Black-and-white image of Susan V. Booth sitting on metal steps leading up to an el station. The steps have signs warning "Stop. No Entry." She is wearing dark trousers, a long-sleeved shirt, and a pullover sweater
Susan V. Booth Credit: Joe Mazza/Bravelux

The past two years have seen more upheavals and changes in leadership at Chicago theaters than at any time in my memory, exacerbated by the long COVID-19 shutdown. So perhaps it makes sense that Goodman Theatre went back to the future, so to speak, by announcing Susan V. Booth as their new artistic director late last month. Booth is the first woman to hold that position in the Goodman’s 97-year history (there have been seven previous artistic directors), taking over the reins from Robert Falls, who’s been Goodman’s artistic leader for 35 years. Falls’s roots were in the emerging off-Loop theater scene of the late 70s and early 80s—his 1985 production of Hamlet for now-defunct Wisdom Bridge, starring a young Aidan Quinn in the title role, famously had Quinn spray-paint the opening lines of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy on the stage wall. Falls selected the upcoming season and will still be directing shows at the Goodman from time to time, but Booth takes charge on October 3.

Though she’s been the artistic director of Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre Company for the past 21 years, Booth has roots in Chicago; she was the director of new play development at the Goodman for nearly ten years before moving to Atlanta.

I talked to Booth about how she ended up back in the town where her career began and what role she thinks the Goodman occupies in local, national, and international theater. This is an edited version of that conversation.

Kerry Reid: What was the process like for coming back to the Goodman as artistic director?

Susan Booth: If you run a fair-size theater for a while, and you don’t make truly colossal mistakes, eventually you’ll start getting phone calls from search firms saying “They’re looking for a new artistic director at this theater. Would you be interested in being advanced as a candidate?” And when that started to happen a bit for me in Atlanta—my husband and I have a daughter, and those calls started coming as she hit grade school—it was twofold: I didn’t really feel like I wanted to uproot my kid. And on a professional level, there was so much I wanted to do at the Alliance in terms of its local footprint, its national footprint. There was just a lot I wanted to do. So I didn’t really put myself on the market.

But yeah, it absolutely caught my attention when Bob announced that he was leaving. Every theater goes through those transitions differently. And so I figured, and it turned out to be correct, that the theater, after a tenure of that length and particularly at the moment which it happened, did really intensive internal and stakeholder work to figure out, “Who are we now? Who do we wanna be? What are we looking for?” And so when I didn’t hear anything, I thought, “OK, if that’s not meant to be, that’s not meant to be.” And it actually came as kind of a surprise because a fair amount of time had passed from Bob’s announcement.

But I got a phone call from a search firm saying, “Would you have any interest in being considered for this position?” That was back in the spring. Timing-wise, on a personal front, my kid is headed off to college in the fall. And on a professional front—I say this with all due ego intact because it took a village—the [Alliance] is in a profoundly healthy place. They’ll continue to do well. So I felt like “OK, I can step away.” They’ll thrive under whatever wonderful new leadership they find. So that timing just felt really good.

The line for years has been that Steppenwolf is the actors’ theater, Victory Gardens is the playwrights’ theater, and Goodman is the directors’ theater. But there have been different aesthetics onstage with the resident directors at Goodman over the years, as well as different collaborations with writers, some of which I know came about through your earlier work with people like Regina Taylor and Rebecca Gilman. How would you describe where the Goodman is now?

I’ll give you a fuller answer than the short one I’m about to give you, which is—I don’t know yet. You watch theaters that you admire and see what they are producing and what artists are working there. And the one through line of Goodman has been a kind of audacity, right? You know, if Bob wants to take on international work of five hours duration, then he’s going to. The evolution of the Latinx work that’s been done at the Goodman is kind of breathtaking. I look at the New Stages program, which didn’t exist when I was there. And I looked at the caliber of writers, and the radical diversity of views, of backgrounds, of aesthetics in terms of the writers that were coming through New Stages was really impressive. And the other thing that I really clocked is that when the Goodman would take on a new work, there was no, “Well, that’s for the small space, right?” The moment when the Goodman produced Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Gloria on the Albert stage, I thought, “OK, that’s ballsy, and that’s so smart.” And that’s the good thing that is exciting to me. [Booth is currently co-directing Jacobs-Jenkins’s Everybody with Tinashe Kajese-Bolden at the Alliance, which opens in September before her departure for Chicago.]

