RadioBDC Logo
| Listen Live
'Highway Ulysses'
Robert Woodruff's "Highway Ulysses" (2004) won an Elliot Norton Award. (Richard Feldman) Richard Feldman

Stage directions

Robert Woodruff's exit at the ART came down to a bottom-line decision

By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / January 28, 2007
Text size +
  • E-mail
  • E-mail this article

    Invalid E-mail address
    Invalid E-mail address

    Sending your article

    Your article has been sent.

Last October, in a staff meeting at the American Repertory Theatre, the subject of Robert Woodruff's future came up. The ART's adventurous artistic director would see his contract run out in July. Was Woodruff coming back? Yes, he told the 70 or so people gathered in Cambridge's Loeb Drama Center , I'm in. It was a comforting response for the assembled, some of whom had heard rumors that he might be leaving.

In fact, Woodruff had already mapped out the ART's 2007-08 season. It would feature a cluster of Shakespeare 's works and another group of plays with a West-looks-East theme, including a stage adaptation of Camus's "The Stranger," directed by Woodruff.

Under pressure to cut costs and fill more seats, Woodruff had worked on the season with ART executive director Robert Orchard and associate artistic director Gideon Lester , and the team had shared the plan with Sean Buffington , Harvard's associate provost for arts and culture. It would mean spending $500,000 less of the ART's budget than the previous year.

Around Thanksgiving, Woodruff shared his excitement over returning with longtime confidant Madeline Puzo , dean of the University of Southern California's School of Theatre.

"I thought it was a very good position for Robert," she says. "The ART was one of the last theaters, institutionally, that still had an aesthetic and was still trying to create art."

But in December, something changed. Just before Christmas, the ART's staff learned from an e-mail that Harvard had decided not to renew Woodruff's contract. The statement, and a press release issued a week later, didn't explain why. But interviews conducted this month with members of the eight-person ART/Harvard board of directors, which has the authority to hire and fire the artistic director, revealed that his exit came because of concerns over how Woodruff's artistic approach was affecting the theater's bottom line.

ART/Harvard board members, appointed by the university's president and the Harvard Corporation, said they needed a new leader to send a message to the university. A new Harvard president, who may be named within weeks, would want to see that the ART was taking its fiscal issues seriously, according to Robert James Kiely, a Harvard English professor who was one of the six members of the board who voted unanimously not to bring Woodruff back. Orchard and Woodruff, who are also on the board, did not vote.

"I think the fear, with a new administration coming on at Harvard, was that the ART would not be a high priority," says Kiely. "If it looked too dire financially in the next year or two, we could lose the theater."

Kiely has not actually heard Harvard officials make such a threat, he acknowledges. And some members of the ART's 44-person advisory board say Woodruff was unfairly blamed for the theater's struggles.

"The responsibility of Robert Woodruff was to be creative and a genius, and that's what he did," says ART advisory board member David Edwards , a biomedical engineer and cofounder of the Cloud Foundation , a nonprofit arts organization focused on teenagers. "There's really nobody else like him."

Vision versus finances
Woodruff arrived at Harvard in 2002 with considerable fanfare. A veteran director with multiple awards on his resume, Woodruff was the heir to Robert Brustein , who cofounded the ART in 1979.

It was a good gig. After years of freelancing, Woodruff earned a regular salary -- roughly $160,000 a year -- as well as a housing allowance. He would run an organization with a budget of more than $9 million.

But Brustein also had a commanding presence on the cocktail - party circuit, an important role for an organization always looking to expand its donor base. Woodruff admitted he wasn't a schmoozer.

To compensate for Woodruff's management inexperience, the ART changed its leadership structure, installing him as part of a troika. Managing director Orchard, who founded the ART with Brustein, was appointed executive director. Lester, the company's dramaturg e , became its associate artistic director, too.

The day Harvard announced Woodruff's hiring, Brustein described him at a press conference as "one of the most imaginative and visionary directors in the world."

