Final Say: Rob Ruggiero

 

Multi-award-winning director Rob Ruggiero combines his full-time role as producing artistic director of Hartford’s TheaterWorks with other stage gigs all over the country, including Broadway. He lives in West Hartford.

What’s the toughest challenge of being a stage director?  
I think, the reality of moving from place to place. It’s ultimately a very transient profession. When you’re fortunate enough to have a lot of work, as I am, there never seems to be quite enough time to do the level of preparation I prefer to do. I love to get engaged, as much as possible, with the world the story I’m telling lives in. So it’s good to have an artistic home—as I do with TheaterWorks, where you don’t have to travel constantly.

And the biggest reward?  
Being able to tell great stories. The wonderful thing about theater is it’s a collaborative art. So I work with phenomenally talented actors and designers and playwrights, which is terrifically exciting. I think the cherry on that sundae is when the story that you tell touches people, makes them think and feel and question. Theater is great when it’s “entertaining,” but I much prefer to have a production of mine be one that people talk about for hours or even days afterward.

What assets do you bring to the process of staging a play?
I’m one of the few directors who does both plays and musicals. That I do both genres positively influences my work on each one. As a young artist, I dabbled in all the arts. I would draw, do arts and crafts—I’m very visual. So for a while, I was jack-of-all-trades, master of none. When I found directing, it became something in which I could make use of all my different interests and experiences. This enables me to communicate more effectively with different theater artists—it’s great, when you’re directing a musical, to be able to read music. Or, when you talk to a choreographer, to understand the vocabulary of dance.

How did you become interested in theater?
Through dance, actually. [laughs] In the late ’70s, when I was still in high school, I became a disco exhibition dancer. As a result of that, I got asked to dance in a school production of Oklahoma! Obviously, in most high schools, not a lot of boys dance. I played “Dream Curly”—and did it two years in a row.

What attracts you to a particular play or musical—makes you say, “I want to do this?”
That’s a great question. Usually, there’s something in the story that I connect with, something that moves me. That usually has to do with “the human condition:” family, love, forgiveness, romance. I’m not particularly stimulated by “intellectual” themes—I mean, I appreciate them, but I’m more attracted to a play that makes some statement about or reflects on our humanity.  

What is your favorite play?    
I’m not sure I have one. I like to say that most often, it’s the one I’m currently working on. I’ve directed Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire a couple of times and would certainly do so again; I just think it’s a terrific play. I’ve also done Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out twice, and Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero three times. One thing that’s a powerful magnet for me in choosing a play—and the hardest quality to find—is one in which the playwright captures the way people actually speak in real life. Those are the plays actors and directors love to do over and over again. Most playwrights write dialogue the way they think people speak. Having said that, I also loved working on A Streetcar Named Desire, in which the language is more poetic.

Your favorite musicals?
I’m quickly becoming one of the “R&H guys” because I do a lot of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. People tend to think of those as old-fashioned, but Oscar Hammerstein was so ahead of his time. When you really study some of those characters and storylines, they’re very progressive for their time and it’s very easy to make them relevant to contemporary audiences.

Tell us about an embarrassing experience you’ve had with one of your plays.
A director is as exposed as an actor in that the audience watching on any given night thinks that what happens onstage is the result of a choice the director made. I had this one-person show in previews that was going quite well, when a reviewer asked permission to see it one day before the official opening. I said “Sure,” but forgot to tell the actor. This actor, who I’m being careful not to name, decided that afternoon—as a result of seeing something in a movie or on TV—to make a very dramatic change in interpreting the lead character, one that added 10 minutes to the first act. I knocked on the dressing-room door at intermission and said, “What are you doing?” The actor said, “Well, I’m trying something.” I said, “Do what we rehearsed!” And the reviewer wrote, “The pacing is deadly,” not knowing I had nothing to do with that. [laughs] But what can you do? Call the reviewer up and explain?

You’ve worked in theaters across the U.S. Any preferences?
I have a special place in my heart for Goodspeed Opera House. There’s something very charming about it despite its challenges: no wings or fly system, and the stage doesn’t have a deep rake, which is tough for the audience. Still, they’ve mastered the art of presenting big musicals in a small space.

What’s the best advice you’ve gotten?
Don’t try to please everyone, because it’s an impossible task—and you won’t make good art. Another mentor told me, “You have to have a life”—one with friends and good times—“otherwise, you won’t be able to bring life to your art.”
 

Final Say: Rob Ruggiero

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