5 Questions with Robert Falls
Robert Falls is a giant of American theater, having run the Goodman Theatre in Chicago for 35 years, directing Brian Dennehy in “Death of a Salesman” and “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” both of which came to New York with Falls winning the Tony Award for Best Director for “Salesman.” At the Goodman, he directed over 30 productions and produced 200 more, 100 of which were world premieres, before leaving that institution in 2022.
Falls has worked across the country at many different theatres and several times on Broadway with revivals of “American Buffalo,” “The Night of the Iguana,” and “Talk Radio,” but his first project after leaving the Goodman is at the Ancram Opera House, where he will be directing “You Don’t Know the Lonely One,” featuring David Cale, Dael Orlandersmith, and Matthew Dean Marsh. All three are acclaimed writers and solo performers in their own right who have known each other for many years.
The performance in Ancram is an extraordinary opportunity to catch these world-class artists in Ancram’s intimate space. “You Don’t Know the Lonely One” is a story and song cycle that draws influence from paintings and albums to create a collaborative portrait of aloneness in an ever-shifting world. “You Don’t Know the Lonely One” uses monologues, poems, stories and songs to explore what it means to be alone.
PW: Was there a moment or event when you realized that theater was something you wanted to pursue?
RF: Gosh, you know a multitude of them. You know, I’ve always been lucky that the theater and making plays, whatever that meant at the time, was something I had always wanted to do. I grew up in a very small town, 1,000 people in a farming community in Ashland, Illinois, and you know, listened to my parent’s original cast albums, “West Side Story,” “My Fair Lady,” “Oklahoma!” and I would just start to imagine them in my head. I would imagine the stories in my head, and at a very early age, I was putting on plays, making up stories, and bringing my parents and their friends in as audience. A lot of kids do that, but I never stopped doing it, you know?
There was a moment a time when my parents took me to my first professional production in Chicago, and it was “The Music Man,” and I was completely taken away by being in a theater. I was probably about 8 years old, and I remember it vividly. Over the years, I’ve seen many productions. But I just think from a very early age, I was interested in theater.
PW: What was the impetus behind “You Don’t Know the Lonely One”?
RF: It was really an accumulation of almost 40 years of friendship and collaboration. I have known Dael Orlandersmith and David Cale for 35+ years, and in both their cases, presented their work as producers for years and years and years. Two remarkable storytellers. They’re actors, they’re writers, they’re performers, and I’ve produced and presented their work in Chicago for dozens of years. I then worked with David and Matthew five years ago on a piece they created, “We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time,” which was an extraordinary theater piece. Matthew and David composed and David wrote and I directed them for the first time, and we did it in Chicago and then brought it to the Public Theatre, and that just sort of solidified the desire to continue to work together. It was Dael who proposed working on a piece. Dael and David had been friends and admirers for years, and it was Dael who proposed working on a piece about aloneness or loneliness. This was actually before the Pandemic, and then, of course, we went into the Pandemic, and everyone was isolated. Everybody had to deal with what it meant to be alone, and so with Dael sort of initiating and everybody getting on board and the support of any number of people, with the great support of Paul and Jeffrey (Paul Ricciardi & Jeffrey Mousseau, co-directors of AOH) and the Ancram Opera House, we’ve been able to work on it for a number of years and that was really how it came to be.
PW: Dael and David are primarily solo performers. How does putting them together onstage emphasize the theme of loneliness?
RF: Well, I also want to make sure you include Matthew. There’s a line in the piece where David and Matthew are talking, and it says how artists are often formed by listening to music, and these three artists have all been known as solo performers. Matthew is a writer, musician, performer…he also performs solo works. You get to see them juxtaposed together, you get to see them tell a story together with all three of their voices and they sort of complement and challenge each other. They have different voices, different perspectives, different style but what’s wonderful to see them together is to see how complementary they are. They’re sort of swimming through the same waters and musically, there’s a musicality that scores the whole piece. You hear the music of their voices, you hear the music of their characters. I think that makes for a very, very interesting, alive evening of performance.
PW: Is this your first project after stepping down from the Goodman and if you could talk about what the future holds for you?
RF: It is, in a way, yes. I finished my long tenure at the Goodman about a year ago, and I still had two productions to do that final season. I was no longer the Artistic Director running the theater but I still had to complete two projects I had been working on for a long time: a new play called “Swing State” by Rebecca Gilman, which is currently running at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York and the other was Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” I have any number of things in development that I can’t really talk about but yes, I would say that this is the first one of what? You hate to call it, my third act or second act.
I’ve loved running a theatre for 35 years. I’ve loved the collaboration with everybody. I’m lucky I don’t have to do things I don’t want to do so I can work with the people I’m most excited about. What I’ve really loved is being in the rehearsal room, working with people I love, and getting it out on stage, and this allows me to do that.
PW: What is the play that changed your life, and how?
RF: Well, if I had to choose a single production of many, many extraordinary productions I’ve seen, it would have to be the very, very famous production of Peter Brooks’ “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which I saw as a student in high school. I think I was 15, and it was a school trip into Chicago to see this groundbreaking production of the Royal Shakespeare Company. I read so many plays as a child, I read “Death of a Salesman” at 12 and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” at 13, both of which I went on to direct, but by the time I was 15 and saw “Midsummer,” it just blew my mind! Famous white box set; it had a circus feel, trampolines, very colorful, extremely funny, wildly theatrical and musical, and it just blew my mind. This really is what I wanted to do. It opened my mind to Shakespeare which has been a constant of my life. “The Music Man” was pretty f**king influential, but if I had to choose a single production, it would be “Midsummer.”
“You Don’t Know the Lonely One” runs 10/20–10/29 at Ancram Opera House, 1330 Co Rte 7, Ancram, NY 12502