Though he’s just 63, Goodman Theatre executive director Roche Schulfer has been on the Chicago institution’s roster longer than many of the staff and artists who work under his roof have been alive.
The Chicago native, who’d gotten a taste for producing while leading a student arts council at Notre Dame, joined the theatre’s staff as a box-office agent right out of college in 1973. “I was an economics major,” Schulfer says, but “I liked the arts and I said, ‘Well, maybe I should try to do this for a living, whatever this is.’”
The Goodman was already five decades old when Schulfer came on, but it wasn’t the powerhouse it is today. The company had a relatively low profile at the time and had only recently resumed producing professionally after many years as a student arm of the Art Institute of Chicago. Schulfer arrived just in time for the Goodman’s “modern age,” as he puts it, and moved quickly up through the ranks, producing new work for Goodman’s Stage 2. Within a decade, he was the company’s executive director.
Arts management programs and internships simply weren’t a thing at the time, Schulfer notes, as the regional theatre movement was beginning to take hold. “The whole idea of theatre as an art form is pretty new in this country,” he allows. “So if you wanted to work you got a job. I got one job and decided to keep it.”
Schulfer has since guided the Goodman through more than four decades of growth and growing pains, working alongside artistic directors William Woodman, Gregory Mosher and Robert Falls as the landscape of regional theatre—and that of Chicago theatre in particular—developed and changed all around him.
In January, I sat in to hear Schulfer (whose first name is pronounced “rock”) address a small crowd of new and prospective theatre board members as part of the Arts & Business Council of Chicago’s On BOARD training program. A few days later, I caught him in action at the Goodman, presiding over a preshow donors’ dinner on opening night of Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn.
Soon after, I sat down with Schulfer in his office for a discussion about the Goodman’s sometimes forgotten ups and downs (and there were some very down downs); how the League of Chicago Theatres (which he helped found, and which will be giving him a Lifetime Achievement Award this spring) has nurtured a spirit of connectedness and cooperation; and the challenges and opportunities facing nonprofit theatre in the years ahead. Surrounded by memorabilia from play productions, rock shows and sports—a lifelong White Sox fan, Schulfer keeps a bowl filled with baseballs on display on his office coffee table—the congenial but shrewd exec, whose own frame is nearly as thin as that of his glasses, offered thoughtful responses to a wide range of questions.
KRIS VIRE: When you arrived in 1973, the Goodman had only recently returned to producing professionally.
ROCHE SCHULFER: That was also the time when the not-for-profit theatre movement was gaining traction. The whole idea of theatre as an art form is pretty new in this country—up until the mid-’60s, and the Ford Foundation and NEA and all that stuff, it was Broadway and, you know, kinda Off-Broadway, and then nothing much else, professionally, anyway. It was in 1972 or ’73 that the Goodman started to assume the not-for-profit resident theatre shape and business model.
With the rise of the Off-Loop movement, Bob Sickinger’s Hull House Theatre, companies like Organic and Victory Gardens coming along in the 1970s, where was Goodman positioned among all that activity?
It really had very little identity, quite frankly. Stuart Gordon had been in town for a couple of years and was starting the Organic; the Hull House was in operation; Grease had started. But really there wasn’t the coherent Off-Loop movement quite yet at that time, even though there was Second City, of course—and Second City is one of the reasons that there is an indigenous theatre in Chicago.
But when Bill Woodman arrived, the first thing he did was get a grant from the Illinois Arts Council to start a second stage to do new plays, and he hired Greg Mosher to be his assistant to run that series. Greg brought David Mamet into the theatre. Because Greg and I sort of hit it off, we evolved into the producing team for Stage 2, starting in the fall of 1974. We did the premiere of American Buffalo in the fall of 1975, and that started to give the Goodman a bit of an identity for doing new work.
That was also the time that Victory Gardens started; soon after that you have Steppenwolf. So young artists were discovering, “Hey, there’s this city where you can do stuff.” There’s the famous story about Paul Sills—after Stuart Gordon did a naked Peter Pan in Madison, Wisc., Sills invited Stuart to come down to Chicago, saying, “Hey, this is a great, cool place to be.”
Anyway, there wasn’t much of a scene when I started here, and so of course I created the scene. [Laughs] No, who knows why those things happen? My own personal opinion is that [Chicago Tribune theatre critic] Claudia Cassidy was quite right to savage touring productions that came to Chicago, because they were cut-rate affairs—but that meant Broadway producers didn’t bring many shows to Chicago, and that kind of left an opening for Second City and Hull House. A kind of critical mass of interest took place.