At the box office, though, the Woodruff era would be marked, from the start, by ticket sales that failed to meet the ART's goals. The company's marketing department and general manager Jonathan Miller set these goals based on historical sales. Over Woodruff's five years, the company projected selling about 75,500 tickets each season. Instead, the ART sold an average of 63,500 tickets a year. That meant taking in a total of about $1.7 million less than projected between 2002 and 2006.

With Woodruff's ambitious productions, some of which involved international collaborations, the gap between costs and expenses became a concern. Under Woodruff, main-stage expenses rose from about $5.8 million in fiscal year 2003 to $6.2 million in fiscal year 2006, while total revenues of the subscription seasons during that time rose from $2 million to $2.4 million. The ART also receives funding from Harvard (a $1.2 million subsidy), tuition for the ART's Institute for Advanced Theatre Training , donors, and other sources.

The ART's struggles are not unique. Nationwide, theaters have failed to keep up with rising costs over the last five years, according to Theatre Communications Group , a national service organization. In addition, the ART, like other theaters in the United States, has been losing subscribers and gaining single-ticket buyers, which makes it harder to predict how much money a production will make.

To deal with its shortfall, the ART has had to draw more funds from its endowment annually than the 4.5 to 5 percent typically used as a guideline for a nonprofit. In fiscal year 2006, the ART drew just over $2 million from its then - $17.5 million endowment, or 11.5 percent. The year before, it drew $1.7 million of its then - $15.4 million endowment, or just under 11 percent. Some of the money has been used to support new marketing and fund-raising efforts. But over the last three years, the ART has spent a total of $3.1 million more from its endowment earnings than it had planned, just to cover operating deficits.

"That's not a sound financial strategy," says Harvard marshal Jacqueline O'Neill , chairperson of the ART/Harvard board of directors. "The ultimate result would be the ART would go out of business."

O'Neill says she was aware of Woodruff's plans for a scaled-back 2007-08 season.

"Cost-cutting is one piece of a strategy, but there are other pieces that need to be attended to," O'Neill says. "The contract negotiation was a moment to think about whether we wanted to go forward with the status quo."

Taking risks
Woodruff, 59, has never been accused of maintaining the status quo. As a director, he put Richard II in a skirt, soaked "The Duchess of Malfi" in blood, and, for the current ART production of "Britannicus," turned Nero into a guitar-thrashing, biker-gear-clad voyeur.

His programming has earned rave reviews. In 2003, Woodruff directed "Highway Ulysses," which won an Elliot Norton Award . That year, Time magazine recognized the ART as one of the top five regional theaters in the United States. Under Woodruff, the ART has also attracted a younger audience. The median single-ticket buyer, 45 years old in 2003, is now 41, according to a recent survey.

"The energy in that building was incredible, and he was doing things that nobody else was doing," says Rinde Eckert , who wrote and performed in "Highway Ulysses" and the ART's 2006 "Orpheus X." "I thought it was perfect. Harvard has a long tradition of iconoclasm and being at the forefront and taking risks. And the ART, that was the one place you could say, 'At least this theater's not caving. At least this theater's not running scared.' "

Eckert says he doesn't understand how a university as wealthy as Harvard can get rid of Woodruff. "If it's about the numbers, they're fools," he says. That is the view of Woodruff's artistic collaborators and his supporters on the advisory board. But within the ART community, there has been a growing debate.

In recent months, advisory board members Joan Parker and Nancy King have resigned. Another advisory board member, Sam Weisman , the Newton-based film director whose credits include "George of the Jungle," says he felt as if he was constantly being asked to bail out the ART with donations. At meetings, he spoke openly about low attendance at plays and his view that the ART needed to balance its programming, which he considered too experimental.

