SAN DIEGO — It's tempting to make assumptions about artists whose best articulation of their lives comes through their work, not their conversation.
Robert Woodruff looks like his name--hard, and perhaps abrasive under the right circumstances. Yet his voice is quiet, and his eyes are gentle at times, while his illusive thoughts are obviously churning with input from the imperfect world depicted in the plays he directs.
Anyone who has seen the 39-year-old director's work--the early, intense collaborations with playwright Sam Shepard; "In the Belly of the Beast" at the Mark Taper Forum and in New York last year, or Brecht's "A Man's A Man" at the La Jolla Playhouse--knows that Woodruff reveals himself best through the actors he puts on a stage.
The restless, sharply perceptive mind lurking beneath his self-described shyness with strangers bursts forth in a carefully lit theater. It is stark and angry and real, with a twist of sarcastic humor and a deep, passionate involvement in life.
Woodruff's current project, the American premiere of Odon von Horvath's "Figaro Gets a Divorce" at the playhouse, is billed as a comedy. Don't take that too literally. The subject matter is revolution, and while the script is filled with plenty of dark humor, there is also ample sustenance for hungry minds in Roger Downey's translation of the 50-year-old play from its original German.
Woodruff wouldn't be involved if the work offered him anything less.
"A lot of things don't interest me," he said. He turned down several directing offers last year because they were "just a job."
"I don't want to take a job. . . . I mean, I'm not really interested in work; I don't like to work," he said.
But the right play can change that quickly enough.
It has to be "something that breaks the mold or convention, as opposed to, you know, three-chord rock 'n' roll. . . . something that's got some scale to it--size--approaching myth, or some sweep to it," he said. "It doesn't have to be political, but I have to see how it resonates politically in terms of my perceptions and how it challenges me politically or throws something in my face or agrees with me, I don't care which one."
Von Horvath's play, which opened Sunday, loosely picks up the threads of Beaumarchais' trilogy, which inspired operas by Mozart ("The Marriage of Figaro") and Rossini ("The Barber of Seville").
"Figaro Gets a Divorce" opens with valet Figaro and chambermaid Susanna fleeing a leftist revolution, accompanied by their employers, the Count and Countess Almaviva.
"It's very contemporary," Woodruff said. "I mean, the whole sensibility of the play is about people running away from a country after a revolution . . . and (they) take their money with them. I think we've seen a lot of that in the last year . . . so it's not too hard to find models to work with--Philippines, Nicaragua, Haiti, Iran, soon to be South Korea, hopefully soon to be El Salvador."
Von Horvath was born in what is now Yugoslavia, son of an Austro-Hungarian civil servant, and died in a freak accident at the age of 37. What intrigues Woodruff, whose own parents emigrated from Russia and Palestine, is that Von Horvath wrote "Figaro Gets a Divorce" when he was fleeing from a fascist takeover in Germany in the 1930s.
"It's just strange that he's fleeing from a right-wing revolution," Woodruff said, "and he's writing about a country which has replaced a monarchy with a left-wing government. . . . How the hell could he do that? Maybe he was using Spain for a model, I don't know, it's hard to say."
But Von Horvath doesn't take sides, which Woodruff thinks is "kind of nice. He gets to kick the aristocracy and the bourgeois middle class and the lefties, and what emerges is a pretty formidable society . . . perhaps leftist in its base with some humanist understanding and still with a threat both from the inside and from the outside to its core."
Woodruff doesn't like to talk much about his own past, but he did share a few tidbits from pre-theater years teaching sixth grade in Washington Heights, a Spanish-speaking section of Harlem.
"I loved it," he said after his first declaration that he did it "to get out of the Army."
"It was amazing, but it would kill you, and I didn't like working every day. It was like doing eight shows a day, you know. You got to do a 9 o'clock show, a 10 o'clock show, an 11 o'clock show--so maybe three shows a week were good. The other 32 were terrible."
But when he got a high number in the draft lottery, Woodruff said he ran away from teaching, ending up in San Francisco, where he helped found the Eureka Theatre and eventually started the Bay Area Playwrights' Festival.
"It was an immediate-reward kind of thing," he said. "I didn't want to study anymore, I just wanted to do something. . . . I didn't think you had to know anything to (direct)--I thought you just did it. Then I had to learn as I was doing it.