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From Lear to Rothko, a director who wields a big brush

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Robert Falls was, to put it bluntly, tired of hearing himself talk. Decades in the rehearsal room had, in his mind, calcified his directorial style. The process worked well for him, of course, as he has spent 26 highly productive years as head of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and along the way earned a Tony Award for his direction of the 1999 Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman,” with Brian Dennehy as Willy Loman.

But Falls, who turns 58 in March, is a more impatient sort than his steady résumé reveals. “When you do this for 30 years, you find you can fall into your own rut,” he explained the other day, during a brief stopover in Washington to check up on his production of “Red,” which had just begun preview performances at ­Arena Stage. “I was getting bored with myself, with what I knew, how I worked.”

Which is why Edward Gero and Patrick Andrews, the actors cast in John Logan’s play as, respectively, volatile abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko and a strong-willed assistant, found themselves last summer in a Chicago rehearsal hall, studying the text of “Red” as if each and every word were encrypted.

“We spent the first two weeks going line by line, in active analysis,” recalled Gero, the longtime Washington actor who had previously worked for Falls in a bloody, modern-dress “King Lear” at Shakespeare Theatre Company, inspired by the disintegration of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Gero described the exhaustive investigation that occurred before Falls’s “Red” debuted at the Goodman: “The first line, ‘What do you see?,’ I had to find an action for it: ‘I inquire!’ We had to come up with physical gestures for every line. And I thought,” he added with a laugh, “ ‘When are we going to do the play?’ ”

To the charge of putting his actors through rigorous hoops, Falls pleads guilty — and blames it on his new passion for the methods of Constantin Stanislavski, the legendary Russian stage director and theoretician. Several times over the past few years, Falls has flown to Moscow to immerse himself in some of the Stanislavskian ideas and techniques he’d read about while an undergraduate theater student at the University of Illinois and never fully understood.

“I wanted to learn how to get deeper and more richly into the work, and also empower the actors without telling them what to do,” he said, between swigs of Diet Coke. The goal was to “shift away from an authoritarian director” — one who essentially picks from among the responses actors provide in rehearsal and then sets them in theatrical stone — to a director who could allow the actors to move and think more independently on the stage.

“You spend all your time as a director trying to make it like it’s happening in the moment,” Falls noted. “But you actually can create it so that it happens in the moment.”

If Falls has a tendency to sit still job-wise — holding just two posts since 1977, when he became artistic director of Chicago’s Wisdom Bridge Theatre, and then in 1986, taking over at the Goodman — the brain isn’t sedentary. “This most fascinating and restless of Midwestern directors, forever on his way again to somewhere else” is how the Chicago Tribune’s theater critic, Chris Jones, described him in a 2010 review of his “Seagull.”

Among the leaders of major regional theaters, few have exported as many productions to New York, or directed there with more regularity. His Broadway assignments have been remarkably wide-ranging: In 1997, he staged Horton Foote’s “The Young Man From Atlanta,” which won the Pulitzer Prize; the next year came “Death of a Salesman”; and two years later, he did Elton John and Tim Rice’s pop musical “Aida.”

He holds the rare distinction of shepherding Broadway revivals of two plays often considered quintessential American masterpieces, “Salesman” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” the latter with Dennehy and Vanessa Redgrave. And while some of his recent productions have foundered on Broadway — his 2008 revival of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” with Cedric the Entertainer lasted a week, and his 2009 staging of O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms” closed after a month — he remains one of the country’s most-sought-after stage directors. At the moment, he’s in rehearsals in Los Angeles for Beth Henley’s new play, “The ­Jacksonian,” with Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Bill Pullman and Glenne Headly — the reason he had time for only a 17-hour stop in Washington to see what shape “Red” was in.

“He gives you confidence,” said Stacy Keach, who played Lear for Falls in that memorable production and is currently on Broadway in “Other Desert Cities.” “He enlists your trust and your faith that he knows what you’re talking about. The essence [of a good director] is to be able to give you confidence to explore your own ideas and also to trust another point of view.” Comparing Falls to his “Desert Cities” director, Joe Mantello, Keach added: “Both have an extraordinary ability to communicate on an emotional level without a lot of words.”

One of the realities of a life in the arts in this country is that theater directors rarely achieve the renown they’re accorded in Europe and other parts of the world; the path to real celebrity — if that’s what one is after — is movies, and only stage directors who traverse both worlds, like a Mike Nichols or a Julie Taymor, achieve national visibility. Falls says that if there was a moment when that crossover was possible for him, it’s long past, and he’s not regretful.

“I’ve had some opportunities,” he said. “I thought seriously about that when I was 30 years old. But nobody’s going to give a movie to a 58-year-old.” Recalling an observation about filmmaking by Stephen Daldry — the stage-trained British director who segues regularly into film (“Billy Elliot,” “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”) — Falls says that investing two or three years in a movie project might be more time than he could endure.

So it’s the rhythms of play-making for him.

Although “Red” was initially produced in London and directed there and on Broadway by Michael Grandage, playwright Logan — Oscar-nominated for his screenplay of “Hugo” — says he always believed Falls would be a natural to direct it, too. “I thought his sensibility was spot on for ‘Red’ because I think Bob understands so completely the complexity of the American soul,” observed the dramatist, who spent his formative years as a writer in Chicago. “And he has unbelievable visual panache.”

Invigorated by his trips to Russia, Falls was eager to put the knowledge to work. He did so in his typically big way with “The Seagull,” for which he scheduled an unheard-of 10 weeks of rehearsal. During that period, he removed some of the traditional safety nets, declining, for instance, to “block” the scenes, to tell actors where they needed to be on the stage. “When you do this process, you give up some things, to gain other things,” he said. The result, it seems, was a “Seagull’ so untamed that Jones was compelled to note in his mixed but encouraging review that Falls’s Nina fell off the stage.

The director had a more compressed rehearsal schedule for “Red,” but as Gero and Andrews discovered, their director was still under a Stanislavskian spell. The play, which revolves around the paintings famously commissioned of Rothko for the Seagram Building in New York, is made up of a series of confrontations between the artist and his studio assistant that reveal Rothko’s artistic theories, passions and insecurities. Most acutely, it looks at what Logan views as the painter’s terror at being eclipsed by a generation of pop artists, such as Warhol and Lichtenstein, who were beginning to garner attention.

As a result of their investigations, Gero said, “what happened was, Patrick and I became very specific about what was happening at every single moment of the play.”

Falls said he didn’t know much about Rothko at the time he took on “Red,” but after the immersive experience, he felt a thorough kinship. “At one point, the kid says to Rothko something like, ‘Does every painting have to rip your heart out?’ And he says, ‘Yes, it does!’ My wife said, ‘That sounds exactly like you!’ ”

Red

through March 11 at the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Starring Edward Gero and Patrick Andrews. Directed by Robert Falls. Tickets are $40-$85. Call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.

© The Washington Post Company