Exclusive: Goodman Theatre artistic director Robert Falls is stepping down

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After a 35-year run leading Chicago’s most prestigious theater company, Goodman Theatre artistic director Robert Falls is to resign, effective at the end of the current season in August 2022.

“It feels right,” Falls said in an interview. “I’ve had the greatest job. I feel like I’ve accomplished everything at the theater I wanted to accomplish. And I feel like the luckiest person in the world to have been able to work at this theater, with these artists, at this time, in this city.”

Falls’ longtime partner, Goodman executive director Roche Schulfer, is to remain at the theater, at least through the transition to a new leader. In an interview, Schulfer praised Falls as “one of the great directors in the world” and said the theater is starting to interview search firms with a goal to find the next artistic director by next summer, if not before.

Given the timing and the exigencies of the pandemic, Schulfer said, Falls will plan most, if not all, of the 2022-23 season and will direct during the season, even after giving up the artistic management of the theater.

Falls’ decision, which he said was not made under any kind of internal or outside pressure, brings the exit of Chicago theater’s premiere auteur director, an unusually eclectic artist known throughout the world of theater for the expansiveness of his ambition, the boldness of his risk-taking and the richness of his conceptual productions.

It also is part of an extraordinary, pandemic-era exodus of artistic leaders in the city, including the recent departure of Anna D. Shapiro at Steppenwolf Theatre. Both major Chicago theaters, along with several others, now will have to find their way under new leadership.

Falls, 68, has been a signature player, arguably the single most significant artistic individual, in the rise of Chicago theater over the past 50 years from obscurity to international prominence.

In a city known for its actors, Falls forced the international theater community to pay attention to directors emerging from the Midwest capital. And he made the point that some artistic visions to be found in Chicago are too massive to be contained in a storefront theater.

“Bob is on the forefront of the Chicago theater revolution,” said longtime actor and Northlight Theatre artistic director B.J. Jones. “His resignation is a transformational moment.”

Indeed, Falls, an outsized personality who has directed scores of shows at the Goodman, has been the rare director capable of both extraordinary individual achievement and uncommonly generous collaborations, as reflected in the Goodman’s 1992 Tony Award for excellence in regional theater.

Over the decades at the Goodman, Falls has been best known for his work on the plays of Eugene O’Neill, with many of those productions in collaboration with his most beloved muse, the late actor Brian Dennehy. Falls maintained relationships with famous playwriting names such as David Mamet and the late August Wilson; highlighted the early-career work of actors such as William Petersen and Aidan Quinn; and also championed once-emerging Chicago writers such as John Logan and Rebecca Gilman.

Just as significantly, he ran the Goodman in concert with a diverse artistic collective, including at various points Mary Zimmerman, Chuck Smith, the late Michael Maggio, David Petrarca, Frank Galati, Henry Godinez and several others. The status of the current artistic associates, once Falls exits, presumably will be determined by the new artistic director.

Famously memorable Falls-directed productions, a number of which moved to Broadway and elsewhere, include Bertolt Brecht’s “Galileo” starring Dennehy and Galati (1987); Tennessee Williams’ ”The Night of the Iguana” starring William Petersen (1994); Anton Chekhov’s ”Three Sisters” starring Calista Flockhart (1995); Arthur Miller’s ”Death of a Salesman” starring Dennehy and Elizabeth Franz (1998); the world premiere of Miller’s last play, “Finishing the Picture” (2004); Shakespeare’s ”King Lear” starring Stacy Keach (2006); Eugene O’Neill’s ”Desire Under the Elms” starring Carla Gugino and Dennehy (2009); and O’Neill’s epic ”The Iceman Cometh” (2012) starring Dennehy, Nathan Lane and a singular raft of Chicago acting talent, the likes of which had never been assembled before. But that merely is a sampling of some 50 Goodman shows, including a resonant 2019 production of ”The Winter’s Tale” that seemed to tacitly explore some of the issues faced by established artists later in their careers.

The Goodman took a risk in 1985 when it hired Falls, then the 33-year-old wunderkind artistic director of a small theater called Wisdom Bridge on Howard Street at the far north reaches of Chicago. There, he’d directed Quinn in a famous production of “Hamlet,” wherein the moody prince wrote on a chalkboard the famous “To Be or Not To Be” monologue. He also staged a nationally recognized production of “In the Belly of the Beast: Letters From Prison,” which made Petersen’s career and famously so impressed Tribune critic Richard Christiansen that he reported he was so overcome with emotion that he had to “pull over” his car on the way home from the theater. The review became legendary in the Chicago theater.

When you add his tenures at Wisdom Bridge and Goodman, Falls has been the artistic director of a Chicago theater for 45 straight years. “I left Wisdom Bridge on a Friday afternoon and started at the Goodman on the Monday morning,” he said, noting that it was perhaps time for a break. Or, at least, to unburden himself from budgets and season selection.

Falls said he does not plan to be involved in the search for his replacement. “I hope they will bring the passion and the vision that fits the moment,” he said, “and a full-out commitment.” The position, among the most prestigious, influential and lucrative in nonprofit American theater, is likely to attract many enthusiastic candidates.

“I am not planning on going fishing in Florida,” Falls said, noting that he intends to remain at his Evanston home, perhaps directing at a wider array of Chicago theaters, large and small, than had been possible during his decades of eye-popping work at the Goodman.

“Bob was there at the beginning of that extraordinary, one-off explosion of theater in Chicago,” said Mamet in a rare interview. “God bless him.”

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@chicagotribune.com

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