CHICAGO: The guard is changing at one of the nation’s leading nonprofit theatres, and one of its most distinguished leaders is switching gears. Today the Goodman Theatre’s board of trustees named Susan V. Booth to be its next artistic director. Booth leaves the helm of Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, where she served since 2001, and succeeds Robert Falls, who’s led the Goodman since 1986 and announced his retirement last fall. A national search for his successor began in November 2021, led by search firm Russell Reynolds Associates (RRA).
Booth will be the Goodman’s eighth creative leader, and the first woman in the role, in the company’s 97 years. Though the Alliance’s current budget, around $16 million, is close to the Goodman’s budget size of nearly $20 million, it was not always so: Booth was the one who doubled the Alliance’s annual operating budget and its endowment, as well as earned national recognition for artistic excellence, including the Regional Tony Award in 2007, and six world-premiere musicals that later opened on Broadway. She also completed a multi-year campaign to build a new mainstage theatre and new rehearsal studios, opened in 2019 after an ambitious on-the-road season that roved around Atlanta for nine months. Alliance’s board will conduct a national search for her replacement, during which time associate artistic directors Christopher Moses and Tinashe Kajese-Bolden will manage artistic initiatives at the Alliance under the leadership of managing director Mike Schleifer.
The appointment is a Chicago homecoming for Booth, who directed widely throughout Chicago before taking the job in Atlanta, taught for both Northwestern and DePaul Universities, and, as the Goodman’s director of new-play development from 1993 to 2001, shepherded new works from such writers as Luis Alfaro, Rebecca Gilman, José Rivera, and Regina Taylor.
Said current artistic director Robert Falls in a statement, “I couldn’t be more thrilled to pass the ‘artistic director baton’ to Susan Booth. She’s an inspired choice with outstanding qualifications, a keen aesthetic eye, and long-standing ties to the Chicago community. Having worked with her for almost a decade when she was the Goodman’s director of new-play development, I know she’ll bring inspired leadership, energy, and fresh ideas to what I’m sure will be an exciting new chapter for the theatre.”
“Susan Booth and I first worked together when she directed my play The Nacirema Society…, which required us to spend a month together rehearsing and getting to know each other in Montgomery, Ala.,” said playwright Pearl Cleage, who serves as the Alliance Theatre’s distinguished artist in residence, in a statement. “By the time the play opened we had bonded over early-morning coffee, late-night white wine, and conversations that covered not just the script, but race, feminism, family, and a deep love for the life we had chosen, a life in the theatre. In the afterglow of an opening night complete with a full house and a standing ovation, we made two promises to each other: to work together again soon and to always tell each other the truth. We’ve kept both of those promises for 21 years and counting.”
In addition to directing nearly 50 productions at the Alliance, Booth helped develop distinctive community programming at the Alliance, including the Spelman Leadership Fellowship, an annual partnership with Spelman College for three outstanding students to gain artistic and executive leadership opportunities; the Reiser Atlanta Artists Lab, which provides developmental resources for three performance projects selected from the Atlanta artistic community each season; the Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition, which supports one early-career playwright with their first full production and up to five others with a developmental reading, and whose participants have included Tarell Alvin McCraney, Mike Lew, Madhuri Shekar, Alix Sobler, and Jireh Breon Holder; and the Palefsky Collision Project, a summer program which pairs Atlanta teens with a professional playwright and director to develop a new play.
Booth holds degrees from Denison and Northwestern Universities and was a fellow of the National Critics Institute and the Kemper Foundation. She has held teaching positions at Emory University, and is a past president of the board of directors for the Theatre Communications Group, the publisher of American Theatre.
I spoke to Booth over the weekend about her plans for her new job.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: First off, congratulations. This is a big deal.
SUSAN V. BOOTH: Thank you.
I’m sure I’ve looked at your bio before, but I guess I didn’t realize how much you really cut your teeth in Chicago.
I completely did. I went out there for school and stuck around, worked at Northlight and Wisdom Bridge, then ended up with the Goodman.
Where are you from originally?
I grew up in Ohio.
So this is a Midwestern homecoming as well as a Chicago one. Obviously, though, Chicago has changed a lot in 20 years. Have you kept up with that?
There’s a good handful of artistic directors and artists that became really good friends when I was there that I’ve held onto over the years. But it’s from a distance. I was back there just last fall, directing something for Northwestern when they were opening a new theatre downtown, and it was wildly nostalgic to be back there.
As you were a new-play director at the Goodman, and you’ve championed new work at the Alliance via the Kendeda Competition and other initiatives, I would imagine that new work would continue to be a focus for you in your new role?