"I'm not interested in writing checks for a theater that nobody comes to," says Weisman. "I'm not asking them to do 'Under the Yum Yum Tree.' If I go to six or seven shows a season, it's OK to do 'Orpheus X' -- which I happened to love -- but you can't make a season of a 'Romeo and Juliet' that's inaccessible and shows like 'Dido, Queen of Carthage' [productions from 2005 and 2006] unless you have some kind of sugar daddy."

The ART/Harvard board also had doubts about Woodruff's programming. In an interview, Kiely spoke of five shows, none directed by Woodruff. He praised "Snow in June," "The Syringa Tree," and "bobrauschenbergamerica," but said the recently staged "Romeo and Juliet" was "incoherent, poorly performed, and poorly produced" and the Lester-adapted "Amerika" was "not very good."

"They were almost amateurish," he added .

Woodruff won't speak publicly about Harvard's decision. But in an uncharacteristically emotional speech delivered early this month to about 200 members of the ART community, he said he regretted not being able to attract more donors and audience members. He also referenced the theater's awkward relationship with Harvard. He pointed out the university's "culture of excellence" while noting that "its relation to artists historically has always been a skeptical one."

His dismissal has raised concerns about the ART's direction. Orchard and Lester, who has been named interim artistic director, would not discuss the circumstances leading to Woodruff's departure. Provost Steven E. Hyman , who is forming a search committee to replace Woodruff, did not return several calls seeking comment but offered a statement praising Woodruff. Buffington says the search committee will include members of the Harvard faculty, the artistic community, and both ART boards.

ART/Harvard board chairman O'Neill says it is too early to say how the ART will change, other than that it is likely the troika will be replaced by a more traditional artistic director / executive director model.

Some ART advisory board members, including Barbara Grossman , an associate professor of drama at Tufts University, say Woodruff wasn't the problem. Instead, the ART needs to do a better job marketing its work and doing community outreach.

Edwards goes further: He says Orchard, not Woodruff, should have been let go. "What is the new paradigm?" Edwards asks. "There was nobody at an administrative level searching that out. It's too much to ask a Robert Woodruff to be stepping out of his creative zone."

'Infuriated and inspired'
Outside a "Britannicus" rehearsal in Cambridge one recent afternoon, Woodruff shows no sign of being upset over recent events. Characteristically dressed all in black, he takes a drag on a cigarette, a habit he's quit a few times but started up again last year when János Szász dropped out of directing "Romeo and Juliet" a month before rehearsals.

Down in the Church Street rehearsal space, he gives notes to the cast after a run-through.

"You were all over the map," he tells Kevin O'Donnell , who plays Britannicus, about a scene with Britannicus's beloved, Junia. "When she leaves, don't lose all your power."

He turns to Alfredo Narciso , who plays Nero, and they break into laughter.

"I'm just going to have to take away some of the playfulness," Woodruff says of Narciso's character. "He's got to get colder and harder. That speech is about excitation. It's about capturing somebody, tying her up, she's crying. That's what excites him. That's what arouses him."

This is the artistic side of Woodruff that ART staffers and students say they'll miss most.

Jean ette Hawley , the theater's costume shop manager, says she and her colleagues were "challenged, delighted, infuriated, and inspired" by Woodruff. Since the news of his departure, she says, the mood at the ART has been grim.

"Good Lord, I'm already mourning it," Hawley says. "You fall in love with him. He is just such a fascinating visionary, such a gracious man, and yet he creates these car crashes on stage at the same time."

Looking back, Hawley remembers so many Woodruffian flourishes. Karen MacDonald strapped to a spinning wheel in "Island of Slaves." The silk kimono Thomas Derrah wore in "Richard II" as he ascended a tower.

"It was a saffron orange silk, and when he reached the top, Tommy dropped his arms and the fabric fell to the floor," Hawley says. "It was just so stunningly beautiful, as if the rays of the sun were coming down. But it was just one of so many moments. I can think of two in every one of his productions just like that."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at

  • E-mail
  • E-mail this article

    Invalid E-mail address
    Invalid E-mail address

    Sending your article

    Your article has been sent.