About 35 minutes into the two-hour production of “Notes from Underground” at the Yale Repertory Theatre on Saturday night, a group of audience members left the theater. Throughout the production, which Woodruff wrote and co-adapted from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s eponymous novel, groups continued to leave, one person stepping over a seat right beside Woodruff, who was sitting audience-left.
Woodruff said he had no reaction to audience members who choose to leave.
“It’s not my job,” he said. “I’m not the viewer. They are the viewer. Everybody makes their own choices. It’s America.”
In addition to his play, which opened Thursday, Woodruff is making waves in the undergraduate theater community for his nontraditional directing class, “Elements of Composition for the Stage,” a course being offered for the first time this semester. As a professor and a director, Woodruff is establishing himself on campus with his atypical style, challenging conventions and pushing the limits of his students’ creativity.
A CLASS OF HIS OWN
Woodruff’s class assignments speak to his style. In an e-mail, he instructed students to produce a four-minute-and 22-second piece with “at least four moments of amazing synchronicity between sound and action. fifteen second of silence. fifteen sections of absolute stillness. Fifteen seconds of brilliantly detailed action/movement/choreography. Fifteen seconds of purposeless, random, futile, chaotic action. water. One beautiful gesture. . NO MIME.”
The class requires students to put on a performance almost every week based on an assignment born from Woodruff’s imagination. Last week it was to conduct an interview and put the verbatim text on stage. One student’s piece took the class on a small tour in the misting rain while he delivered a monologue. Another brought the entire audience, armed with writing utensils, around a long piece of butcher paper where they were given a quiz about their own creativity.
“I’m actually constructing a class that I wish I had when I was 21,” he said. “Nobody ever asked me to do these things and I have no idea how to do them. So I want to see how they do them. They are just exercises in imagination and I just make them up.”
Cordelia Istel ’10, who took parts of her responses from job interviews for her last assignment, said she thinks students have become more comfortable with the class over time.
“He’s very into pushing the limits and pushing the boundaries,” she said.
Istel said the sparsity of the initial direction given in the assignments provides students with a chance to think about their process. And Timothy Duncheon ’10 said Woodruff is usually only angry when a completed assignment stays within a student’s comfort zone.
Several of Woodruff’sstudents interviewed noted the intellectual pressure of producing something both creative and original each week. Adam Horowitz ’09 called the challenge “absurd.” Woodruff, he added, does not hold back his gut reactions to students’ work.
“He will say what he thinks and doesn’t tiptoe around an issue,” Horowitz said.
Even though Woodruff might say something perceived as “mean”, Duncheon said his remarks inspire the students to improve their work.
CULTIVATING A ‘SPECIAL AESTHETIC’
In some ways, the Vietnam War brought Woodruff to theater.
When he graduated from the University at Buffalo as a political science major in 1968, he had been accepted into Columbia Law School and the University of Chicago Law School. (Yale Law School rejected him, he said he recalled.) But his acceptances were not without caveats.
If he enrolled at one of the law schools, Woodruff said he feared that he would be drafted to fight in Vietnam.
To avoid this, Woodruff taught sixth grade in Washington Heights in New York City. He began to use theater as a method of teaching, and started taking classes at night at the City College of New York. After he was able to cast aside concerns about the draft, Woodruff — drawn to “the typical trilogy: sex, drugs and rock and roll” of San Francisco — enrolled in graduate school at San Francisco State University studying theater.
Woodruff was drawn to the “responsibility” and “investigation” of directing.
“If you want to live inside Dostoevsky’s brain for a year you can do a project like this,” he said in reference to “Notes.” “If you want to live in Shakespeare’s brain you can do that, or Racine’s brain or Euripides’ brain.”
Since graduating, Woodruff has had homes at different theater companies around the country and the globe. Recently, he served as artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., from 2002 to 2007.
“He brought a special aesthetic, in regard to his own directing, supplemented by directors from abroad who either shared that aesthetic or extended it into other areas,” Robert Brustein DRA ’51, founding director of the American Repertory Theatre and former dean of the Drama School, wrote in an e-mail to the News. “Total lack of sentiment, theatre of cruelty, stripped to the bare bones.”
Elizabeth Diamond, adjunct professor, chair of directing and resident director at the School of Drama, said Woodruff is “a master of mixing the tracks” — a master of combining all the elements on stage such as light, sound and movement. But she said his work with actors is his strength.
“What really, really makes Robert’s work so singular in my view is his work with the actors, because he’s fearless,” she said.
Robert Woodruff is looking down. His eyes are hidden by a Detroit Tigers baseball cap, which he is wearing “for absolutely no reason.” The rest of his body is clothed in black, and his gray-brown hair pokes out from underneath the cap.
He sits in the basement of the Yale Repertory Theatre, which is eerily quiet at around 5 p.m. In less than three hours audience members will congregate in that basement before being seated to see “Notes.”
During the show, the audience peers into the bleak mind of a character simply titled Man, played by the show’s co-adapter Bill Camp. Camp sweats, rages and raves about the stage accompanied by a sound track of various musical styles and videos projected onto the entire stage. A review in Variety called it an “open wound of a play, oozing self-loathing, throbbing with intensity and stinking with misogyny.”
The idea to do “Notes” as a play came from Woodruff’s desire to work with Camp, who had been given the idea to stage the novel, Woodruff said. The two of them had worked together twice before at the American Repertory Theatre.
Camp and Woodruff took turns adapting the novel, Camp working on the first part and Woodruff taking the second.
“I wanted to work with [Woodruff] again because I trust him,” Camp wrote in an e-mail. “I learn from him.”
Woodruff used characters originally created in 19th-century Russia and placed them in contemporary clothing. The play is set in an abandoned office space meant to evoke the Man’s previous life as a civil servant, Woodruff said.
“Ultimately it’s about essence,” Woodruff said. “It’s about trying to put him, put that character on the stage. That is always the attempt and then finding a form in which that character can live and then ultimately it winds up about a relationship.”
Woodruff said he wants to elicit a reaction from the audience. Not a specific reaction, just a reaction.
“I was just a bit shocked the entire time,” Isabel Elliman ’12, who saw the production Saturday night, said.