AMERICAN THEATRE | Gilman and Falls: A Match Made on the Goodman


Rebecca Gillman and Robert Falls. (Photograph by Liz Lauren)

After 25 years of working collectively, Robert Falls and Rebecca Gilman have developed a shorthand fashion of communication that transcends the normal director-playwright relationship. And now they’re about to embark on their newest collaboration, simply as Falls makes his exit as creative director of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, a publish he’s held since 1986.

“Rebecca is my actual soulmate,” stated Falls. “We combat about issues equally, like how we each view the theatre, how actors ought to inform tales, and the subject material.” Fights apart, he stated, “We respect one another, figuring out we’re working towards a standard objective.”

The 2 first crossed paths when Gilman acquired the Scott McPherson Award from the Goodman Theatre in 1999, commissioning her to put in writing Spinning Into Butter, which went on to turn into the third most-produced play within the U.S. 2000-01 season. They’ve since labored on six productions collectively, all of them of performs about American life, typically with a political edge. Their latest venture places politics proper within the title: Swing State runs on the Goodman’s Owen Theatre Oct. 7-Nov. 13.

Swing State is about in Wisconsin, the place Gilman presently resides, through the COVID-19 pandemic, as a lately widowed retired college counselor finds herself caught in the course of feuds amongst neighbors over the actions of an out-of-state energy firm. Swing State affords a up to date portrait of America’s heartland at a time when many of us really feel their lifestyle is at risk of disappearing, and everybody appears to have a special concept of what it means to be an American.

“Wisconsin is so great and problematic,” Gilman stated. “I believe I’m making an attempt to convey what it’s prefer to reside in a spot you like that you just really feel is heading within the flawed course.”

The play additionally offers with grief and loss for a lifestyle that’s political,” Falls elaborated. “Are we dropping our democracy? Are we completely divided? Can we heal? I believe it’s a play of the second. The 4 characters signify the present panorama of a political divide occurring in our nation as we speak.”

Falls was launched to Gilman’s work by Susan V. Sales space, then answerable for new-play improvement on the Goodman (and now Falls’s successor as creative director), who urged him to learn her The Glory of Dwelling, a bleak drama a couple of couple who lure younger girls right into a den of abuse and homicide.

“I used to be gripped and terrified,” stated Falls of the play. “I used to be struck and shocked by the play’s boldness and the standard of this voice, which had a sparseness to it. But the language and dialogue have been so genuine. I simply felt this was a novel and incredible author, and I wished to satisfy her.”

The Glory of Dwelling had a brief run at Chicago’s Circle Theatre in 1998, and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2002. Across the identical time, Falls was directing Demise of a Salesman on the Goodman, which went on win Tonys on Broadway. When 1999’s Spinning Into Butter was staged on the Goodman, with Les Waters as director, Gilman was put comfortable when she realized that Falls “heard my play the best way I heard it in my head.”

A torn-from-the-headlines play about racism in academia, Spinning Into Butter went on to Lincoln Heart in 2000. However when Gilman and Falls met to debate subsequent steps, she advised him she was planning to return to being a temp employee.

“I don’t assume it’s a secret that playwrights don’t make a lot cash,” Gilman stated. Though her play had been was profitable, it solely stuffed an auditorium of 350 individuals every night time, she reasoned. However Gilman didn’t have to return to temping, as a result of the Goodman commissioned her to put in writing one other play.

“I used to be thrilled and grateful,” Gilman stated. “It made me really feel like I had a director who believed in me, and the Goodman could possibly be my dwelling theatre.”

Stephen Louis Grush, Cliff Chamberlain, Heather Wooden, and Sarah Charipar in “A True Historical past of the Johnstown Flood” at Goodman Theatre. (Photograph by Eric Y. Exit)

Her subsequent play was Boy Will get Lady, a disturbing thriller a couple of blind date gone unhealthy that examines the road between infatuation and obsession. It had a profitable run at Goodman and made Time’s listing of one of the best performs of the last decade.

By this time, Falls stated, he was in awe of Gilman’s work. “Boy Will get Lady was one among three performs in my profession about which I stated, ‘We’ve got to do that.’” The truth is, he wasn’t in a position to direct the play as a result of he was engaged on one other manufacturing. They’d be reunited for her subsequent Goodman manufacturing, however not earlier than a couple of false begins. Gilman initially wrote the draft of a play about Little Girls creator Louise Could Alcott (“It was horrible,” she stated of that abortive effort). And one other performed known as The Nice Baseball Strike of 1944 was introduced, then scrapped.

