Susan V. Booth, the artistic director of the Alliance Theater in Atlanta, has been named the next artistic director of the Goodman Theater in Chicago, a dominant force in that city’s vibrant theater scene and one of the most influential regional nonprofits in the country.
Booth, 59, who will assume the position in October, will be the first woman to lead the Goodman, which was founded in 1922. She succeeds Robert Falls, who announced last September that he would be stepping down after 35 years at the helm.
The Goodman, which has an annual budget of $22 million and a staff of roughly 200, won the 1992 Tony Award for excellence in regional theater. Under Falls, it staged more than 150 world or American premieres, while also helping to transform Chicago from a theater scene known primarily for actors to one recognized as a seedbed for directors with artistic visions “too massive to be contained in a storefront theater,” as Chris Jones, the theater critic for The Chicago Tribune, wrote last year.
The move will be something of a homecoming for Booth, who went to graduate school at Northwestern University, directed at theaters across the city and served as the Goodman’s director of new play development from 1993 to 2001. Her husband even proposed to her on the catwalk over the Goodman’s main stage on her last day on the job.
In a telephone interview, Booth said she looked forward to diving back into Chicago’s rich theater scene, which she described as marked by a muscular, democratic and “radically diverse aesthetic.”
“It was always a really fluid ecosystem, where artists would bounce between punky first-year start-ups in the backs of bars to the Goodman stage,” she said. “That fluidity meant that if there was a hierarchy, it had to do with your chops. It was glorious.”
Her arrival at the Goodman comes at a time of widespread turnover in leadership in Chicago theater, because of retirement and upheavals around diversity and inclusion. She said one of her first tasks her would be to figure out “where Chicago is now,” both artistically and civically, to determine how best to reach the widest audiences possible.
She said she also wanted to work with the theater’s artistic collective to continue the Goodman’s tradition of “treating classics as if they were new plays” and giving prominent placement to challenging new works.
“I love me a classic, and I have no interest in relegating that work to other theaters,” she said. “But I love the level playing field that’s created when you produce new work.”
Booth led the Alliance in Atlanta for 21 years, where she doubled the operating budget (currently $20 million) and endowment, and led it to a 2007 Tony Award for regional excellence. The theater presented more than 85 world premieres, including six musicals that later went to Broadway, including “The Prom” and “The Color Purple.”
It also worked to develop relationships with young playwrights, while cultivating new voices through programs like the Spelman Leadership Fellowship, a partnership with Spelman College in Atlanta aimed at addressing the lack of diversity in theater leadership.
Asked about a signature project, she cited a staging of “Native Guard,” the former US poet laureate Natasha Trethewey’s poem cycle exploring both her family history and the history of Black Civil War troops, which was staged originally at the Alliance and then later at the Atlanta History Center, amid its Civil War collections.
“The theatricalization of it was as much about how the audience engaged with the work as about the source narrative,” she said. “It was a community event.”
It was “theater designed to catalyze dialogue, to evoke action,” she added. “That mattered to me a lot.
The Goodman’s 2022-23 season, programmed by Falls, includes the world premieres of Rebecca Gilman’s play “Swing State,” about a Wisconsin community split by political polarization (one of two productions to be directed by Falls), and Christina Anderson’s “the ripple” , the wave that carried me home,” about a family fighting for the integration of a swimming pool in Kansas in the 1960s. There will also be a 30th-anniversary production of “The Who’s Tommy,” directed by Des McAnuff.
As for her own programming, Booth said she wanted the Goodman to be part of the ripe political and social debates of the moment, without losing sight of the pure pleasure of theater.
“I don’t know a theater community in the country that isn’t creating the odd joy-bomb,” she said.