ROBERT WOODRUFF: A Boot in Two Camps


It used to be easy to identify Robert Woodruff: he was Sam Shepard’s director. It’s true that he founded the Bay Area Playwrights Festival as a forum for new work, and as its artistic director from 1976 to 1984 staged the preliminary productions of Des McAnuff’s The Death of Von Richtofen as Witnessed from Earth and Richard Nelson’s The Return of Pinocchio, among other plays. Closely associated for years with San Francisco’s Eureka and Magic Theatres, Woodruff went on to become a sought-after director in New York, where he worked on Michael Cristofer’s Ice at Manhattan Theatre Club and Stephen Poliakoff’s Shout Across the River at the Phoenix Theatre. But he was best known for directing the New York premiere of Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class at the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1978, the world premieres of Buried Child (1978) and True West (1980) at the Magic Theatre (as well as their subsequent New York productions) and the touring version of Tongues and Savage/Love, Shepard’s collaborations with Joseph Chaikin.

This small but exceptional body of work seemed to define Woodruff as a low-key director skilled at removing from the stage environment – and from the actors’ performances – anything that might jeopardize the humor, mystery, and explosive theatricality of Shepard’s word-music. To this day, I can recall as vividly as a slap the 1979 Off Broadway production of Buried Child. I can hear Mary McDonnell’s hysterical laughter as the intruder-girlfriend Shelley, I can feel the shock of Christopher McCann smashing beer bottle after beer bottle against the back of the porch-wall set, I can see eerie Tom Noonan coming in from the backyard with his increasingly dreadful bundles – all of them framed in stage pictures that communicated the essence of the play with phenomenal directness. If it weren’t for the deceptively jaunty, unscripted slow-dance McCann and McDonnell made across the stage before the play proper began, the director’s work would have remained entirely invisible, subservient to the actors and the playwright.

But when I saw his production of Brecht’s A Man’s a Man at the La Jolla Playhouse in the summer of 1985, I realized that Woodruff had become an entirely different kind of director. Performed by a mini-ensemble of Bay Area theatre veterans (including the great American clown Bill Irwin, actors John Vickery, Ebbe Roe Smith and Geoff Hoyle, and Doug Wieselman’s Kamikaze Ground Crew, the pit band for the Flying Karamazov Brothers), this extravagantly, even bizarrely visual production – designed by Doug Stein – was as far from American naturalism as theatre can get. From the minute the audience encountered the lively lobby display – stats on the Indian film industry, tape-recorded instructions on how to do the cha-cha, a photo of Brecht playing clarinet in a Karl Valentin clown performance, and a “silent auction” for an elephant (a beer bottle on a pedestal) – the hand of the director could be felt everywhere. Borrowing freely from avant-garde productions, Woodruff’s A Man’s a Man was aggressively, sometimes irritatingly dense and fragmented, with music and scene changes erupting at inexplicable times. Out flew the green corrugated fence, in flew the wall of Indian movie posters. Expressionistic props and Kabuki makeup appeared and disappeared as casually as the rolling platform from which Irwin drunkenly warbled “The Alabama Song” or the temple hanging that declared (in the same lettering at the Coca-Cola logo) “Enjoy New God!”

At first I was stunned and appalled. The production seemed to be a savage critique of the play, reveling in its repetitiousness and exposing its dramatic structure for the jagged mess it is. Eventually, it became clear that the production reflected the transformation of Brecht’s Galy Gay from simple dockworker to army commander by reinventing itself practically every minute – a faithfulness to the text that hinged on additive principles rather than minimalism, visual cues rather than verbal clarity, and a director willing to stick his neck out rather than fade into the woodwork. It was disturbing. It was meant to be disturbing. Part of what made it disturbing – and exciting, too – was that the production challenged me to rethink my understanding of the art of directing and specifically to reevaluate the career of Robert Woodruff.

