Retiring Rep leader Steve Woolf reflects on life in the theater world

Steven Woolf spent 33 years as artistic director of The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo courtesy The Rep

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Under the tutelage of Steve Woolf, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis evolved from a respected regional theater to a nationally respected company known for innovation and boldness in selecting plays to produce, including some world premieres.

Woolf retired as the Augustin Family Artistic Director of the Rep at the end of its 2018-2019. During his 32 years at the Rep, he produced more than 300 shows and directed 43 on all of the Rep’s stages, including the Browning Main Stage, the Studio Theatre and the Off-Ramp stage. 

These plays included “All the Way,” “The Winslow Boy,” “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Red,” “The Diary of Anne Frank, “Death of a Salesman,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and, more recently, “Oslo.”

He received a Lifetime Achievement Award for his body of work from the St. Louis Theater Critics Circle this year, along with Kathleen Sitzer, who retired as artistic director of the New Jewish Theater at the end of its 2018-2019 season. The Muny was also honored with that award this year, for its 100 years of outdoor musical theater in St. Louis.

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Woolf received a bachelor’s degree in theater and a master of fine arts degree in directing from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. 

The Jewish Light caught up with Woolf for a wide-ranging interview on his career and what he views as his legacy at the Rep.

OK, let’s get right to it. What do you feel is your legacy at the Rep? 

Legacy is such a hard concept to define on a personal level. It seems to me that this is the kind of thing that an observer from the outside would have a better sense of than I would. But to try and answer: I think what we were able to accomplish over the past 30-plus years was being able to produce work that was of high quality and connected with our community well. And part of that also had to do with making sure the theater was on solid financial footing. And this was also connected to Mark Bernstein’s work as our managing director. 

We also were able to attract excellent talent in all areas of the operation. Actors and designers and directors and writers told their colleagues about the wonderful work that was going on in St. Louis and how wonderful the audiences were. All that information being passed around the national theatre community continued to enhance our reputation. I think that’s part of our legacy. 

The other part of this equation is that as we became stronger, the local theater community blossomed, which had to do with acknowledging that there were audiences in St Louis for all sorts of theatrical offerings. So the growth of the local theater community is also part of what we’ve been able to help on its way. 

What specific productions are you most proud of?  

I’m quite proud of our recent production of “Oslo” and the incendiary production of “Admissions” (which Woolf also directed) in the Studio this season. Part of this list would include “The Humans” and “Red” and certainly “Arcadia.” And you have to add to that list “Follies,” “Evita,” Sunday in the Park with George” — there are many.

How did you decide which plays to feature at the Rep  and how did you select the ones you would direct?

Shows that I chose to direct simply spoke to me in particular ways that I really can’t be specific about, but they captured my imagination and sense of theatricality. We never really can tell which show will be a big financial success. We can only guess and estimate things like that. If we knew that, we’d work in the commercial sector.

This past season, what attracted you to direct “Oslo,” the fact-based play about the secret negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority held in Norway in the 1990s? How did you prepare yourself for this project? 

When I saw “Oslo” in New York, I was taken by the complications of international negotiations and that this was all done secretly. The possibility of peace in that part of the world was an exciting goal. 

Also I have to say that the kind of backstage story of how negotiations work and the amount of preparation that this work takes was running counter to what we were seeing in our current political summit meetings, so that was just interesting to see that in action. 

There was the wonderful moment of the two men from different worlds shaking hands, and the narrator said the world may change because of the handshake. It could bring you to tears. 

In terms of preparation for the play, I read books by major negotiators, which were fascinating. There are also several documentaries made for television about these talks that were quite compelling. It’s not often you get to hear first hand accounts of these events, and that was useful for all of us.

When you directed “The Diary of Anne Frank” in 2010, you visited her hiding place in Amsterdam. How did that visit better prepare you for the project? 

I had done a fair amount of research about the whole Anne Frank story, so to be able to visit the home in Amsterdam was deeply moving. I actually went through the hiding place twice. What was amazing, of course, was that they all lived in this place for two years. It’s hard to believe they could do that. 

The place is just filled with emotion and history. Being there just personalized the story that much more. Also, visiting the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., brings depth to the whole story, as well as a visit I was able to make to one of the concentration camps in Germany that just leaves you kind of speechless. 

So all of that just helped to understand the lives of the people hiding out.

Are there any plays or playwrights that you were not able to bring to the Rep during your tenure?

I’m sure there were some, but I really don’t have a list of them. Sometimes a play just isn’t available to us to produce, some are beyond our scope because of the size of the piece and some just may not be a good fit. But I don’t have a list to give you.

What was the most challenging play presented at the Rep during your 32 years as artistic director? 

Every play is challenging. Ultimately, it may have been “Follies” given the scope of the show, the complexity of the music and the story. Though “The Humans” was quite challenging also. Not sure I’ve got a good answer here.

Has being Jewish affected the way you approached the selection, production or direction of various works? 

We were always looking for good stories to tell. Does anyone’s cultural heritage or history have personal impact?  Probably, yes, but I certainly wasn’t aware that any of that was ever a programming consideration.

What first attracted you to the world of theater?

I’m maybe a romantic at heart. What attracted me to the theater was its magic, its power and its ability to transform ideas and emotions, sometimes at the blink of an eye. We are an art form that is forever changing in front of our eyes, every second of a show. That’s pretty special. 

In your retirement do you plan to take on directorial gigs at the Rep, NJT or elsewhere on the local scene?

I haven’t given up on directing. If some organization wants to discuss a project, I certainly will happily have a conversation about a gig, but there are no current plans.