mini-series back in the mid 80s. For this production, he has worked very closely with the playwright, Jim McGrath, to portray Hemingway in the final year of his life, as he’s looking back on his work and the people who influenced him. The project wasn’t originally scheduled at the Goodman but when the opportunity came up, we jumped right in. Stacy is just fantastic, and
it’s a great show, whether you know a great deal about Hemingway or nothing at all.
Why will it appeal to west suburban audiences?
We have a lot of subscribers and contributors who live in the western suburbs who look at The Goodman as their theater. It’s not that far away. And they’re people who know theater — they’re just terrific. And of course, Hemingway was from Oak Park. He was very much formed there and that’s at the heart of this play.
Do you have advice for young actors or directors who are just starting out?
Never turn down a job. That almost seems obvious, but you need to immerse yourself in the craft of acting, the craft of directing. Additionally see as much theater as you can, no matter what the circumstances — big theater, small theater, Broadway. See as much as you can.
Pamplona performs through June 25. For information go to www.goodmantheatre.org
Actor you’d love to work with?
Kevin Spacey just came to town and he talked about how much he loves Chicago theater. I would love to work with Kevin Spacey.
Do you get opening night jitters?
I get jitters early on in previews, when the play first meets the audience. By opening night, I’m fairly secure and confident in the work.
Any opening night rituals?
I like to drink at the bar while the audience is watching the play. That’s where I’ll be.
Biggest pet peeves about audiences?
We all have the same one — cellphones. It’s absolutely maddening. There have been moments when people just start talking while the play is going on. Cellphones go beyond peeve. Pure fury.
Books by your bedside?
I have two that I’m dying to read, both 19th century. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.