As American theatre has evolved over the past generation, stage directors have basically fallen into two camps. On one side are the auteurist directors – Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman, Andrei Serban, Lee Breuer, JoAnne Akalaitis, Elizabeth LeCompte, Peter Sellars, Liviu Ciulei, etc. – whose “conceptual” or visually oriented productions have either forged a bold new style of American theatre or given directors a bad name, depending on who you talk to. Usually considered avant-garde, these directors often (though not always) work with classic texts, as opposed to those in the other camp, the more mainstream directors – Mike Nichols, Gerald Gutierrez, Jerry Zaks, Norman Rene, Emily Mann, John Tillinger, Carole Rothman, Marshall Mason, and others – who primarily direct new plays and whose work is less flashy, more traditional, committed to motivational acting as the basis of American naturalism.

In the past, the middle ground has been pretty sparse, populated only by those musical maestros like Harold Prince or Tommy Tune who occasionally direct plays, and by writers who customarily stage their own work, such as Maria Irene Fornes and Len Jenkin. But in recent years the rank have begun to swell with directors like Garland Wright, Des McAnuff, Adrian Hall, Mark Lamos, and John Malkovich who commute freely from classical to contemporary scripts, who don’t recognize the distinction between mainstream and avant-garde theatre, who see text-oriented naturalism and visual-oriented non-naturalism as aesthetic choices rather than ideologies – who patch up the rift between Meyerhold and Stanislavsky, so to speak. It’s probably no coincidence that the five directors I just mentioned have been associated with established American theatres outside of New York for some time, a situation which apparently not only permits but in some way requires an ability to straddle both the conventional and the innovative, unlike the always potentially commercial (therefore artistically conservative) theatre scene in New York.

Robert Woodruff has become this kind of middle-ground director, yet he has done so without working from a single home base. He had a relationship with the Goodman Theatre in Chicago under Gregory Mosher’s direction, staging David Mamet’s translation of Pierre Laville’s Red River as well as adaptations of The Comedy of Errors and The Three Musketeers featuring new vaudevillians the Flying Karamazov Brothers and Avner the Eccentric. At the Mark Taper Forum, he has recently directed Adrian Hall’s adaptation of John Henry Abbott’s prison memoir In the Belly of the Beast as well as A Madrigal Opera, a short Philip Glass composition with text by Len Jenkin. At the Bay Area Playwrights Festival this year he directed Looking in the Dark For, a play by Paul Bernstein with a sound score by William Harper based on paintings by Eric Fischl. This fall he will team up with the Karamazovs and Len Jenkin again for an adaptation of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, which will premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival. And he continues to do some of his most ambitious work at the La Jolla Playhouse, as I discovered when I saw his production of Odon von Horvath’s Figaro Gets a Divorce there this past summer.

This was, again, a seemingly odd choice for Woodruff, but by now I had come to expect he unexpected – correctly, it turned out. As the title implies, von Horvath’s little-known play (written in 1937 and performed at La Jolla in a refreshingly direct translation by Roger Downey) picks up where Beaumarchais’s play and the Mozart-da Ponte opera leave off: the Count and Countess of Almaviva have fled after the revolution with their servants Figaro and Susannah and as much of their wealth as they can carry. An amusing and ultimately poignant drama about the emotional and moral rigors of political exile, Figaro Gets a Divorce reflects the Austrian playwright’s own experience of fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933, returning for a few months in an attempt to “work within the system,” and then forsaking his country for good (he died in Paris in 1937 in a freak accident). Woodruff’s extravagantly theatrical production set the play in Central America today and drew on the numerous available examples of political leaders driven to exile (the Marcoses from the Phillippines, the Duvaliers from Haiti, etc.). Yet the production marshaled all its theatrical ammunition in service of the play’s ideas. As the characters repeatedly revised their day-to-day identities, each scene was staged virtually as a separate play in a different style – a puppet show, a Noh play, a Broadway pageant, a drag production number – yet the structure of the production, like the play, was circular, tracing the unbroken cycle of human suffering throughout history.

