"There will always be a mysterious hunger for gathering in a room, breathing the same air and sharing a communal experience." Michael Maggio, associate artistic director of the Goodman Theatre, believes the live performance arena fulfills our primal need to gather in a group. At the same time, he views it as a glorious journey across a stratified expanse of language. "I still love to spend an evening luxuriating in the language of a play," he says with heartfelt intensity.
So it comes as no surprise that Maggio is directing the world premiere of Rebecca Gilman's latest multi-tiered drama, Boy Gets Girl running through April 8 on the Goodman mainstage. The Chicago-based playwright has garnered much critical acclaim for her insight into capturing intricate nuances of dialect while examining all sides of a controversial issue.
In Boy Gets Girl, a casual blind date turns into one woman's stalking nightmare. Gilman explores sexual politics and sexual outlets through the lead reporter character, her duplicitous date, assorted news room co-workers and even a director of low-budget sexploitation films.
"What's so fascinating about Rebecca," shares Maggio, "is her ability to take a subject that can be reduced to movie-of-the-week material, then delve very deeply and treat the echoes or reverberations of a situation. She also has a terrific ear for dialogue. The words sit very easily in the actors' mouths." The director was impressed with Gilman's Spinning Into Butter, a brutally frank drama about confronting racism, when it premiered last season at the Goodman studio. It will debut at New York's Lincoln Center Theater this summer. He hopes to continue this intellectually fulfilling collaboration.
Dedicated to nurturing up-and-coming artists, Maggio has been a longtime associate professor of theater at the Theatre School of DePaul University and directed several student productions. Last July, he was appointed Dean of the Theatre School and is in the process of adding "more rigorous" theater studies programs, including a dramaturgy major. The university is now engaged in four faculty searches to broaden the scope of the curriculum, especially in the areas of world and minority theater.
Early last year, Maggio directed a Goodman production of Waiting for Godot with a racially diverse cast to reflect the community at large. "I was intrigued with the notion of putting actors in touch with a different cultural background," he says. "This is also my way of combating the fact that certain classic plays are denied to actors of color."
Maggio approaches each project with a seemingly understated sense of urgency. His theatrical world view, which exists staunchly in the moment, is endlessly rooted in the words. An associate artistic director at Goodman since 1986, Maggio has shuttled on auteur-like between Shakespeare, Stoppard and Sondheim hoping to illuminate eternal truths of our existence.
"I had been on the debate team in high school," he relates. "Then I started out as a speech and drama major at DePaul. So, early on, I would look at a play like it was a legal brief. I felt I had to establish a point of view and prove that my argument was correct based on evidence in the script. As I matured as a director, I gave myself permission to respect the possibility that, during the rehearsal process, I would learn more. The ideas would gradually unfold. And I didn't necessarily have to figure out all the answers."
Maggio recalls two pivotal events that helped enlighten him about the magical possibilities of live performance. As a child, he saw a production at the Pheasant Run Resort-Dinner Theatre in St. Charles (Illinois) of The Golden Fleecing, a military comedy starring Larry Hagman (who, at the time, was at the height of his "I Dream of Jeannie" fame). The aspiring director was enthralled by a special effect which caused a radio to explode on stage.
Later, while attending Holy Cross High School in Chicago, he happened upon another war-themed play, No Time for Sergeants, presented in a student production starring one of his friends. That experience somehow demystified theater for Maggio. "I guess I always had a fantasy mindset," he laughs. "Theater gave me license to do make-believe."
After studying speech and drama at DePaul for two years, Maggio transferred to the University of Arizona-Tucson, where he received his bachelors and masters degrees in drama, with an emphasis on directing. He chose directing because it gave him the chance "to shape the event" and to figuratively be in every scene. He started out directing musicals for SCT Productions at Chicago's Athenaeum Theatre.
Scouts from the Goodman were so impressed with his direction of Candide in 1977, they asked him to direct a play in their studio the following year. Then, during the 1979-80 Goodman mainstage season, he directed a highly successful production of Cyrano de Bergerac. It was seen by a number of regional producers, leading to Maggio's acclaimed artistic work across the country.
He has directed Titus Andronicus for the New York Shakespeare Festival; Elmer Gantry at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C.; and Rough Crossing at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, as well as productions at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, the Actors Theatre of Louisville and the Cleveland Playhouse. Maggio also won an Obie Award for his direction of Wings at the Joseph Papp Public Theater.
As artistic director of Northlight Theatre (when it was based in Evanston, Illinois) for four years, he staged the world premieres of Dealing, the musical City on the Make and Heart of a Dog. At the Goodman, his world premiere production of Bulgakov's Black Snow received five 1993 Joseph Jefferson Awards. Other award-winning productions include A Little Night Music and Wings at the Goodman.
When asked if he plans on directing more shows around the country, Maggio expresses some hesitation--noting his commitments to the Goodman and to the Theatre School. But he did point out his interest in remounting Chicago-generated theater projects in other states. "I also feel very spoiled to work at the Goodman," he acknowledges. "It is my artistic home. When I work at the Goodman, I feel like I'm driving a high-performance automobile. There is such a terrific support system in place here. Tech week is not agony. It's similar to a filmmaker who works with the same crew all the time."
Nevertheless, on another level, Maggio firmly separates the filmic and theatrical environments when choosing scripts. "I'm attracted to plays that have a specific theatrical language," he says. "Theater is not a place to do movies. Instead, it is a poetic place. So you won't see too much kitchen-sink drama in my repertoire. I want truth on stage, but I don't need realism to get to the truth."