You rose pretty quickly from managing the box office, to producing on the second stage, to general manager—at that time, everyone who got in on the ground floor learned to run a theatre by running a theatre.
Well, yes—it was a time when there weren’t theatre-management programs, there weren’t internships. And all the institutions were smaller, so there was a chance to rise through the ranks sooner rather than later.
Having said that, when the Goodman separated from the Art Institute in 1977–78, there weren’t a lot of people who thought that it was going to survive, because the artistic reputation had been up and down and there was no consistent track record of quality. So the job of artistic director and managing director of the Goodman in those early years—I won’t say it was rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, but I’m not sure there was a huge demand from the best and the brightest across the country to come and do this job. So for both Greg and myself, it was a set of circumstances that gave us an opportunity, and fortunately we were able to make the most of it.
You weathered some rocky times during Greg’s tenure.
The first 10 years after the separation from the Art Institute, which really leads up to Bob [Falls]’s coming here, were really tough. It was up and down, but more down than up—we were on the brink at least two times of going bankrupt, for all intents and purposes. It would be disingenuous to say that Greg and I didn’t cause part of that, because we were very ambitious in what we wanted to do, and suddenly we were taking on these very challenging plays and we didn’t have the infrastructure to do it. We didn’t have the resources to do them correctly, and the productions were generally lackluster. I talk to people at Off-Loop theatres and say, “Believe it or not, I know what it’s like to have one thought on your mind: making payroll this week so that you can stay in business.”
It was also around this time that the Goodman began efforts to increase diversity—including the oft-told tale of casting the first African-American Tiny Tim in the annual Christmas Carol, and the backlash that ensued.
That was really something. To be positive about it, what’s great is that now A Christmas Carol has had a colorblind cast for years and years, and very rarely does anybody take note of it—and if they do, it’s in a positive way. But believe it or not, in the early ’80s—and not only with Christmas Carol but with plays like An Enemy of the People—the whole question was “Is it appropriate?” “Were there people of color in Dickens’s London?” There was a backlash—we lost audience members, we lost subscribers. This being America, there were people who were very vocal in their statements.
But in the long run, we developed a new audience—a larger and a broader audience than we had before. Now we can look back and say this is something that’s been established: In a city that still deals with a lot of segregation, one place that you’re less likely to find that is on the stages and in the audience of Chicago theatres. That’s not to say that it’s all perfect, but it’s quite remarkable how established it’s become.
But these are stories—universal stories. We’re not producing documentaries here; we’re producing heightened reality, from a hopefully universal perspective most of the time. And, certainly, working with August Wilson over the years—he had very strong feelings about colorblind and nontraditional casting. But in the long run, the more inclusive theatre is, the more inclusive theatre artists are, the better for our society.
When Greg left for Lincoln Center and Bob took his place, were there many candidates? Was there a wide net cast at that time?
Yeah. I mean, there’s no doubt that Bob was a leading contender right off the bat, because he had tremendous success at Wisdom Bridge. But we worked with Peter Zeisler, the legendary head of TCG, who agreed to pro bono serve as a search consultant. Maybe six or seven people were finally interviewed by a committee of the board. And Bob clearly emerged as a very exciting possibility for the theatre.
And now the two of you have nearly three decades together here.
I said to many people during the 40th-anniversary celebration [of my tenure] that I’m having this 40th-anniversary celebration because of Bob Falls. I obviously think he’s the best artistic director in the country. You’ve gotta be a tremendous director, you’ve gotta be a tremendous producer, and you have to be able to deal with the administrative aspects of running a big organization, from season planning to staffing and new play development and fundraising. There are many people in the country who do two out of three of those things very well—oh, I’ll get in trouble for saying all this.
Bob came in, and the big thing was that he reinvented the leadership structure from an artistic standpoint, with what’s now called the artistic collective. He said, “If it’s just about me and my priorities and my ego, people are going to get bored.” The first thing he said to the board was, “We need to appropriate money to hire people to be associate artists in residence.” Frank Galati and Michael Maggio were the first two people to come on board, and Mary Zimmerman, Chuck Smith and Regina Taylor later joined the group.
