He was 12, going on 13, and having lunch with his uncle at the Yale Club in Manhattan on his first trip in from the suburbs alone. Naturally, his uncle asked what had brought him to the city. Unwilling to risk disapproval, he lied.
"I told him," William Woodman recalled, "that I was going to see a matinee of 'Make Mine Manhattan,' which was a very forgettable musical revue at the time. "That was my front for 'Streetcar.' "
Recounting the details of his first encounter with Tennessee Williams' steamy, luminous and passionate masterwork, Woodman skips to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway, where "A Streetcar Named Desire" premiered in 1947 with a brilliant cast: Jessica Tandy, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden.
"I can still remember minute details of that production," Woodman said earlier this week, recalling how he was smitten by the performances that director Elia Kazan drew from his actors and particularly by the dreamlike magic of Jo Mielziner's setting. "It made a hugely deep impression on me."
Now Woodman is staging "Streetcar" for the first time in a long and distinguished directorial career. The play opened Thursday at UC Irvine in the Village Theatre (see review on Page 10), where it runs through May 13.
He said he always wanted to direct it but never had the opportunity until UCI drama department chairman Robert Cohen met with him last summer and asked him to do it at the university. One of Woodman's concerns was whether the UCI actors would have "the dimension and the experience" for the demands of the principal roles. His concerns evaporated during auditions last fall.
"I was very fortunate in the casting," he said. "I can honestly say I've dealt with my actors no differently than I would with professionals. I haven't had to make allowances. And I hasten to add it's not like there weren't other strong contenders to choose from."
Relaxing in the empty theater before the start of a dress rehearsal, the 54-year-old director talked of his "immensely exciting experience" with the campus production. He looked collegiate in a crew-neck sweater and slacks. His snow-white hair and neatly trimmed beard, snow-white as well, seemed merely to lend dramatic emphasis to his appearance.
Woodman also spoke expansively about his life in the theater. He said his career reached back to 1957, when the late John Houseman hired him after college as an assistant stage manager for the American Shakespeare Theater. The summer he joined, Houseman was directing "Othello," and Katharine Hepburn was starring as Portia in "The Merchant of Venice" and Beatrice in "Much Ado About Nothing."
"I wrote to him. I had an interview. I was hired," he recounted. "It was that simple. Afterward I thought it would always be that simple."
But during his second season with the company, as Woodman told it, Houseman gave him some abrupt advice: "So you want to direct, do you? Well, get out and do it. I'm sick and tired of people who sit around and do production jobs and whine about wanting to direct. Go do it even if you only direct two animals in a barn."
It took 3 years, but Woodman finally found a summer theater near Wilmington, Del., that let him stage Williams' "The Night of the Iguana." He loved the play so much, he said, that he staged it again the first time he directed in a professional resident theater, at the Cleveland Playhouse in 1963.
"From that point on," Woodman continued, "I would pack a suitcase and just go. To Hartford. To Pittsburgh. To Memphis. To Montreal. To any number of cities. I'd do three or four different productions, depending on the theater. It was a wonderful proving ground because all during that time the regional theaters were growing."
In 1968, Woodman was rehired by Houseman for the Juilliard School Drama Division he was establishing. Woodman spent 5 years at Juilliard as Houseman's executive assistant, then left for Chicago in 1973 to become artistic director of the Goodman Theatre.
"He was my surrogate father," Woodman said of Houseman. "We kept in close touch over the years. What was so lovely when I was flown out here for the 'Streetcar' auditions last October is that I took a car and went to visit him at his home in Malibu literally a month before he died. It meant a great deal to me and, I think, to him."
The Goodman marked a turning point for Woodman and, it so happened, for a young Chicago playwright by the name of David Mamet. As artistic director of a significant regional theater, Woodman could cultivate the work of emerging writers. It was at the Goodman that Mamet's "American Buffalo" was produced by Woodman and directed by his assistant and former Juilliard student, Gregory Mosher.