Yeah, I think if you’re truly committed to a radically diverse and radically inclusive audience experience, then new plays become central—not singular, but certainly central, in addressing that commitment. There’s a wonderful leveling of the playing field that happens when nobody gets to say, “Well, I saw it last year in London.”
It occurs to me that this is your second succession of a storied male leader: You previously followed Kenny Leon‘s tenure at the Alliance. So you’re used to…
People asking me about “big shoes to fill”? Kenny was impossibly generous to me as a freelance director, and I was there, literally on the first day of rehearsal of the fourth show I directed at the Alliance, when I got the phone call saying, “Hey, they’re gonna offer you this gig.” He was tremendously supportive of me as a director before I ever got there, and it’s a very cool thing that I’ve gotten to invite him back home. And Bob has been foundational in what it means to be a director and what it means to lead a really ballsy, muscular—how’s that for a couple of super male adjectives?—a really muscular artistic organization that embraces risk and change.
Another thing that strikes me is that among the successions we’ve covered in recent years—Pam MacKinnon at ACT, Nataki Garrett at OSF, Joanna Pfaelzer at Berkeley Rep, Jacob Padrón at Long Wharf—most of them have been moves up, either in scale of theatre or in job title. But, while I would hardly call this a lateral move for you, Alliance and Goodman have similar budget sizes. So what’s in this change for you and for the Goodman?
I think the thing that made it so inevitable is a combination of that community and this moment. You know better than anybody, it’s a time of absolutely seismic change in our art form, both in terms of how we interact with an audience and what that audience looks like and expects, and how we structure truly equitable and inclusive organizations. So to quite deliberately make my own seismic change in the midst of that feels useful.
Speaking of that, I looked back at something you wrote for HowlRound in the fall of 2020, where you posited this metaphor from Bakhtin of the carnival—basically, a liminal period when an old system is breaking down and a new hasn’t been formed, and there’s a window of opportunity for real change. Do you feel that window is still open, and do you hope to keep it open at the Goodman?
The Goodman is not an organization that requires fixing; let’s start there. But I think any time you welcome a new leader, particularly after a tenure as long as Bob’s, there is an openness to change. I’m not being hired as the caretaker. So when the field is in a time of change, and an organization de facto says, “Yes, we’re expecting that,” that just feels like a delicious and not-to-be-squandered opportunity.
A few of the things you outlined in that piece included greater accountability for the board, and making equity and diversity such a high priority that they would actually be issues for performance reviews and metrics of success for an organization. You also mentioned decentralizing the season planning process; I know that the Goodman has an Artistic Collective, and I’m not sure how involved they are in season planning per se, but they’re definitely close artistic associates of Bob. Is that something you hope to continue?
Yeah, I think the days of the stone tablets coming down the mountain with the artistic director are happily long since over. I’m an inveterate gasser-on—I love to talk to people about how they’re responding to texts and why, and I think that when you have the great good fortune of an Artistic Collective and a really robust artistic staff, why on earth wouldn’t you engage them and say, talk to me about this, talk to me about that?
Also, speaking to your earlier point, it’s been a long minute since I’ve been there, and Chicago is wrestling with, yes, the same things all of America is wrestling with, but also its own unique issues. I actually just read your story about what’s going on at Victory Gardens. So I need to have my own taste shot through the filter of people who are deeply entrenched in this particular Chicago moment. I need that; I want that.
There has a been a trend of artistic producers rather than directors leading theatres; you, like Bob, are a director. Do you plan to keep balancing the two roles?
The producing part is something I actually take great delight in doing. It comes from, once upon a time I started out as a dramaturg, and I think dramaturgy finally is figuring out, how do you build the best possible house for the beating heart of a narrative to live within? And that’s bigger than just, how do we optimize this text—it’s, how do we optimize this experience for artists and community and audience? I geek out on that shit. And that to me is the best and richest part of producing. So the notion that that would be something I would farm out to other people because I needed to go into my hidey-hole and be a director just seems like I’d be missing out.
And you’re directing a play to finish our your time at the Alliance.
Right, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Everybody. I love that play so hard, oh my gosh.
It’s kind of a profound way to end your tenure, right?
It’s funny, because if I had known when I programmed it that I’d be leaving, I probably would have wanted something that talked about duration and life and making the most of the moment. So super lucky on that one. (I should also mention that I’m co-directing that with Tinashe Kajese-Bolden.)
