The Goodman Theatre opened its new Dearborn center in 2000. Roche Schulfer, the long-serving Executive Director responsible for that project, had already been on the job for 20 years.
A few years ago, in recognition of his 40 years of service, a large bronze plaque was installed in the sidewalk under the Goodman marquee.
And on the night before we sat down for our CONVERSATION, Roche Schulfer could be found in the lobby greeting the opening night audience eager to view Mary Zimmerman’s revival of Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man”—the Tony Award winning director’s 16th Goodman show in a 25-year association that began with Goodman’s Artistic Collective.
Spend a few minutes speaking with Schulfer and you realize that theatre is more of a lifestyle than a career. We discussed his keen views on the expansion of not-for-profit theatre over the last 60 years, its role as an incubator for new work development and the importance of creating multiple revenue streams to sustain the over-arching goal of serving the art.
The dynamic leadership team of Schulfer and Artistic Director Robert Falls has resulted in unparalleled critical and financial success for the Goodman and has allowed the Tony Award-winning Regional Theatre to invest resources in the educational and engagement programs that have helped establish a professional path for the nations’ top emerging playwrights, directors and actors.
There’s much more ahead for the Goodman and for one of America’s top theatrical executives and producers, Roche Schulfer. PODCAST
Mary Zimmerman and ‘The Music Man’… “When you have the opportunity to take on a brilliant American musical like ‘The Music Man,’ an iconic musical to say the least, and work with an artist who is a certifiable genius—Mary Zimmerman—those opportunities don't come along all that often. So, that made it special. It's great to be able to do big musical theatre work. It's very exciting. We have a relatively intimate house compared to some of the other theaters in which you see musicals in Chicago. To be able to see an audience responding to something like ‘The Music Man’ in a very intimate setting with a Broadway scale production. That's fun. … Robert Falls talked last night about the fact that over the course of her career, Mary has really created a theatre aesthetic that is her own, so that you would rarely mistake her work for anybody else's work. And that's been true in the 16 productions that she's done for us that have ranged from big musicals to intimate works in our studio theater and Owen stage. All very distinctive. All having a Mary Zimmerman quality.”
The Cast of ‘The Music Man’ … “It's a fantastic group of people. Some have worked with Mary before. Some have been mainstays of Chicago musical theatre. I can only agree it's an all-star group from top to bottom. Jeff Packard and Monica West who play Harold and Marian give superb, moving performances. Fantastic choreography as well. Musical direction by Jermaine Hill. Let's just say it sounds like there are many more instruments in the pit than there actually are.”
Serving the Art … “There are about 150 full-time administrative, managerial and technical craftspeople. Almost everything we do is built in our own shops—scene shop, costume shop, prop shop, sound, electrics—and these are individuals who take enormous pride in serving the art, in giving artists the opportunity to do the best work that they are capable of doing; seeing their visions fully realized on stage. The staff who work here always go the extra mile to make sure that we're serving the art, serving the artist and thereby serving the audience. There's no confusion here. We're a business. Our business is to create works of art. And the higher the quality, the more they resonate with audiences, the more the theatre will be successful in the long run. That sense pervades everybody who works at the Goodman.”
Robert Falls … “Working with Robert Falls has really been great over the years. And that's not to say that we don't debate, discuss, argue about priorities and things like that. He and I view ourselves as co-producers of the Goodman and custodians of a Chicago institution. … There's a tremendous level of collaboration. … He's rare among artistic directors in this country because he really does understand that unless there's a partnership with an executive leader, you can't really achieve anything in the long run.”
Live Theatre in the Digital Age… “What the theatre business suffers from is that we're not film or television. We're not digitally reproducible. That's both our economic weakness and our aesthetic strength. If you're not here, in this building, between now and August 18th, at a specific time, you are not going to experience this production of ‘The Music Man.’ It's not going to be online. … You can actually miss something in the theatre. Whereas in the digital world of today, everything is online. If you miss a TV show, you just go online and see it. That hurts our economics because it drives ticket prices up since, as you said, there are only so many days in the week, only so many performances and only so many seats. And when you're doing a show that has between the musicians and actors in it--upwards of 40 plus people—it becomes expensive. So, that's the dilemma because we certainly want it to be as affordable as we possibly can. ‘The Music Man’ is not inexpensive, but on the other hand, by Broadway show standards, it is. That's something we can still offer to our audiences: a Broadway-type show in an 800-seat theater with ticket prices that are less than what you would pay elsewhere.”
Loyal Goodman Season Subscribers … “There are a lot of cliches about subscribers or ‘members,’ as we call them, that they are intrinsically conservative and they tend to resist challenging programming. Quite frankly, I've found the opposite to be the case. Our subscribers embrace the range of work that we do. They embrace the opportunity to see new and unfamiliar work. It's getting single-ticket buyers to make the leap to see something new that is much, much harder. We have had such a tremendous response from our subscribers to the new work that we've done and we have had very excellent renewal rates for subscriptions. … Anyone who subscribes to a season of plays is a true believer, is making a real commitment and loyalty to the Goodman is just off the charts. The great Danny Newman, who sort of invented or developed the subscription campaign in this country, used to talk about the ‘loyal subscriber’ and the ‘fickle single-ticket buyer.’ And he was absolutely right. It is much harder to get people to come out to buy a single ticket to a given show, whereas anyone who subscribes to the Goodman will have a season of work with a range of aesthetic, cultural content and diversity that you won't find anywhere else in Chicago or even in the country in most cases.”
The Five-Year Plan? … “I subscribe to the belief that if you want to make the universe laugh, tell it your plans. For me, my future will be what my future is. As long as I'm able to be an effective leader of the Goodman, and they want me to be a leader of the Goodman, then that will be the case. In terms of the Goodman overall—because it's larger than any group of people—we've hoped to establish here an exemplary cultural institution, something that can be a model, an example, and an inspiration, to other people in the long run in terms of the range of work and the quality of work that we are able to do. So, for the Goodman, the short term is about building an endowment because the only way you can fill the gap between ticket prices, contributions, and expenses is to have a third stream of revenue from money in the bank that generates interest each year and allows you to still maintain reasonable ticket prices.”
An Alternate Career Aspiration? … “In a parallel universe, I played first base for the White Sox for many years. … Baseball was fine until they started throwing real breaking pitches and then it was time to do something else.”
Comments have been edited for length and clarity.
PRODUCTION PHOTOS|Liz Lauren