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Roche Schulfer of the Goodman Theater

Art director: Robert Falls exited When he joined the Goodman Theater in the summer of 2022 after a tremendous 35-year run, it was widely assumed that Roche Schulfer, the theatre’s longtime executive director and CEO, would soon follow his friend.

For one thing, the duo had been close partners for 35 years with Schulfer, a tireless supporter and sometimes advocate of the Falls’ famous maximalist overhaul for the Midwest’s flagship theatre. Second, many longtime artistic leaders (Schulfer was first hired by Goodman in 1974) choose to leave when a new collaborator—in this case, the new artistic director—arrives. susan booth. Third, Schulfer is now 71 years old.

Goodman’s current season represents his 50th year in management.

But Schulfer only told Goodman worst crisis for American regional theater since the nonprofit movement first gained momentum in the early 1960s.

Following the extended shutdown due to the pandemic, many of Goodman’s peer institutions across the country were plunged into financial chaos; has been forced to return due to systemic changes in audience habits and a visible disconnect between what theaters want to program and what audiences are currently willing to pay. to see. Theater seasons across the country have been canceled or run shortened. There were urgent calls for funding. Staff sometimes left involuntarily. And in extreme cases, attendance numbers have fallen off a cliff and doors have closed.

Goodman was hardly immune to these forces: How could he be? But under Schulfer’s watch, the theater has just completed one of the most financially and artistically successful calendar years in its long history.

“Who is Tommy” Goodman’s summer blockbuster has nearly sold out seats and is now moving to Broadway in the spring, potentially boosting Goodman’s bottom line. And Pearl Cleage “Nacirema Community” A comedy about black debutants and their families and friends, it proved hugely popular, especially with black audiences, giving Goodman a diverse audience for the show that few major theaters could replicate. Goodman presented a full slate of programming that included these hits as well as new works by leading playwrights. At least from the outside, the theater appeared unchanged due to the pandemic. On the contrary, it now looks stronger than before.

How did that happen? Schulfer made sure the Goodman did not remain closed for as long as non-profit Chicago theaters. On August 2, 2021, a ceremony was held on the sidewalk outside the theater, during which Goodman’s tent was symbolically relit as a symbol of healing. Producing a theater production in 2021 was extremely difficult for everyone involved, and most chose to rise to the challenge. Not Schulfer.

As a result, Schulfer said in a recent interview, “We never lost touch with our audience or our donors. We were in constant conversation with them. They stayed engaged and came back to us.”

Goodman made another very important decision during the pandemic period: It did not lay off any of its employees during the crisis. This meant Schulfer had to convince the theatre’s board of directors not only that this decision was wise, but also that they needed to dig deep into their own pockets to cover these expenses.

But all those years at the helm meant there was a lot of trust in the executive director. The board agreed and the gamble paid off. When many theaters had to ramp up their operations again after the pandemic paused, including hiring and training new employees, Goodman had already had all of his employees ready for duty.

Regarding last year’s programs, Schulfer says Goodman determined that people remained willing to engage with important challenges and ideas but were not going to the theater to experience trauma, vicariously or otherwise. “I think we quickly realized that it was time for games with hopeful messages,” he said. “People have been and are being erased from what we experience.”

Schulfer is familiar, even tired, with the question of how long he plans to stay. “There is a season for everything,” he said. “I don’t know when that season will happen. I’m so grateful to so many people over such a long period of time.”

This gratitude flows in two directions, of course. There have been few more hard-working and talented staffers in Chicago theater throughout its history.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@chicagotribune.com

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