A.R.T.: Artistic Director, 2002-07. Directed Britannicus, Orpheus X, Island of Slaves, Olly's Prison, Oedipus, Sound of a Voice, Highway Ulysses, Richard II, Full Circle (2000 Elliot Norton Award for Best Director) and In the Jungle of Cities (1998 Elliot Norton Award for Best Director). A.R.T./MXAT Institute: directed Charles L. Mee's Trojan Women A Love Story.
Robert Woodruff is one of the country's most versatile stage directors. His theatrical vocabulary encompasses a remarkable range of styles, from the naturalistic simplicity of his productions of Shepard and Bond to his baroque deconstructions of Shakespeare and Brecht. Woodruff collaborates with living playwrights and revisits the masterpieces of the classical canon with equal flair. His body of work resists categorization, and is united only by the power of his imagination and the rigor that he demands of his actors and designers. After thirty years of directing, Woodruff continues to develop fresh dramatic forms with each production.
Woodruff was born in Brooklyn in 1947 and spent his childhood on Long Island. After gaining a B.A. in political science at the University of Buffalo he began graduate studies at the City College of New York. In 1971, disenchanted with the reactionary New York theatre establishment, he moved to San Francisco to seek out new writers and artistic collaborators. The following year he co-founded the Eureka Theatre, where he served as Artistic and Resident Director until 1978.
In 1976 Woodruff established his second theatre, the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, a summer forum for the development of new plays that is still flourishing. It was here that Woodruff first worked with the writer Sam Shepard, on a libretto that Shepard had developed for the national bicentennial celebrations, The Sad Lament of Pecos Bill. The thirty-three year-old playwright was still better known in London than the States, and his collaborations with Woodruff marked a turning point in both men's careers. For the next five years Woodruff was virtually the sole director of Shepard's work, staging the American premiere of Curse of the Starving Class at the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1978, the world premieres of Buried Child (1978) and True West (1980) in San Francisco and New York, and the touring productions of Tongues and Savage/Love, which Shepard co-authored with the performer Joseph Chaikin.
While staging Shepard's naturalistic family dramas, Woodruff developed an unadorned directorial style that emphasized textual precision and subtlety of performance over elaborate stagecraft. From time to time he still draws on this minimalist form, in his recent New York revival of Edward Bond's Saved, for example, and in domestic interludes in Richard II, Full Circle, and In the Jungle of Cities, where time slows almost to a halt, and the most mundane details take on poetic significance.
In 1983 Woodruff staged The Comedy of Errors with the The Flying Karamazov Brothers at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and at Lincoln Center in New York City. The production was the first in which Woodruff's directorial hand was immediately visible, and audiences were astonished to find fire-eaters, acrobats, and jugglers delivering Shakespeare's language. His formal experimentation continued with a series of major productions at the La Jolla Playhouse in California, and other regional houses including the Mark Taper Forum, the Guthrie Theatre, and the American Conservatory Theatre. Although he continued to stage new plays, he developed a reputation as one of a handful of progressive directors who enjoy working with classic texts from every period.
At La Jolla, Woodruff's productions included radical deconstructions of The Tempest, Happy Days, and Man's a Man, the first part of his cycle of Brecht's early plays that continued with Baal (1990) at Trinity Repertory Company, and In the Jungle of Cities (1998) at A.R.T. Woodruff is particularly adept at unpacking the visceral poetry of Brecht's sprawling epics. Writing in the Boston Globe, Kevin Kelly described Baal as "fiery onslaught. It burns right in front of you, scorches everything it touches, and draws you into the roar of its out-of-control furnace. It may be the single most brilliant Brecht I've ever seen."
Woodruff's investigation of the classics continued with Julius Caesar, The Duchess of Malfi, Medea, and The Changeling. The latter two he staged in Israel, where he has established a considerable body of work. Although these revivals were stylistically very different from each other, they all challenged conventional notions of scale and design. Woodruff frequently avoids a unified aesthetic style in his productions, preferring to create startling visual and aural juxtapositions that shed new light on canonical texts. "Unity is overrated," he once said. "Defining a whole and making all its pieces correspond to that oneness can lead to a stifling politeness. I'd rather take each moment and make it burn, make that color very bright."
One of Woodruff's greatest strengths as a director is his ability to collaborate. Whether staging the first production of a new play or reviving a classical masterpiece, his writers, actors, and designers work with him as equals. He has built firm relationships with some of the world's finest playwrights, performers, and artists, including the scenic designers Douglas Stein and George Tsypin, who have contributed much to Woodruff's visual style. Although he has a strong aesthetic vision, Woodruff allows his collaborators an unusual latitude in shaping each production. "I don't try to control, I try to encourage," he once told an interviewer. "There's something I like about avoiding agreements. Obviously the set designer and the 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."
In recent years, one of Woodruff's chief collaborators has been the playwright Charles L. Mee, who shares his taste for collage composition. Woodruff's A.R.T. production of Mee's Full Circle was a fine example of the director's mature style - a patchwork of dramatic forms that continuously subverted the audience's expectations, forcing them into a new encounter with apparently familiar material, and providing an ironic commentary on Mee's text and the political eruption that it dramatizes. As Full Circle admirably demonstrated, although Woodruff's reputation is as a director of intensely introspective tragedies, he is equally at home in a world of dazzling vaudeville.
Although he lives in New York, Woodruff seldom directs there, preferring the more generous schedules of the larger regional theatres. "You can't do The Comedy of Errors with nineteen vaudevillians in Manhattan," he once said. Since 1997 he has taught directing and acting as Assistant Professor at Columbia University, and has earned a reputation as one of the nation's most committed and popular mentors. In 1983 he told Scott Cummings, then a student at the Yale School of Drama, that one of his greatest regrets about theatre in the States was the lack of formal apprenticeship. "As a director that's very difficult," he said, "because of the responsibility you assume with your role. Directing is by its very nature a master craft. It takes years." Eighteen years later, Robert Woodruff has become one of the undisputed master-craftsmen of the American theatre. It is a great privilege that he has agreed to make A.R.T. his artistic home, and we are thrilled to participate in the next chapter of his remarkable career.