It might seem counter-intuitive, but director Robert Falls believes that to best serve the Goodman Theater, the venerable Chicago institution of which he is artistic director, sometimes he needs to get away.
“It’s my home, and my favorite place to work by far,” says Falls. “But I think it is important to get out.”
With increasing frequency, he sojourns to Broadway. This past spring, Falls helmed “Shining City” for Manhattan Theater Club at the Biltmore. In February, he’ll direct Liev Schreiber in the Rialto revival of Eric Bogosian’s “Talk Radio” at the Longacre.
But, as he notes, “It’s my vast preference to start work here.” Currently, he’s staging Richard Nelson’s latest play, “Frank’s Home,” about architect Frank Lloyd Wright, at the Goodman. The show is set to open Dec. 5 and will transfer to Playwrights Horizons next month.
Falls has managed to find that oft-elusive balance between pursuing independent projects, taking shows initiated at the Goodman to New York (and, in the case of his Tony-winning “Death of a Salesman,” to London as well), and tending to the needs of a large regional theater with 23,000 subscribers and an operating budget hovering around $16 million.
It’s generally recognized that a theater or its leader needs to have a presence in New York in order to enhance the institution’s national visibility, which can then drive fund-raising at the local level. But it’s not always an easy equilibrium. When multihyphenate Michael Greif’s young career exploded with “Rent,” it ended up abbreviating his artistic directorship tenure at La Jolla Playhouse.
Such examples have led to a mini-trend in major theaters these days to have artistic directors who focus on producing. Oskar Eustis, for example, has put his own directing on hold and devoted himself to managing the Public Theater. And Center Theater Group in L.A. replaced founder Gordon Davidson with Michael Ritchie, who has never been a director.
Falls, on the other hand, directs. A lot. He launched into “Frank’s Home” almost immediately after completing his brash and controversial “King Lear,” which opened his 20th anniversary season at the Goodman. He’s an eclectic helmer whose productions have an emotional and psychological sensitivity that makes him popular with both playwrights and actors. His well-known projects range from Disney’s “Aida” to the starry 2003 Broadway revival of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
Among regional chiefs, Falls’ regular New York presence may be exceeded by only Jack O’Brien from San Diego’s Old Globe (“Hairspray,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “The Coast of Utopia”). As he has emerged on the Broadway A-list, O’Brien has shored up his home base by bringing Jerry Patch on as resident artistic director.
No such changes have been needed at the Goodman. First, because Falls tries to be away only about two months out of the year. “I turn down a lot more offers than I accept,” he says. But also, Falls and his executive director, Roche Schulfer, have created an artistic management structure that allows for his extended absences.
“The Goodman separates itself from other theaters in that I’ve always shared power,” Falls explains. “I didn’t want to be the guy picking all the plays and choosing all the directors.”
Upon replacing Gregory Mosher, Falls brought in directors Frank Galati (“Ragtime,” “The Pirate Queen”) and the late Michael Maggio, and the three worked as a triumvirate with Falls at the head. Over the years, the artistic collective has grown to include other prominent national artists, such as Mary Zimmerman and playwright-director Regina Taylor.
“I borrowed the concept from England, having observed the National Theater and the RSC, as well as the Citizens’ Theater in Glasgow, Scotland,” Falls says.
While the associate deals are non-exclusive, the structure allows Falls to nurture projects with key players over a span of three to five years, rather than fill slots on a yearly basis. The fact that directors are so familiar with the theater also means that Falls doesn’t need to watch over them.
“By getting out of the institution, I come back refreshed,” Falls says. “And because of the associates, I’m able to take the time off.”
By “time off,” he means directing another show.