When Steven Woolf took over the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, one of Missouri’s two large LORT companies, in 1986, the theatre was on the ropes. “Nobody was liking the work—it was a scary time,” Woolf recalled in a recent interview. A Milwaukee native, Woolf was working as the Rep’s production manager when they tapped him to take the reins and pull it back from the brink.
He apparently succeeded: The theatre now boasts an $8 million budget, 12,000 subscribers, and an impressive 90 percent subscription renewal rate. Woolf will leave the theatre at the end of the 2018-19 season, to be succeeded by Hana S. Sharif. We spoke with him about his tenure, his adopted city, and his dream job (he’s in it).
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: What first brought you to St. Louis, and what were your impressions of the city when you first got here?
STEVEN WOOLF: I was working in Massachusetts, at StageWest, and I came here and thought, wow, who knew? I thought the theatre was fabulous. I came in as the production manager. I’m trained as a director and a producer, but I thought, okay, someone wants to hire me, I’ll do that.
You’ve said the theatre was in trouble. How did you save it?
It was about stabilizing the programming. I don’t think there was anything magical. We were in crisis, so we had to pick some titles that people would respond to. And the press liked me; they were very supportive. It was interesting how important that was at that time, when there were two newspapers in the city and there was television coverage, and they were doing feature articles and reviews, and the work onstage was getting really good. This town likes the front person to be out there, to be the face of the theatre, so I was in the lobby every night. I pretty much still am if I’m in town. So I’ve built a rapport with the audience. They all talk to me. I’m their best friend.
St. Louis Rep is the city’s flagship theatre. What would you say is the theatre’s responsibility to the city?
That the product—if we want to say the word “product”—we deliver is of superior quality. I think that’s really critical, and it’s in our DNA. We don’t run around saying, “We’ve got to be superior.” We just know that drives us, on every level—the acting, the directing, and the physical production. Evolutionarily, we’ve also been able to introduce new playwrights, new plays, and as long as the level is good or there’s an entry point for the audience in that, that’s part of what we do.
You have two spaces and you sell them as separate subscriptions. Have you built two distinct audiences?
Downstairs, the Studio Theatre audience, about 90 percent of them subscribe upstairs, but there is a group that only goes to the Studio, and we don’t announce both seasons simultaneously, thank God. At Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, poor Blake [Robison] has to come up with his main season and his Shelter House season simultaneously. It would kill me, coming up with nine shows all at once.
You said about 90 percent of the Studio people also subscribe upstairs, but how about vice versa—do people upstairs also subscribe downstairs?
I couldn’t give you percentage of that, but yeah, they love the Studio because it’s so intimate, and they kind of know what they’re getting. I mean, they don’t know what they’re getting, which is what they come for.
They expect the unexpected.
Yes. I keep saying, “You’re going down three flights of stairs. You’re going to the basement. We’re going to swear. It’s okay.”
Over the years you’ve worked in St. Louis, how have the theatre scene and the city changed?
The racial element of the city hasn’t changed. It’s still a rough city—highly segregated and highly partitioned. There are 92 separate municipalities. I don’t think that’s shifted. What has shifted is that there’s a huge theatre scene here that’s just exploded. There are 25, 30 theatres, and they’re really doing this. They all have their own audiences and spaces and plays, and people go. That’s pretty thrilling.
Do you feel that it’s not a zero-sum thing—that the more theatres there are, the better for all of you?
I think generally. The more people go in the dark room, the more people go in the dark room. But some people are very specific. Some people who only go to Stray Dog are not going to come to us because they have that particular ownership, and there are only so many nights you can have out.
What about this job still gets you up in the morning? And what about it keeps you up at night?
What gets me up in the morning is going to do a job that’s exceedingly rare. That’s quite a gift that not everybody gets to do. It’s my dream—what I dreamt of doing when I was a kid. What keeps me up is, will it work? Will it sell? Those questions. Can we solve the problem? Will the door open? Will the door shut? Are they going to hate it? Some of it is really specific stuff, sometimes it’s a larger arc.
A long time ago we did The Merry Wives of Windsor, Texas with the Red Clay Ramblers. Ed Stern was directing it. It was our summer of going around the country with the Red Clay Ramblers in a van, working on the show, and I just had the best time. We were at parks and stuff with those guys, and I was driving home the night before first preview, and I was a wreck. I was crying. I thought, what have we done? They’re not going to get it. They’re going to hate it. It’s going to be terrible. And the next night, we started, and they were laughing hysterically. They thought it was great.
You can’t know until they’re there.
You can’t know. It’s the unknown. It’s sort of fabulous and scary simultaneously.
A few years back you did Until the Flood, for which you commissioned Dael Orlandersmith to do a piece about the killing of Michael Brown, and it’s since gone on to acclaim in New York. Tell me about that.
I thought we needed to do something as a major arts institution, and I wanted to do it on the mainstage. So Dael came in for a week or so, and we organized trips to Ferguson, but also around the county, for the community. She created this script, this story, that gave the patois of this city. People were just amazed at her performance. She could play a white person, a black person, older, younger. And she didn’t come out and yell at them and say, “You see what you did up there?” And so, there was great wonder. Some people said, “I’m not coming to see that play. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.” I thought that would happen—that nobody would come—but thought, we’re going to do the damn thing anyway, because it was really important for us to do. And people would come back and say, “We’re so surprised.”
I know you didn’t have a hand in picking your successor, but what do you think of the choice?
There’s little question that Hana is going to be a great addition to our theatre and to the St Louis community. She’s sharp, bright, and full of humanity and laughter. Her several years working in the field make her an excellent choice as our new a.d. She’s a very exciting choice who will bring her own wide-ranging vision to the work here.