How does a director progress from servant-to-the-text to master-of-visual-theatre, especially without his own laboratory? That’s what I wanted to know from Robert Woodruff when I sat down to talk with him during rehearsals for Figaro Gets a Divorce. I had some ideas of my own about how the director got from the streamlined simplicity of Buried Child to the pyrotechnics of Figaro and A Man’s a Man. The first time I ever spoke to him was shortly after the True West debacle in New York. Remember that? True West was Sam Shepard’s first new play after winning the Pulitzer Prize, and it had been a big hit at the Magic Theatre, so maximum media attention was being paid to its New York debut at the Public Theater in a production starring Peter Boyle and Tommy Lee Jones. Then the opening was postponed, Woodruff left the production, Joe Papp took over as director, and all hell broke loose. Papp openly criticized Woodruff’s direction in The New York Times; out of loyalty to the director, Shepard denounced Papp’s production. The actors got demoralized the play took a beating from critics, and the show closed with breathtaking swiftness. 

Woodruff, schooled in the lack-back Marin school of manners, seemed philosophical. “I’d worked with the show for close to seven weeks, we’d all busted our asses on this thing, and I just don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying, ‘Hey, it didn’t work,’” he told me. But the whole incident must have hurt. Woodruff dropped out of sight after that, busied himself with the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, hasn’t directed any later Shepard plays, and hasn’t done a production in New York since. The next thing I knew, in fact, he was directing Julius Caesar, of all things, at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, in what sounded like a fascinating, high-tech, post-apocalyptic production. Performing Arts Journal dubbed it “Julius Caesar meets Blade Runner.” Coupled with his new-vaudevillian adaptations at the Goodman and Brecht’s A Man’s a Man, it seemed to me that Woodruff has turned to the classics to escape the professional and artistic hassles of developing new work.

But when we finally settled down to talk at Fairfield’s, the greasy spoon that serves as canteen for the La Jolla Playhouse cast and crew, Woodruff indicated that his shift in direction has less to do with classics or with commercial pressure than with collaboration. “I think it’s kind of a natural evolution,” he said. “After working with Sam for a few years, I discovered there’s a sense of collaboration you can get working on established or not-new material that can go further.” With his rough beard and full head of frizzy hair, Woodruff exudes a casual, hipster air that is equal parts intimate friendliness and macho wariness. He keeps his sunglasses on throughout lunch. Thoughtful and questing, he seems more instinctual than intellectual. He doesn’t have a rap down. He thinks while he talks. And he talks with his mouth full. 

With a new play, he pointed out, “the focus really has to be on what the writer is trying to do. When you have older material, the composer and the designer and the performers have more license, and everybody can just…play louder. They don’t have to worry about stepping on people’s toes. The goal is to create a theatrical event, not just to fulfill the text. That’s more exciting right now.” He mulled that over for a minute and added, “Maybe I was a little spoiled working on Sam’s stuff.” Spoiled in what way? “It’s great material. If I’m going to do anything close to realism or anything that’s based in dialogue, then I want to work on stuff that’s that good.

“Also, I think there’s more chance of providing a political context for plays which are already established – it’s easier to connect it to my life and the life of the performers and other collaborators and audience,” he continued. “You can’t get a resonance if you’re fulfilling the script itself, because there’s nothing to resonate off of. If you take older material and deal with it in retrospect, then you’re dealing with the period in which it’s written, the period it’s about, and then today – you have more ideas to play off of. There’s more breadth, more scope. It has a lot to do with collaboration. There’s more place for a composer, more place for a designer. There’s something I like about avoiding agreements. Obviously the set designer and costume designer have to talk about color, but I would almost like to have them separate, to make their own statement. If everybody responds to the material in a way that’s true to them, what emerges is the resonance of all those voices rather than the agreement of all those voices. It has to be more interesting.”

I got a strong sense of what Woodruff meant about seeking resonance just by being in the rehearsal room for Figaro Gets a Divorce. One group of actors was getting ready to watch The Marriage of Figaro on videotape during their lunch break. Another group compared notes on their field trip to a transvestite nightclub in Los Angeles – research for von Horvath’s play, in which Cherubino runs a drag bar. And by all reports, he isn’t just whistling “Dixie” about collaboration. “I’ve never encountered in anybody his determination to get input from everyone around,” observed translator Roger Downey, who sat in on Figaro rehearsals as playwright-surrogate. “He’ll hear someone whispering 15 feet away and he’ll turn around and say, ‘What?’ He wants to know exactly what you’re thinking. Usually he’ll say, ‘Try that, instantly, while it’s hot.’” Greg Mosher, who was responsible for instigating the new vaudevillian’s Comedy of Errors at the Goodman, chose Woodruff to direct the project because “it was either hire an Eric von Stroheim, who would be an absolute authority figure, or hire a guy who would go with everything.”

