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After 40 years with Goodman Theatre, Roche Schulfer still looks ahead

ROCHE SCHULFER — in the words
of his friends
and colleagues

Brian Dennehy, actor

“He has done an impossible job with grace, good humor and enormous success. He has had the most difficult job in helping to build this beautiful organization. No one else could have done it. No one. And he’s a good guy, and I like him.”

Ora Jones, actress

“... Thanks for all the moments of generosity that only happen behind the scenes. A quiet word of appreciation, a small favor, sometimes a big save at the 11th hour. Kindnesses, large and small, that go unnoticed by the rest of the world, but mean a great deal to those who receive them. Things we can’t begin to repay, and always remember with gratitude.”

Read more at —Hedy Weiss

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Updated: September 22, 2013 10:15PM

With his closely cropped hair and familiar “uniform” — navy blazer, khaki slacks and loafers — you could easily mistake Roche Schulfer for a prep school principal or golf club executive. As it happens, he has been a major force on Chicago’s cultural landscape, associated with the Goodman Theatre for 40 years, 33 of them as executive director.

Earlier this month, when guests gathered in the Goodman lobby to toast Schulfer’s achievements — just moments before a gilded star bearing his name was unveiled on the sidewalk beneath the theater’s marquee at 170 N. Dearborn — they all chuckled at the handmade poster bearing a decades-old photo of him; with his long, Beatles-style hair he looked a bit more bohemian. But only a bit.

Since he began at the Goodman in 1973 — shortly after he graduated as an economics major from Notre Dame University and was hired to work in the theater’s box office — Schulfer has overseen the production of close to 350 plays (125 of them U.S. or world premieres). He was crucial in establishing the holiday production of “A Christmas Carol” as an annual theatrical rite-of-passage approaching its 36th season, and, even more crucially, in overseeing what was, even in the early 1980s, its groundbreaking move to non-traditional casting. In addition, between 1998 and 2000, he coordinated the development of the $46 million new Goodman complex in the heart of the Loop’s Theater District.

Initially serving as executive director alongside artistic director Greg Mosher (who soon moved on to the New York’s Lincoln Center Theatre), Schulfer subsequently teamed with Robert Falls, then a young firebrand who had made his mark at the now defunct Wisdom Bridge Theatre. The two men have shared a 27-year-old working partnership — a milestone of its own in what can be a very volatile environment.

And beyond the Goodman itself, Schulfer has been instrumental in strengthening the regional theater movement nationwide and working with the Actors’ Equity union to create a pay scale that would enable not-for-profit theaters to thrive.

“I’ve been around long enough to see what CAN be, what is possible in the theater, and it has never been more exciting,” said Schulfer, 61, who was born near the city’s the Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood, grew up in Hinsdale, commuted to a Catholic high school in Chicago, and fell in love with theater as a child, after seeing a performance by the fabled mime, Marcel Marceau.

“People ask me how I can keep doing the same job, but Chicago is such a great place to work, with government, business and civic leaders who acknowledge the importance of the arts. And if I ever have a bad day, I just stand in the back of the theater and watch a great performance, and I feel renewed.”

“I also think about the fact that when I started in this field, nobody could have imagined how it would grow.” said Schulfer. “There were only a handful of regional theaters in the early 1970s. Now there are more than 200 theaters in Chicago alone. I didn’t create a theater out of whole cloth, as Barbara Gaines has done with the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. But we had a lot of work to do. And our budget has gone from about $1.4 million annually to $19 million.”

Robert Falls waxed Freudian when explaining Schulfer’s attachment to the Goodman: “Roche’s mom died when he was still a teenager, and his dad died when he was still a young adult, so you could say he was something of an orphan. And along the way, as he mastered every job at the Goodman, he also created a family — a family of artists.”

But past is prologue for Schulfer. He has big goals for the Goodman’s future.

“Art is not a luxury; it’s an essential way of life, and I think beyond being a strong artistic entity we have to be more of a community organization,” said Schulfer. “I especially want us to push harder towards making an impact on young audiences. Our educational system is such a mess. And we have college graduates who become venture capitalists these days but have had no cultural infusion. I’m working on a plan with our board and artists that we hope to unveil in the next six months — something that should increase the opportunities for both the young and old in the life of the theater.”

“Also, we’ve realized that our smaller stage, the Owen Theatre, is not just a ‘studio on steroids.’ It’s a second mainstage. So we’re exploring the possibility of a real studio space that would make it easier for younger artists to work and make the transition to the Goodman. I love the Off Loop theater, but it’s important to help younger artists think beyond the storefront, too.”

His toughest time on the job? “Bob[Falls] and I can bounce ideas back and forth and have some good discussions,” said Schulfer. “But several years ago, during the recession, we really debated about how much we could cut from the budget. My feelings were that we needed to face reality for a year or so, and we did make some compromises. It was never a threat to our partnership, but it was probably our biggest argument.”

“The best part of the story is that we did a lot of planning, asked the board to reinvest in the artistry, and for our 10th anniversary in our new home we produced ‘Candide’ and five world premieres, and had our most successful season in the Loop.”


TWITTER: @HedyWeissCritic

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