Theaters everywhere are far more involved in doing community engagement work than in past decades, and the Goodman has an entire venue [the Alice Center] dedicated to that work. How do you see your role as artistic director in tying together the work that’s the more immediately public-facing work on the stage with all of these other programs?

One of the things that made me think “I have to go after this job opportunity” is the very work that you’re talking about. The Alliance has a wildly robust educational program that begins with theater for the very young. That literally starts with work created for six- to nine-month-old babies all the way on up. We’ve had deeply animating engagement work. I’m not interested in theater where the performance is the endgame. I’m far more interested in theater as an active catalyst in community dialogue and community healing in educational betterment. I believe in the power of this art form to cause things to happen to places and within people. So the fact is that there is a question of “How does our work resonate in our given community?” And community can be a place-based idea. It can also be a belief-based idea, a political-based idea—but how are we taking the work that we do and putting it in truly dynamic conversation with the people around us? That work is the stuff that I’m most excited about. That work is critical.

One of the tensions in running a regional theater is balancing commitment to supporting local artists while also building on national and international collaborations. How do you see that challenge playing out as artistic director for the Goodman?

I’m super cognizant of the tension between “What are your responsibilities as a flagship theater in terms of exposing your audience to national and international theatermakers, while, at the same time, having an absolutely key responsibility to supporting, animating, and growing your local artist community?” You have to commit to both, and that’s the beauty of Chicago. And this was true when I was there all those years ago. As I’m diving back in, it’s doubly true. Now there is national and international excellence within the local community. So one is not at the expense of the other. I think what one looks at is in the aggregate fullness of a season. How are we speaking to both of those needs, both of those responsibilities?

There has been heightened attention paid in recent years not just to racial justice and other kinds of systemic discrimination in theaters but also to pay equity and working conditions. Where do you see your role in addressing these issues?

The focus has been heightened enormously in the last two years. Fantastic. But it has never been OK to say, “But that’s how I work” if the definition of “That’s how I work” is abusive. If “That’s how I work” is from a fundamental place of inequity, that’s simply not how anyone can work at our institutions. And yes, it is incumbent on an artistic director to make that clear to everyone with whom she works. It is incumbent on an artistic director to model that behavior within the structures of her staff and in her rehearsal halls. That’s part of the gig. I’m not so naive as to think, “Well, it’s always been part of the gig,” cuz clearly it hasn’t been. 

I think that kind of acceptance of—so many names are rushing through my head of people who for years were tolerated because well, “That’s just how that person works.” That’s never an acceptable answer. And in terms of pay equity—I think we had a not so much time-honored tradition as a time-allowed tradition of equating apprenticeship and learning on the job with the abuse of people’s time. The notion of unpaid internships just exacerbated lack of equity in building leadership in our field, because the only young people who could afford to take those positions came from a certain socioeconomic quartile, right? And so we were just perpetuating American racist structure in our organizations while putting work on our stages saying “We’re fiercely opposed to these structures.”

Do you feel like theater itself is in a fraught position right now with the lingering uncertainty of the pandemic shutdown and everything else that has been creating upheaval?

​​You use the word fraught, which is exactly the right word. While the gyrations that Chicago theater is going through right now are fraught, it also in some ways could not be a more enticing time to step in because clearly the old rules no longer satisfactorily apply. And particularly if you’re coming in following a storied tenure of 35 years, it’s actually useful to be coming in at this moment.

Gabrielle Randle-Bent Courtesy Court Theatre

New associate artistic director named at Court

On the heels of receiving this year’s regional Tony Award, Court Theatre has also added Gabrielle Randle-Bent to their artistic team as associate artistic director. She’ll join artistic director Charles Newell and executive director Angel Ysaguirre at the Hyde Park institution, where she’s previously codirected (with Newell) The Tragedy of Othello and also served as dramaturg for several productions. Most recently, she directed The Year of Magical Thinking with Remy Bumppo. Randle-Bent is also cofounder of the Civic Actor Studio, a leadership program of the University of Chicago’s Office of Civic Engagement. She’s currently a PhD candidate at Northwestern University.

In the press announcement earlier today, Randle-Bent said, “It is a privilege to be able to invest in a place that has invested so much in me, and it’s an honor to be in this position. The opportunity to learn from Charlie, the incredible artists and staff at Court, and the faculty collaborators at the university, is a real gift. More than anything, my love affair with Court has led to a love affair with the South Side of Chicago, and I would love for this theatre to truly, and fully—whatever that means, because I’m not the one who gets to define it—be a reflection of the communities that make this one of the most spectacularly alive places that I’ve ever been.”