It was just a few years after Bob came in that the Goodman announced the intention to move from the Art Institute to this address in the Loop, but it took…
…the best years of my life! Actually, it took 10 years. In talking to real-estate developers, they said 10 years to do a major redevelopment project downtown is not a long time—and the streets of the Loop are littered with projects that took at least that long to get off the ground. But the old theatre had gone past its use-by date, and the Art Institute really hadn’t invested money in keeping it up. It was a terrible design to begin with, in terms of acoustics and backstage capacity, and we had outgrown it from an office standpoint; we told the board that if the Goodman was to be a theatre for all of Chicago, if it was to really become a major theatre in this country, we had to deal with the facility.
Fortunately, there were two trustees who listened; most of the rest of them thought we were certifiably insane for even imagining this. I mean, a theatre that two-and-a-half years prior had been virtually bankrupt was now talking about raising $20 million to build a new venue.
We ended up raising $33 million over the course of time, but those were wild years. I think people were skeptical about whether it would happen until the doors actually opened.
That was a necessary move, in retrospect, but you can hear criticism in cities around the country about regional theatre institutions perhaps falling a little too much in love with prestige facilities.
The edifice complex!
Exactly. Do you see that as a trend, or a problem, in the larger industry?
Oh, I suppose there are examples. It’s a very hard thing to do correctly, and, yes, probably people have bitten off more than they can chew.
We said to our board, we have to hire architects who know how to design and construct a theatre. We can’t hire a celebrity architect who builds a work of sculpture and then the theatre has to fit inside it. It really caused conflict, because our lead architects were from Canada—they had built a couple dozen theatres in Canada—and there were a lot of Chicago architects who wanted to be involved in this. But the board withstood the pressure, and we benefited from that, because the building works for the artists, for the staff, and most important at the end of the day, for the audiences.
The other reason it took 10 years is that our board would not commit to move forward until we had raised all of the money—once you open the building, they pointed out, you can’t raise any more [building campaign] money, basically. It’s like people want to be part of it while it’s still in the dream stage; once it becomes a reality, they are less interested. There are institutions who financed a large portion of [their own] projects so that they could move forward sooner rather than later, and now are carrying a big debt load. Very few people saw the Great Recession coming, when suddenly everything went to hell from a fundraising and financing standpoint.
I’ve worked with most of the theatres in Chicago that have built new theatres or are considering building new theatres, and I tell them about our experience here and the fact that it does change everything. The old Goodman had its shabby charm—but here, audiences are in a beautiful space and their expectations become higher; they’re less forgiving than they were when you were a scrappy storefront operation. Steppenwolf went through it. Victory Gardens went through it.
I heard you speak to prospective trustees about how, as theatremakers, you have to sell to two marketplaces: audiences and grantmakers. There’s a perception that it’s easier to get funding for concrete things like a building than it is for operations costs or artistic costs. Would you agree?
Well, certainly for big gifts. When philanthropic entities have the chance to put their names on things, you know, that will stimulate a higher level of support. What I would say I’ve seen over the past 20 or 25 years is that raising large gifts is tougher than it’s been. But, on the other hand, as our base has expanded and the audience has expanded, we can depend more on the passion and loyalty of individual contributors. The $50,000 and $100,000-plus gifts are tougher to get, but the $100 to $5,000 gifts are somewhat easier to get. The general public understands the business model better than they did 20 or 30 years ago. Again, theatre in this country was once Broadway, and the whole notion of not-for-profit has taken a long time for people to really grasp.
For me, it’s about the 1960s, when the culture industry started. The business model, in the case of the theatre, was based on the generally accepted principle that you should raise at least 60 percent of your revenue from ticket sales. Well, that’s a high figure if you’re going to maintain reasonable ticket prices and if you’re going to do programming that involves artistic risk taking. This is another huge discussion I’m hoping to stimulate, not just in the American theatre but overall. We really haven’t gone back to look at those original assumptions. When funders look at our budget and see, “Oh, you earned 60 percent at the box office. That’s good.” Is that good? Who says that’s good? Maybe that’s bad. Maybe that limits accessibility, because you have to charge higher prices.
A lot of this discussion was all theoretical a few years ago. For example, everybody talks about dynamic pricing in terms of the Broadway model, and the way it’s like, “You wanna see Billy Crystal? It’s $800 tonight.” But the other side of that proposition is that when we’re doing a new play and we sense that there’s some price resistance or things aren’t selling the way we would like them to, we can lower prices. When we’ve done that in the last two or three years, what we’ve seen is a spike in demand. There have been other examples: Signature Theatre and its $25 season.
