Master of the House

As long as I live, one of the things in my artistic life that will stay with me forever, is this: from the moment I started New Line Theatre, as a cocky 27-year-old, both Steve Woolf, artistic director of The Rep, and Ron Himes, artistic director of The Black Rep, treated me with total respect, like I was legitimately their peer. That meant so much to me.

Steve and Ron have both always been there for me, for advice and encouragement. But today, Steve announced his retirement, in two years. I will miss his steady hand at the Rep. He's definitely one of my artistic heroes.

The first time I staged a show in-the-round, I called Steve and asked if he had some time to talk. As he always does, he took some time out of his day to sit and talk with me, and he gave me one of the best pieces of advice I've ever gotten: when directing in-the-round, never sit in the same place for very long in rehearsal, because the actors will want to play to you. The more you move around, the more the actors' performances will play to the full house. It totally worked.

I also called him the first time I was directing a play, after decades of directing musicals. His advice was awesome: it's not that different. He told me to use all the same tools I use with musicals, and we also talked about the different kinds of energy and "size" in plays and musicals. He told me he thought it would be easier for me to transition from musicals to plays than it would be for someone to go the other direction. I think that's true.

In 1999, I was writing for In Theatre magazine, reviewing St. Louis shows, and writing an occasional feature, and I pitched them a story about Steve and the Rep. Steve is, in a real way, the representative of our entire theatre community. Here's the article I wrote.
Steve Woolf, artistic director of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, sees pretty much everything he does as interactive, as a discussion with the community. "We are the repository of things live," he says. "Entertainment is getting less and less live these days, but every night seven hundred people come together in our theatre to celebrate things live." He smiles and adds, "It's civilizing."

He was also gracious enough to do one of my earliest podcasts, which you can listen to here, detailing each step of the process of producing a play. It's such fun to talk theatre with him.

But nothing matters more than the amazing artistic and institutional legacy Steve leaves us. It will be sad to see him go, but he built such an amazing company, and he has shared his considerable talent with us through so many brilliant, thrilling productions. I will never forget his productions (as director) of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Arcadia, Betrayal, Red, Frost/Nixon, Other Desert Cities, All the Way, The Crucible, Art, As Bees in Honey Drown, all of them smart, thrilling theatre, and that's only a partial list.

His production of Virginia Woolf was a real revelation for me; I understood the play so much better after seeing that brilliant cast under Steve's brilliant direction. It was the first time I understood how desperately George and Martha love and need each other, how much they appreciate each other's mind, and most significantly for me, in this production, they laughed at each other's quips a lot. All that made the final moments of the play more potent than I could have imagined. It was absolutely the best production of Virginia Woolf I've ever seen, and I've seen quite a few.

Steve's Arcadia was one of the coolest things I've ever seen onstage, so rich, so playful, so smart, so emotional. I saw that production three times.

But he's also responsible as artistic director for bringing us so many other brilliant productions that he didn't direct, thrilling shows like Ambition Facing West, Side Man, Follies, Fly, Clybourne Park, The Bomb-itty of Errors, Avenue X, Book of Days, and so many others. I had the great thrill of reviewing Books of Days for In Theatre, and then being quoted on the back of the published script!

One of my favorite pastimes is emailing Steve after seeing a Rep show, usually gushing about how much I loved it, asking questions, positing theories. He's always so open and cool about having those conversations with me.

I speak for myself, but I think also for our whole city -- I am so grateful to Steve Woolf for all the great art he has brought into my life, and for building here in our city a world-class regional theatre, a theatre that regularly produces the very first productions after Broadway of new and important work, as well as world premieres. We are very lucky, and we owe Steve everything.

We will miss him at the helm of the Rep, but we know he and the people around him have built a ship sturdy enough to keep on sailing for a very long time.

Thank you, Steve!

Long Live the Theatre!