9:51 AM CDT, August 12, 2011
When the new $46 million Goodman Theatre opened its doors on Dec. 11, 2000, with the inaugural performance of August Wilson's "King Hedley II," the Loop was beset by a blizzard. Ever cognizant of the political perils of Chicago snowstorms, Mayor Richard M. Daley canceled, even though the city of Chicago had contributed $18.8 million to the new flagship theater at 170 N. Dearborn St. But no weather event was going to rain on the parade of artistic director Robert Falls and executive director Roche Schulfer, the long-running, two-man team which shepherded the Goodman's long-awaited move into the North Loop from 200 S. Columbus Drive, otherwise known as the rear end of the Art Institute of Chicago.
"In a way, I sort of like the snowstorm," Falls told a Tribune reporter in the lobby that night. "It keeps the riffraff out. The people who are here are really here to see a play and not just socialize."
It was a classic Falls assertion: defiant, entertaining, insouciant, reactive to the moment and, above all, supremely self-confident.
And now that Chicago and this critic have had 10 complete seasons to judge the new Goodman Theatre, that remark has revealed itself as remarkably prescient. In its decade of work in the North Loop, the Goodman Theatre has indeed been a place to really see a play — in general, the bolder, heftier, deeper, newer and more provocative the better. And while such spaces as the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., have encouraged socializing riffraff with bars, eateries, bookshops, music, late-night cabarets and flashy lobbies, the Goodman has not joined that parade. A few comedies aside, it has remained a mostly sober-toned place for the serious Chicago theatergoer; a broad-shouldered theater uncommonly comfortable with centrality and power, increasingly disinclined to worry much about outside criticism, and remarkably assured of the tested wisdom of its own aesthetic and managerial direction.
That aesthetic and managerial direction has been in place for a long time: Falls and Schulfer have a mutually admiring partnership that goes back 25 years. Neither shows any sign of wanting to leave. For good or ill, they and their views and collective style are now synonymous with the Goodman.
It has mostly been for good. This stability in artistic and managerial leadership — rare in major American arts institutions — has helped bring about some extraordinary Goodman contributions to the cultural life of Chicagoland and, indeed, the national American theater. Despite the macro changes of the past decade, the Goodman has not been beset with managerial scandal nor forced to ricochet between changing artistic missions. Neither Falls nor Schulfer is a founder on the verge of retirement, so the Goodman also has not had to deal with that tricky syndrome, unlike a number of its peers. Although the theater reported 2009 income of $17,188,204 against expenses of $18,344,522 (a $1,156,318 shortfall in the face of income that declined from 2008), this most recent available public filing also reported net assets of $37,272,743, including $25,032,982 invested in publicly traded securities. While the economy (and the success of shows) is reflected in balance sheets across the past decade, and while not every season has landed in the black, the Goodman remains fiscally healthy.
But a great theater is judged by its art, not endowments nor money in the bank. Without question, the greatest moments of the past decade at the new Goodman have come when Falls' natural audacity and maximalist aesthetic have combined with the festival-style exploration of great American writers like Eugene O'Neill, Horton Foote, David Mamet or Edward Albee. With productions like his singular 2009 take on "Desire Under the Elms," Falls has established himself as, arguably, the leading O'Neill interpreter in America, if not the world. Artists need specialties. Falls has O'Neill.
Meanwhile, the Goodman's timely 2008 exploration of Foote, the quietest but best of all its festivals, rediscovered and re-empowered one of America's most underrated living playwrights, just in time for that great writer to see it for himself. (Falls also staged Arthur Miller's "Finishing the Picture" at the end of that playwright's life, offering a crucially supportive American coda to a great writer long best appreciated abroad.) The Mamet festival brokered a rapprochement between the caustic scribe and the city that spawned him. And although, in the past two or three years, the perils of the economic moment have taken a toll on the stated international ambitions of the company (Chicago Shakespeare Theater currently plays a far more comprehensive role as a presenter of international theater), Schulfer and his board of directors have invariably found the resources that Falls has desired.
Not all of Falls' productions have been beloved. Far from it. His 2006 "King Lear" attracted vehement detractors (and equally vehement admirers), and his epic 2010 production of Rebecca Gilman's "A True History of the Johnstown Flood" positively enraged some subscribers. On Broadway, where Falls also likes to work, his clout has ebbed and flowed during the past decade. But that is typical. And it is hard to think of a moment when Falls has not done his best work at the Goodman, nor a moment when his worst work ever has been dull. There were arguments to be had over "Lear." But it was at once clear that Falls had come up with a robust physical and intellectual idea for every last breathing beat of that magnum opus. And it has usually been thus.
