Words by Brian Kirst / Photography by Robin Subar
As the longstanding Artistic Director of Goodman
Theatre, Evanston resident Robert Falls has lovingly created one of the most eclectic legacies in the world of entertainment. As an avid interpreter of works by such varied writers as Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, and Eric Bogosian, Falls has, deservedly, won multiple awards while always retaining the edge of an artistic risk taker. Immersed in preparations for his take on Roberto Bolaño’s Chilean epic 2666, opening next winter at the Goodman, Falls kindly took a moment to talk with Evanston Magazine about his artistic inspirations, including a most unusual muse, and his pride over Goodman’s impressive diversity.
You grew up in the small community of Ashland, IL. What started your interest in the arts?
Falls: I’ve always said that I can’t quite explain it. My parents weren’t in the arts. It was a small farming community. I think I just had a hyperactive imagination. I was interested in puppetry and ventriloquism and was an avid reader. I just started, as a very young child, to organize plays. I would write them and put them on with friends. We’d set up lawn chairs for the parents and relatives to watch us on made up stages on front porches. I did a lot of things like that. But, I’ve never been really to explain that interest.
You then went on to attend U of I at Urbana-Champaign. Is that where you decided to make this your career?
Falls: I think that is probably true. Again, from childhood, I was writing plays and acting in them and directing them. That continued in high school. When I went to the University of Illinois, it had a major arts center, and it still does. I had a very good directing teacher and a very good playwriting teacher. But more than anything else, I think I was just surrounded by a lot of other magical, talented people. We just started making theater. As a matter of fact, the first production I did in Chicago was a play that I had, essentially, done on campus. It wasn’t a sanctioned U of I production, but it was made up of fellow students and designers. It was a play called Moon Children by Michael Weller.
That was the beginning of your professional career?
Falls: That was the beginning. But, I have always been a reader of plays. I started reading plays from our small town library. I was 11, 12, 13 years old. I came across, fairly quickly, the plays of Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, and Tennessee Williams. I think that those three writers are the great trinity of American playwriting. I was always very aware of running an American theater and I thought that that work should be venerated.
You’ve incorporated music so beautifully into productions like your Measure for Measure at the Goodman, as well. Is that an important part of the process for you?
Falls: It is , actually. When I’m working on any play, I really delve into music for inspiration. I listen to a lot of music when I’m working on it. Sometimes that music just ends up inspiring the production or actually being in the production. I’ve worked with a very talented sound designer and composer, Richard Woodbury, over the years. Richard writes a lot of music for the productions that I do. Similarly, give me music that he has listened to for the production and I’ll share music that I’ve listened to, as well. Out of that, he’ll end up writing the score. Or, like the Measure for Measure, he’ll end up borrowing or using and remixing classic music.
You’ve, also worked quite successfully with actor Brian Dennehy on productions like Death of a Salesman.
Falls: I joke that I always imagined that I would have a muse, but that my muse would be an absolutely beautiful young woman. It turned out to be Brian Dennehy! I think that we have some similarities in our personalities and our backgrounds and how we look at the world. There is, also, a lot of difference. We argue a great deal and we challenge each other. Something just sort of clicked, back in the 1980s, when we worked for the first time on Galileo. That was the first production I had done with Brian as a director. I think he is one of the great American actors. We just sort of decided, early on, that we should go after these large scale works by the writers that we loved. We choose the plays because they are challenging. I think the fact that they have all been successful is surprising, at times, to us, but also really pleasing.
What do you think the legacy of your tenure at the Goodman, as a whole, will be?
Falls: I’m very, very proud of the diversity of the theater. We have nurtured and worked with many of the great writers of our time, and importantly, many of the great writers of color- Latino writers, African American writers. I think that the Goodman, among many theaters, sort of leads the country in its diversity. You can never think about legacy. I don’t think about legacy at all. I’m too busy in the moment. But, I am aware that the Goodman has, in the time that I’ve been there, clearly become one of the leading arts theaters in the country and I think it’s a leading arts organization in Chicago. I’m very proud of the people that we’ve worked with and the work that we’ve been able to do.
Falls: Thank you. Thank you so much.