Changing it was a gritty drama known as Blue Surge, concerning the relationship between cops and intercourse employees, impressed by a passage in John Bowe’s guide Gig: Individuals Speak About Their Jobs. Falls was on board as director; the play premiered on the Goodman in 2001.

Whereas Falls could also be finest recognized for his towering productions of performs by Eugene O’Neill or Arthur Miller, he additionally developed a status for giving world-premiere writers like Eric Bogosian or Steve Tesich the identical consideration.

Maggie Siff and Anthony Starke in Robert Falls’s 2005 manufacturing of “Dollhouse” by Rebecca Gilman. (Photograph by Michael Brosilow)

“When Bob took over as creative director on the Goodman, he promised to provide traditional performs as if they have been new and new performs as if they have been classics,” stated Gilman. “Because of this, I acquired the identical respect as Shakespeare and Chekhov.”

Respect doesn’t imply there aren’t occasional disagreements.

“Bob will say one thing is unclear, and I’ll insist that it’s,” Gilman stated. “We are going to go into a non-public room and he’ll look forward to me patiently to beat my stubbornness till I agree to put in writing a couple of extra strains. Then the actors will agree that the textual content is far clearer.” In spite of everything these years, she joked, “My stubbornness has gone from 20 minutes to 2 minutes. The digging in of my heels is shorter as a result of I belief Bob.”

To elucidate their affinity, Gilman factors to her and Falls’s shared backgrounds: They each grew up in small cities, and neither got here from an inventive household however found theatre by studying performs within the public library. 

“Even when we had by no means labored collectively,” Gilman stated, “I do know we’d have been pals. Now I really feel like we’re rising previous collectively and have the identical tackle life and the way theatre performs a task in our lives.”

After Blue Surge, Falls prompt to Gilman that she write a up to date model of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s Home. Falls maintained that she and Ibsen had related writing types, and thought, “Rebecca was in a position to convey an ethical perspective on his work.” 

Gilman’s Dollhouse, a up to date replace on the traditional drama, entwined with darkish comedy and social satire set within the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago, premiered on the Goodman in 2005. Their subsequent collaboration was A True Historical past of the Johnstown Flood, impressed by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Gilman’s subsequent fee wasn’t from the Goodman, however as she labored on the play that may outcome, Luna Gale, a gripping, intricate drama about little one welfare and habit, she stated she felt Falls’s presence. “Though Bob had nothing to do with the method, he in the end knowledgeable my selections on how I wrote the play from starting to finish,” she stated.

Mary Beth Fisher within the world-premiere manufacturing of ‘Luna Gale’ by Rebecca Gilman, directed by Robert Falls at Goodman Theatre. (Photograph by Liz Lauren)

That turned out to be prophetic when the commissioning theatre determined to not produce Luna Gale, and Falls stepped in as director of the present’s 2014 Goodman premiere. The play went on to earn the 2014 Jeff Award for New Work, the 2015 Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Affiliation New Play Award, and the 2016 LA Drama Critics Award.

The dynamism of the Gillman-Falls partnership doesn’t solely apply to premieres. After Gilman’s Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976, a thought-provoking story concerning the company takeover of a small-town cheese firm in Wisconsin, was commissioned and carried out on the Repertory Theater in St. Louis in 2014, Gilman and Falls joined for a revival on the Goodman in 2016.

The method of collaborating on Swing State through the pandemic made every little thing completely different, Falls famous. “With Swing State, we jumped off the cliff collectively into the unknown, and have simply been along with the play another way.”

Cliff Chamberlain, Cora Vander Broek, Lindsay Inventory, and Angela Reed in “Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976” by Rebecca Gilman, directed by Robert Falls at Goodman Theatre. (Photograph by Liz Lauren)

Falls will likely be collectively together with his dwelling theatre another way quickly, although he’s not folding up his director’s chair for good: He’ll direct Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard there within the spring.

“Whereas it’s my final collaboration as creative director with Rebecca,” stated Falls, “I hope there will likely be many extra collaborations as director and playwright sooner or later.”

Jill Grant (she/her) is a Chicago-based freelance author who has coated theatre, dance, and movie for the Pioneer Press, Chicago, and the Columbia Every day Spectator, NY, and extra.  She is a graduate of Barnard Faculty, Columbia College, and has labored at two massive PR businesses.

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