Theatre executive traces industry development
Clare Kossler | Sunday, October 5, 2014
Notre Dame graduate Roche Schulfer discussed his 40-year career at the Goodman Theatre in a lecture Friday entitled “A Talk with Roche Schulfer ‘73, Executive Director of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.”
Schulfer said not-for-profit theaters like the Goodman have redefined the character of American theater and shifted its focus from generating revenue to producing quality art for the benefit of the community.
“The most important thing about the not-for-profit theater and what it has accomplished is that it has legitimized theater as an art form in this country,” he said.
The not-for-profit theater is characterized by its dedication to representing a variety of art that Schulfer said is both a product of the community and a means of educating the community. He said theater embodies a diverse array of cultures and anticipates an America which celebrates those cultures to the fullest.
“I think one of the things today the not-for-profit theater is able to illustrate is the America of the future, of the soon to be future, the America in which people of color are the majority population, and — whether you call it a salad bowl or a melting pot — the whole point of transcending the era of racial divides is witnessed in the theater in a way that it’s not seen in the rest of society,” he said.
The Goodman Theatre, winner of the Special Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre in 1992, is unique among not-for-profit theaters, the majority of which opened long after the Goodman in 1925, Schulfer said. Originally established as an extension of the Art Institute, the Goodman Theatre became home to a professional theater company in the late ’60s and separated from the Art Institute in 1977.
The first 10 years following the Goodman’s separation from the Art Institute were years of “extraordinary chaos,” but Schulfer said the theater began to define its identity during this time as well.
“[One] thing that has driven the Goodman over the past 30 years is that back in the late ’70s we made the decision to make cultural diversity and inclusion the fabric of the organization, and we did it before it was a national issue in the arts,” he said. “Incorporating the work of artists of color into the work in our season, incorporating artists of color into the artistic leadership structure, the board of trustees, the audience obviously and the staff became a priority.”
A defining characteristic of the Goodman is its commitment to community, Schulfer said.
“It is our moral imperative as citizens to do what we can to improve the quality of life [in Chicago] through the work that we produce,” he said. “That has become what we are known for.”
Schulfer said his current success stems partly from his time at Notre Dame, during which he became head of the Cultural Arts Commission. Schulfer also said an experience of “crime and redemption without punishment,” in which he saw and subsequently stole the book “Economics and the Performing Arts” from the Saint Mary’s library, was the inciting factor in his decision to enter the theater business.
“One thing I’ll say about Notre Dame at that time and I certainly believe that it’s true now, there was so much that I learned about the world,” he said. “We were exposed to all kinds of different ideas, different perspectives … My gratitude to this place is enormous.”