Taking the artistic leap of faith. Goodman's new head sees fresh direction for musicals, classics

AT six feet four inches, Robert Falls could have been considered simply the biggest person for the job. However, closer inspection reveals the most expansive quality of the Goodman Theatre's new artistic director to be his theatrical vision.

``What I've always striven for is that larger theatrical consciousness,'' said Mr. Falls during a recent interview here, ``those plays that have larger ideas, that challenge our ideas about who we are and how we got here.''

It is the kind of broad artistic reach one has come to expect from Falls, one of the country's most respected young theater directors who is an intrinsic part of the burgeoning Chicago theater scene.

As the longtime artistic head of the Wisdom Bridge Theatre, one of Chicago's most successful resident theaters, Falls earned an enviable reputation as a risk-taking director with a string of box-office successes. His high-tech production of ``Hamlet,'' the grippingly staged ``In the Belly of the Beast,'' and ``Kabuki Medea'' (a pastiche of Greek tragedy and stylized Japanese theater) earned Wisdom Bridge and its director kudos at home and abroad.

Now Falls's appointment to the Goodman ends a months-long search for a successor to former artistic director Gregory Mosher, the new head of New York's Lincoln Center theaters. It also adds considerable promise to the future of Chicago's oldest and largest nonprofit theater, whose reputation has so far been due to the collaborative success of Mr. Mosher and Chicago playwright David Mamet.

``In the past 10 years Chicago has assumed somewhat of a leadership position in American theater almost without knowing it,'' says Falls. ``I certainly see the Goodman in terms of leadership within this community.''

Exactly what constitutes that leadership Falls sums up in two words: classical works and musicals. ``I think the next step for Chicago actors, who at their best have made this enormous contribution to modern plays, is to put that same effort towards classical work,'' Falls says in his rapid-fire, all-hands-on-deck delivery that belies his lumbering size. ``I think the Goodman has a responsibility to be exploring classic plays, to be harnessing that incredible energy and throwing it into Moli`ere, Shakes peare, Chekhov, and Brecht. Let's do that.''

Falls refers to his unorthodox production of ``Hamlet,'' which starred Aidan Quinn -- a Chicago actor recently featured in the film ``Desperately Seeking Susan'' but who had previously never performed Shakespeare -- as ``a first step'' in that new direction. Falls also indicates more than a passing interest in turning the Goodman's considerable resources -- two theaters, a $4 million budget (despite a current $750,000 deficit) and a subscription base in excess of 19,000 members -- toward the production of American musicals, new and old.

``It's been demonstrated that the American resident theater is where new plays happen. Well, I think that the next route is to have the same thing happen with musicals,'' he says. ``It already has happened with `Big River' and `Sunday in the Park With George.' I think the Goodman can take a leadership position in working with composers and lyricists and giving them a base for experimentation.''

Indeed, if anything characterizes Falls's directorial bent, it is this willingness to experiment, to take an artistic leap of faith. To this end, he speaks candidly of working closely with local director Frank Galati in a relationship Falls and the Goodman want to formalize as an associate artistic directorship. Falls also talks of bringing in such avant garde directors as Peter Sellars and JoAnne Akalaitis. ``I'm interested in working with directors who have a unique, experimental point of view. I'm in terested in plays that really question, challenge our lives. People like Peter [Sellars] and JoAnne [Akalaitis] have that talent to place a [classical] work squarely in our times. I don't see anything cutting-edge about it.''

About the temporary financial problems imposed by the theater's deficit, Falls maintains his full-speed-ahead demeanor. ``Any time you're doing different and exciting work there exists the fact that a deficit can occur. So far, this board [of directors] is committed to an even larger season next year.''

Indeed, one of the reasons for that wholesale commitment may be the fact that Falls has taken the unorthodox step of becoming a board member himself. ``Far too many theaters have a we-they relationship with their board,'' he says. ``To me a theaterical institution is this organic thing. I refuse to sit behind my desk and say `They didn't let me do this.' The easiest way to break that down is for me to become them.''

Despite his largely upbeat attitude, Falls admits he and the Goodman have their work cut out for them. ``I think theater has to compete with a lot of things; therefore it has to do things no other form can do,'' he says. ``I think people will come back to the theater, because people are, by and large, spiritual beings, and theater is this homemade, handcrafted event -- that sort of live experience that . . . has to [become] something much more large, more religious.''

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