Seasoned to Taste

Steven Woolf dishes on the Rep's repertoire

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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."

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."

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."

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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