Seasoned to Taste

Steven Woolf dishes on the Rep's repertoire

Of course, that last problem isn't limited to St. Louis. "I travel for the National Endowment for the Arts as a site visitor. And to a theater, the big issue they're all talking about now is lack of corporate support," Woolf says. "Corporations are finding that arts funding is no longer a major priority. People are focused on healthcare issues, and now security issues. And corporations obviously have to be responsible to their stockholders. Corporations no longer find it in their best interest to contribute to the arts -- once again the mindset has taken hold that the arts are frivolous or upsetting."

An awareness of that mindset must resonate in the back of Woolf's mind each year as he sets about the process of laying out his six-play mainstage season. Woolf says "figuring out a season" that will speak to the community is the hardest part of the job: "Trying to understand the Zeitgeist of society and the world is very complicated. As an artist, you get sensitized to feeling some sense of what's in the ozone."

"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.

Say what?

"I know that sounds really whiffy," Woolf admits. "Let me try again. When it comes to selecting a season, you can't say, 'We'll just do whatever we're gonna do,' and pay no attention to the world. Especially since 9/11, what people want to see has become stratified in a way that it used not to be. Some people crave escapist entertainment; others want to be challenged all the time. Finding that mix is more complicated than it ever was."

So how does a season get chosen? "Usually you start by looking at titles. You put six titles together and say, 'OK, there's not one laugh in these six shows, so let's look again.' Or if I come up with six shows that each employs twenty actors, that's no good, because a mainstage season must be limited to around 60 or 65 Equity actors." Which accounts for the fact that upcoming productions like The Crucible (21 actors) and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (20-plus) will be offset later in the season by Stones in His Pocket (two actors) and The Retreat from Moscow, a recent Broadway failure that has the benefit of just three actors.

Casting is another challenge. Clearly it is the Rep's responsibility to present the best actors onstage. But of late too many of the imported New York-based actors have not been any more gifted than some of the area's local talent. It seems a shame not to strike some kind of balance. "We try to hire local when we can, if we can," Woolf responds, perhaps a little defensively.

But it's tough to hire local if you don't see local. Woolf acknowledges that he attends few area productions; last season he saw only one play at the Black Rep and none at HotHouse. "It's hard to get out," he rationalizes, "because I'm here every night we're in production."

That said, he does find time to go to the theater in New York and London on a regular basis. At any rate, Woolf believes he has a "very strong" relationship with the local theater community: "We talk a lot to other institutions. We share information. And when the Rep produces musicals, we use Scott Miller to write articles for our programs."

Ultimately, regardless of what the show is, or who's in it, the focus always returns to the play. "Our audiences love a good story," Woolf says. "In a coast community, they might accept artifice in a different way. But we've learned here to be storytellers first. We can't say, 'OK, we're the artist, you're the audience. We'll tell you that this is art.' What we try to do here is to say, 'Come into our story.' Here at the Rep we learned from harsh experience that if you keep an audience at arm's length, you're courting disaster. It's a lesson we try not to forget."

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