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Woodruff the Waffler

August 13, 2007

The Bay Area Playwrights Festival (BAPF) is celebrating 30 years of promoting the work of new dramatists. Founded by director Robert Woodruff, the event has helped to launch the careers of such theater luminaries as Richard Nelson, Anna Deavere Smith, Naomi Iizuka, Mac Wellman and Sam Shepard.

Last Friday, Woodruff, who's in town doing tech rehearsals for the upcoming world premiere of Appomattox at SF Opera, presided over an afternoon symposium at The Magic Theatre. It was a rambling, though at times lucid event, which featured a conversation between the director and Jesse McKinley, San Francisco Bureau Chief for The New York Times (who used to be one of the newspaper's arts reporters in New York), followed by a Q&A, and then a presentation of video excerpts of a couple of Woodruff's past productions (Medea and Orpheus X).

The gaunt, pony-tailed Woodruff looked less cheerful than his picture in the BAPF program, though every bit as bonkers. Dressed in funereal black corduroy and sporting small, rectangular-framed glasses that emphasized the angular trenches in his pale face and Ming the Mercilessly large forehead, he resembled a professor at the School of Undertakers. He barely looked up from his stomach and rarely smiled. When he did elevate his gaze long enough for me to see his face, his eyes often appeared to be shut. His left hand more than made up for the impassivity of his countenance though. It wouldn't keep still. The fingers constantly weaved and wiggled like the tail of a fish.

McKinley was burdened with the responsibility of keeping the director on track. This took considerable effort. For trying to follow Woodruff's train of thought at best requires being enough of a theatre insider to be on first name terms with "Paul" [Dresher] or "Sam" [Shepard], and at worst feels like groping around a muddy pool for a lost contact lens. Every so often, McKinley felt the need to interject statements to help audience members keep up. For instance, when Woodruff launched into a commentary on the work of "Richard," McKinley chimed in with accompanying notes: "Richard Foreman. Avant-garde theatre director of the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre in New York etc..."

Here are some highlights from the conversation between Woodruff (RW) and McKinley (JM):

Those were the days, my friend...
Back in the 70s, the BAPF gave authors free reign to create theatrical "events." It was never about the scripts. There was a lot of site-specific work. Now, the emphasis is much more on script development. And there are far fewer resources available to the Festival today than there were when RW left in 1984.

George W. Bush, Friend to the Arts
At one point, JM said "Vote Republican if you want better theatre." I hate to take his comment out of context, but I can't for the life of me remember what inspired it. McKinley wasn't being serious, of course.

The theatre isn't in trouble, it's just that directors and producers aren't happy
RW, like many of us, is tired of the boring old mantra associated with the performing arts in this country, that "the American theatre is in trouble." According to RW, directors and presenters only go around saying this because "they don't like what they're doing."

Every theatre has a "muscle"
When asked to describe his time as artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts (where yours truly spent a year studying and working as a dramaturg in the days before RW came on board), the director talked most enthusiastically about the space. "You have to learn to work the muscle of the room," he said. JM tried a couple of times to get RW to explain what he meant by "muscle." The muscle is apparently something to do with understanding the dynamics of a room. But beyond that, he lost me.

Neil Bartlett is a God
RW never actually said this. That's my opinion. One of the most interesting ideas that RW came up with over the course of the afternoon was borrowed from the visionary British director (whose Oliver Twist was recently seen at Berkeley Rep.) It's to do with why directors get so excited about staging classic plays. Bartlett believes that the fun lies in playing with the extreme differences between the world of the play and our own time, as well as the astonishing similarities between the two.

The camera never lies
RW says he doesn't read a play too many times before staging it. "I don't want to text to interfere with my imagination," he says. As far as researching a production goes, he likes to go out into the world and look around him for information. He says The New York Times' photojournalism is one of his favorite sources of inspiration. JM, a Times wordsmith, bravely took the comment on the chin.

RW used yellow drapes made out of silky parachute fabric for five of his productions including Happy Days and Medea.

Lately, RW has switched from yellow drapes to boxes as a staging theme in his productions. "I like chaos but I like it in a box so you have some control over it," he says.

Those were the days, my friend #2...
RW reminisced about his days as the director Eureka Theatre. He carries particular nostalgia for the designers who worked with him back then. "They created incredible installations in a basement in The Mission on $12 and change." RW also talked about his work with "Sam" at The Magic Theatre, which included the world premieres of Buried Child, True West and Suicide in Bb, during which "Sam" played the drums back stage.

Money makes the world go 'round except if you're Robert Woodruff
JM: Money is everywhere in conversations about theatre.
RW: Not in interesting conversations about theatre.
JM: What do you think of the idea that poverty makes for good art?
RW: That idea is full of shit.

Those were the days, my friend #3...
When RW got to talking about his earliest theatre memories, he became somewhat more animated. He opened his eyes and looked up. The first performance he ever did was a lip-synched show in Long Island along American Bandstand lines. After graduating from college he stared teaching in Washington Heights. "I was winging eight performances a day five days a week at the age of 21," he said. "It was an astounding initiation into a life in the theatre." RW started making theatre with his students. "I'd get them to reenact the fall of Rome or the creation of the wheel." Then he began creating plays for his students which he conceived himself. "We became a little theatrical production company, me and those 36 6th graders."

When the west called, RW jumped into his VW and headed for SF State. The first night he arrived in town, he saw Allan Ginsberg and The Cockettes. He never looked back.

Is a life in the arts a struggle?
"It is a struggle, but dentistry is possibly also a struggle."


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