To get back to your question: Yes, it is harder to raise large chunks of money, but there’s a loyal grassroots support that’s growing, and we need as an industry to talk about what really makes sense for access to the arts; for appropriate risk taking. What kind of business model makes sense? Those are the things we need to talk with funders about.
What do you think of the notion that younger generations of potential theatregoers are more resistant to the subscription model? Do you see evidence of that?
In general, the challenge we have is getting younger audiences into the theatre—I think if we can get them in, we have a chance of their coming back. But you know, 40 years ago when I started out (and this was noted in the early books about the future of the performing arts), the question was: The audiences are all old and gray, so where are the future audiences coming from? It’s the same issue now. Meanwhile, there are lots more people going to the Goodman and to the arts in Chicago than there were 40 years ago. So it’s hard at this point to get hysterical about the future of audiences, because I see the same discussion being repeated.
Now the good thing about technology is that in the old days, say 20 years ago, you’d have the Danny Newman model—and Danny was very good to me, and he would be the first one to laugh at this description: You drop a million brochures from a helicopter and hope for a 1.5-percent return and then pray for good reviews, because that was your marketing campaign. There was no way to reach people economically on a single-ticket basis—we couldn’t afford TV advertising or mega-newspaper advertising. Now it’s all changed—you can connect with audiences not just about what you’re doing but why you’re doing it. And, from a practical standpoint, we can offer incentives to attend the theatre in ways that we could never have dreamed of. I mean, when I started at the Goodman, we didn’t even take credit cards. It was as though the whole philosophy was to make it as hard as possible for people to attend.
I went into this business to earn a living—to be a professional; it was a vocation, not an avocation. My concern is that so many younger theatre people coming out are thinking, “If I really want to do what I want to do, I’ve got to get a day job and do theatre work at night.” This makes me sad. When we were starting out, the notion was if you did good work you could grow—you could get to the next step, have a career, be employed, have health insurance, all of that stuff.
One of the reasons many aspiring artists seem to move to Chicago after college is because it’s still possible to start a theatre company and get attention almost right away. You’ve talked about entrepreneurship, about Chicago as the “Silicon Valley for theatre startups.” How much of that is attributable to the unique inclusiveness of the League of Chicago Theatres?
Well, at the risk of sounding self-serving, because I was one of the founders of what became the league, I’ll say that the League of Chicago Theatres is to my knowledge unique in this country as a trade and service organization for the arts. It embraces commercial, not-for-profit, Equity, non-Equity, vocational, avocational, community, educational theatres—they’re all in the league. So if you are a theatre or a theatre producer with the barest minimum of a track record, you can be a member of the league.
I think the 12 or 13 of us who started the Producers Association [which became the league] back in the mid-’70s had this feeling of we’re all in this together, this merry band of young producers. That encouraged the notion that it’s not competition, it’s an ecological system, and that each individual theatre’s success eventually benefits everybody. In simple terms, we talk about the fact that anybody who’s in Chicago theatre can pick up the phone and call anybody else in Chicago theatre and get a response.
Is there still room in Chicago for a small company, a startup company, to reach the institutional level of a Goodman or a Steppenwolf? Should there be?
Oooof. Well, I’ll answer the easier part first: Yes, there’s certainly room. And why not? If people have the talent, desire, dedication and willingness to be committed to something over time, I think it can still happen here.
Is it easy? No. But look at some of the history of what’s happened here. Chicago Shakespeare’s story is one for the ages. Barbara Gaines, an actor of a particular age, says, “You know what? I don’t wanna be an actor anymore. I’m gonna create a world-class Shakespeare company.” [Mock-incredulous] Like, yeah? Based on what, exactly? You like Shakespeare? And then she goes out over 10 or 15 years and does it. I do think that kind of thing is still possible. I am concerned about the degree of difficulty, but if it’s possible anywhere in the country, it’s possible here.
I have to ask, given the current leadership transition at Steppenwolf, if you and Bob and your board have had conversations about succession plans.
Well, Bob and I don’t ever plan to die or retire. So that’s our succession plan. [Laughs] We’re both here for a while—we’re both on contracts, and we’re still enjoying the work and I think being productive contributors to society. Yes, there will eventually come a time, so when we talk about succession plans we start with three things: Create a theatre company that is demonstrably committed to artistic development and risk-taking; create a company that engages with the community in a proactive way, so that you’re reaching as broad an audience as possible; and create a theatre company that has money in the bank. If you do those three things, you will attract the best people—not just in the country but in the world—to come and work here.
Kris Vire is an associate editor and the chief theatre critic for Time Out Chicago.