The mantle of director-for-the-new-vaudevillians is one Woodruff loves. “I’ve learned a lot from that,” he said. “I’ve learned to appreciate joy and innocence. The kind of laughter that erupts out of me when I’m doing the work I would normally have the tendency to bury, but it’s all right with that work. Despite whatever political defeatism I feel at moments, being stupid has its place. The exuberance of performance which the Karamazovs bring to the stage provides an important balance to the miasma which is living in 1986.”

The actors in Figaro Gets a Divorce had an extraordinary influence on the contemporary interpretation of the play, simply because of their divergent ethnic backgrounds (the four leads were played by one Polish, one Japanese and two Hispanic actors). Woodruff assembled this cross-cultural cast accidentally-on-purpose; names like “Figaro” and “Susannah” sounded most right when spoken by actors with Hispanic accents. “I think it’s nice that there are émigrés in the cast. It makes what’s going on what’s going on, rather than pretending,” said Woodruff. “Making happen in the room what the play’s about – to do that is the hardest thing. Not all plays lend themselves to that. If you can do that, it’s very exciting. That’s the ultimate theatre experience.”

Figaro is the first fruit of an expedition Woodruff took last year to Germany. He went to check out the theatre scene there and brought back 36 scripts – a long way to go to find material, but he said, “I’m very frustrated about finding something that’s going to make any sense for me. I’m not much interested in doing just another play. It may sound simplistic, but it’s got to relate somehow to who I am, who I am in this society, who we are in this society, who we are in this world. And maybe I’m not digging deep enough, but I cannot find that in a lot of the material I look at. Also, the frustration of taking responsibility as a citizen of this nation is not so easy for me. Maybe it’s easier for other people. I had a conversation with Garland Wright, and I was struck by how he could relate to this range of material on an amazingly personal level, in terms of what he was going through at a given moment. Perhaps my ability to do that is not as strong. I have to find my place in the world vis-à-vis this play.”

As opposed to something emotional? “Yeah, the emotional connection doesn’t seem to be enough,” he said. “I have to get past humanism. I need something which forces me to seek a way of looking at the world which is not just humanistic or not just normal. I don’t care if it’s Marxist, Buddhist, some socio-economic theory, some postmodern development, George Lukacs, whatever – just so I have to investigate it to solve the piece. Maybe one just grows tired one’s own sensibility and finds ways of enlarging it. I think I’m suffering a bit from that.”

Woodruff has expressed in published interviews over the years a yearning for some system in which American directors could train with masters. Although he has been directing for more than 10 years, he still feels like a young director with much to learn. I asked who his role models were, who he looked to for inspiration, and was surprised when the first name he mentioned was Joseph Chaikin. “The first time I met him, I had to direct him. This was a very frightening thing,” said Woodruff. “But I find him amazing: his attitude about people, this kind of loving skepticism that he has about everything, the way he analyzes and listens to a conversation, the value of language to him. I read his early stuff – Terminal and Nightwalk and other things – but the first piece I saw was Electra. It was striking. Just the idea that you could do Electra with three people amazed me, and Robert Montgomery’s text was so precise and essential that it drove the play toward myth, which a larger production would have had to work incredibly had to achieve. It defined economy in the theatre for me, that piece.” His recent turn toward large-scale, theatrically ambitious spectacle Woodruff attributes to the influence of Bay Area performance-theatre artists such as Chris Hardman, Laura Farabough, and George Coates.

“It all comes out of having done the work with collaborators,” he said. “I’m very lucky to have worked with Sam and with Joe, and I guess the other stuff is picked up along the way.”

Working with such dominant personalities as Sam Shepard, Joseph Chaikin, Bill Irwin, the Flying Karamazov Brothers, Philip Glass, and so forth must be tricky, I conjectured. How does Woodruff hold his own in such company?

“I’m the director. It comes with the title,” he said, slyly adjusting his inscrutable specs. “It’s kind of nice you know?”

American Theatre, October 1986