Seasoned to Taste

Steven Woolf dishes on the Rep's repertoire

This week the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis begins its 38th season -- and its 18th season with Steven Woolf at the helm -- with a production of The Crucible, Arthur Miller's scorching 1953 drama about the Salem witch trials.

"This is a play I've thought about doing for a long time," Woolf says. For the past two seasons he sought to include it on the schedule, but, he says, "It just didn't fit within the matrix." In this election year, Miller's cautionary tale, which dramatizes events that occurred more than three centuries ago, suddenly seemed a timely offering. "Because The Crucible is a play about conscience, the sense of personal responsibility looms large, just as, when you go into a voting booth, you are making a choice of personal conscience," he says.

"The Crucible is a classic because it works any time, but it seems especially pertinent now because of issues concerning the Patriot Act and who's looking over your shoulder and who's inquiring after what books you're checking out of the library," Woolf goes on. "The societal fabric can be ripped asunder if we don't pay attention to civil liberties and individual responsibilities. But we're not doing the play to make a political statement; we're doing The Crucible because it is a great play."

"Come into our story": Steven Woolf prepares for his 
eighteenth season at the helm of the St. Louis Rep.
Jennifer Silverberg
"Come into our story": Steven Woolf prepares for his eighteenth season at the helm of the St. Louis Rep.

Woolf first encountered that great play four decades ago, long before it was established as a classic, when he was a youth in Wisconsin. "Bill Ball's company [the American Conservatory Theatre] had come out of Pittsburgh and landed in Milwaukee for two years before it went on to a permanent home in San Francisco," he says. There he saw extraordinary work, including what he calls a "striking" production of The Crucible.

At the time, Miller's polemical drama was but one of several theater experiences that resonated with the wide-eyed youth. "My mother was involved in the beginnings of what became the Milwaukee Rep," he recounts. "She was doing publicity. I was a volunteer, stuffing envelopes. So I became aware of the regional-theater movement very early. I remember, for instance, that Word Baker [the original director of the off-Broadway hit The Fantasticks] came in and directed a production of that musical for us. They couldn't find a rehearsal hall with a piano, so for two weeks they rehearsed in our living room. I would just sit there and take it all in. By the time I got to high school, when they had career day I already knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be an artistic director of a regional theater."

In 1966, the year the St. Louis Rep was founded, Woolf was matriculating at the University of Wisconsin. (He was "very active in politics and theater," he says of his college days. "It was the best time.") After earning his master's in directing, he worked at Stage West in Massachusetts and the Barter Theater in Virginia before being invited to the Rep as production manager in 1979. A series of artistic directors didn't work out; the Rep fell upon hard times. Woolf's lifelong ambition was realized in 1986, when he was named artistic director.

Not that there was much time to savor the appointment. "At the point where I took over," he says, "we were pedaling as hard as we could to recover from a situation that had gotten quite bad. For the next three years, we circled the wagons and were committed to making this theater work. After we got out of crisis and I was able to get back to directing, it took me about five years before I was able to say, 'I think the gig's going to be OK.'"

During his nearly two decades at the helm, Woolf has watched the regional- theater movement undergo enormous changes. Its relationship with Broadway, for instance, has been turned inside out. Regional theaters no longer develop serious plays for Broadway as they once did, because Broadway no longer is able to sustain a steady diet of serious plays. Now the occasional Broadway nonmusical hit (David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning Proof, Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses) gets produced by regional theaters rather than going out on a national tour.

Another change concerns the loyalty of the subscription audience. When Woolf took over the Rep, every regional theater's goal was to strive to be fully subscribed. But as more and more local theaters have emerged, professional resident theaters are no longer the only game in their respective towns.

"There's no question that the subscriber base is our backbone," Woolf says, noting that during the past five seasons the Rep's average subscription rate has held at about 74 percent, with a renewal rate higher than 80 percent. "But in recent years ticket-buying patterns have altered. For one thing, the Internet now has an impact. Last season we began offering online ticketing. I find it fascinating that at two o'clock in the morning people are buying tickets. For The Last Five Years [which the Rep staged in the Studio last spring], we sold online to fourteen different states."

Ticket buyers are taking increasingly to the impulse purchase, Woolf says -- and leaving St. Louis in the winter more often than they used to, he reports. But subscribers aren't the only ones leaving town. "Our corporate support is strong. At the same time, some major corporations continue to move out of St. Louis," Woolf reports. "Getting the attention of those corporations that are still here is an ongoing effort."

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