As with most artists who appear to be supremely confident, the detection of Falls' trajectories, insecurities and neuroses is an inherent part of the intelligent consumption of Falls' body of work. Great artistic directors (and, make no mistake, Falls is a great artistic director of the Chicago style) should progressively reveal themselves. With Falls these past 10 years, those revelations have been forthcoming, and the heft of his natural canvas has only made his neuroses more interesting. When he found himself stuck in a rut last year, and (one suspects) aware of his attachment to conspicuous consumption, he donned a symbolic hair shirt and forged a powerful 2010 production of "The Seagull" with little more than a group of actors and a copy of Stanislavsky. And he'll surely be re-energized by next spring's production of O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh," just the kind of high-profile project that gets the Falls juices flowing and cultural tourists headed to Chicago.
Under Falls, the Goodman has long explored far closer affiliations with directors than with actors, frustrating some of its regular players. It has relied on a loose collective of affiliated directors like Henry Godinez and Chuck Smith, many of whom have day jobs at local universities. One of the most provocative and Falls-like of those affiliated artists, director David Petrarca, was, alas, the first one to leave, and Michael Maggio, the gifted member of the collective who was most able to forge a central artistic voice rivaling that of Falls himself, died just before the opening of the new building he helped design. The loss of Maggio, a crucial counterpoint to the excesses of Falls himself, has been keenly felt at the new Goodman. No heir apparent has emerged.
There are some perils of entitlement in the Falls structure of artistic leadership, and some of those perils have played out this past decade on Goodman stages, most notably in projects that were allowed to go ahead before they were ready for public consumption. But those affiliations have also paid dividends: a renowned artist like Mary Zimmerman is far more likely to bring the theater her major projects, such as the new musical version of "The Jungle Book" that she is developing with Disney Theatricals. Falls has added to the collective (playwright Gilman, actor Brian Dennehy) and yet kept it small and intensely involved. He also has been adept at leveraging; without her affiliation at the Goodman, it seems unlikely that Regina Taylor would have so readily moved to Chicago.
Of the two main physical spaces in the new Goodman Theatre, one has been notably more successful than the other. The Albert mainstage has been an enormous success, replete with an intimacy that belies its size. In a downtown theater district full of historic theaters that (with the exception of the Bank of America Theatre) are all larger than ideal, the Albert has offered all the intimacies of a smaller Broadway house, but with greater audience comfort and prairie-style dignity. It is now easy to transfer shows from the Goodman directly to Broadway; that, in part, is why Chicago got to see "Chinglish" first.
The Owen theater has proven trickier. Although both Falls and Schulfer can justly point to the diversity and quantity of projects staged there, it was designed with a larger capacity (up to 479 seats) than most new scripts can support. Rarely exploited by directors, its courtyard-style design only really works when the theater is full, and it usually has not been full. The Goodman needs a smaller space to fully serve its ambitious program of new work.
But there's not much room for that at the new Goodman, crammed into a footprint that does not easily allow for lively lobbies filled with Chicagoans of all stripes. As Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin argued more than 10 years ago, the original idea of allowing the rotunda at Randolph and Dearborn streets to funnel audiences into the building — nixed because the developer of the multiuse complex argued for more rentable space — should have been retained. The public space at the Goodman has not lived up to initial hopes. More should yet be done to open up the building. Informal performances — late-night, lunchtime, after work — have been too few.
But if more risks could be taken in and around the rather sterile lobbies, no fair observer could accuse the theater of not taking them on its stages. Not all the new plays have been carefully chosen. But with a theater producing this amount of new work — at least 30 world premieres in 10 years — it must be expected. At the time of writing, the Goodman has at least three new American musicals in advanced stages of development, and yet it has also coaxed Nathan Lane, the greatest musical star of his generation, to take a risk on O'Neill in "Iceman." That is doing your job.
In Chicago, it is traditional to throw rocks at the Goodman. Falls well knows. When he was in his 20s and running Wisdom Bridge Theatre, he pitched a few himself. These days, though, they don't much dent the fortress. A few more cracks would be healthy all around — that way, the riffraff might sneak in and they might have something to add to the conversation — but the walls are made of mighty strong stuff.
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