I looked back at an interview you did with Diep Tran back in 2015, and you had this great quote on a subject I feel has been a live debate for decades. You said, “We don’t make theatre to make theatre. That is, that’s not the end game for us. We’re interested in expanding hearts and minds,” and you talked about your education and engagement programs and your commitment to inclusivity. I wonder if you could talk a bit about that philosophy.
Yeah, I have never believed that creating work, with the work as the ornamental end game, was something that was satisfying. You refer to it as a debate, and it’s the right term to use, because it is personal preference, right? “Art for the sake of art,” I don’t judge or malign that. But for myself, and particularly in the period of time where I’ve been lucky enough to be an organizational leader, art has to do something, to accomplish something. So what a leader is called to do is figure out, what are the needs of this time, this moment, this place that we’re in? And how can this organization better the place where it is planted? I am an absolute child of the regional theatre; that has been my jam as long as I’ve been doing this. And I think the sense of place is not just about a geographical differentiator between organizations; it’s that you have a responsibility to where you are.
Also when you are. You talked about a time of seismic change earlier, and obviously in recent years we’ve seen a very strong critique of the institutional regional theatre and clear demands that it change, from We See You, White American Theater and other movements. These concerns and critiques aren’t new, as you know, but their urgency and centrality are heightened. You’ve addressed some of these issues throughout your career, but obviously there’s still work to be done. Where do you think the industry has fallen short? And what do you plan to about that?
I think where it’s fallen short is that there were too many interim efforts. It began with lots of signifying and—understand, everything I’m saying, I am complicit in, so this isn’t me saying, “Oh, those people.” But I think initially, these predominantly white institutions—the Alliance being one of them, Goodman being one of them—they wrote plans, they made statements. And that’s often how the work starts. But when the other pandemic, the challenge we were all up against of no audience and then a hesitant audience, started screwing with our economic stability, I think there was a whole lot of triaging that went on. And in the act of triaging, if those statements and good intentions hadn’t become operationalized, we saw some some diminishment, some reprioritizing.
There’s not going to be some miraculous five years from now that’s like the pandemic never happened. It is fundamentally altering the way people gather and how they choose to spend their time. And in the same way, what We See You did was opened us up and said: We’ve been living in a state of complicity with inequity. And it’s not a matter of, “Okay, I hired a couple people and I made a couple programming choices and I fixed it.” I mean, for God’s sake, you look at the 1619 Project; we’ve never come to honest terms with America’s history. So if we’re going to be so audacious as to say that as artists we are North Stars to social change, then our houses better be in order.
One of the sticking points at Victory Gardens was the way its board seems to have undermined their artistic leadership. Do you think nonprofit boards are a systemic problem, or is this a case-by-case situation?
From my little bit of experience with the Goodman board throughout the search process, the depth of their commitment to being a place that moves beyond lip service into practice on principles of inclusion and equity was incredibly impressive. And I look at their staff; I got a chance to sit with the senior leadership team at the beginning of this past week, and they’re doing the work. That is a board that so deeply supported Bob and so deeply supports Roche Shulfer as the people who’ve been leading that work. So that gives me hope. And my experience of the board at the Alliance has been that they have been allies, they have been advocates, and they do not equate their philanthropy with the capacity to direct institutional initiative and programming. They are allied investors; let’s call it that.
You’ve worked in Atlanta for two decades now. Do you have some parting thoughts about the city and its arts scene?
The great unsung truth of Atlanta is that the personal and corporate philanthropy for the arts is unbelievably robust. Frankly, the state of Georgia vies with Alabama and Arizona for 50th out of 50 when it comes to state support for the arts. I have found that a grievous oversight, but I think what happens is there’s therefore an assumption that there is not support for the arts in Atlanta. And it couldn’t be less true. There is this individual foundation and corporate net of support and love for the arts that shows up that’s kind of tremendous. You know, this city is complicit in the Civil War and catalytic in the Civil Rights Movement. It is a wildly complex American city, and what a cool place to make theatre.
You mentioned to Diep that you have a daughter. How does this move sit with your family?
Well, that’s the beauty of this: My daughter heads off to college in the fall. You know, as a parent, the notion of uprooting somebody, particularly in that period of time in middle school and high school, where it’s like, you don’t want to fuck with the child’s psychology.
I’m right in that now, so I know.
I think all parents deal with this. I can only speak from the perspective of a mother, but it’s the notion of, that’s been a defining factor of my life for 18 years and it’s not gonna be there anymore. So maybe I just want to shake some things up now, right?
Rob Weinert-Kendt is editor-in-chief of American Theatre. firstname.lastname@example.org
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