Steven Woolf, one of St. Louis’ most distinguished theater directors, died Monday, July 12, 2021. He was 75 years old.
Woolf, who died from pulmonary disease, is most known for having served as artistic director of The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis for more than three decades. Woolf produced more than 300 shows at The Rep throughout 33 seasons, from 1986 until his retirement in May 2019. He directed dozens himself including “Arcadia,” “Death of a Salesman,” “Red,” “The Diary of Anne Frank” and many, many more.
When he took over as artistic director in 1986, the theater was in trouble — both financially and artistically. His guiding principle was to present interesting programming and do it well, Woolf told the Times in a 2019 interview.
He became not just the vision, but the voice and premier ambassador of The Rep. His joy and enthusiasm was contagious. Season ticket holders steadily increased under his leadership, as did the theater’s budget. Woolf made The Rep not only financially successful, but a beacon in the arts community. He took it from a regional theater to a powerhouse of prestige.
“Steven loved theater and he loved sharing theater. He literally saved The Rep when it was about to disappear, and he has left an indelible mark on the St. Louis cultural landscape,” said Edward Coffield, former production manager at The Rep, and artistic director and producer of the New Jewish Theatre.
Woolf said he was proud of the fact that The Rep has become a major player in the regional theater world in the country.
“We have grown a lot in many ways over the past decades and those were big steps from where we came in the early 1980s,” Woolf told the Times when he retired. “And if we had some influence in the growth of the St. Louis theater community, that is also something to be proud of.”
Woolf always had his finger on the pulse of the St. Louis community, programming plays that resonated with audiences and showcased the work of outstanding directors, designers and actors, according to Mark Bernstein, managing director at The Rep.
“St. Louis audiences responded by filling the seats, night after night, week after week, year after year,” Bernstein said. “Steve would be in the lobby to greet people every night, making theatergoing into a very personal experience. The way that Steve and his passion for theater touched people’s lives and expanded their horizons will be remembered for many years to come.”
Repeatedly honored for his dedication to superlative theater, Woolf received the St. Louis Arts Awards for Individual Excellence in the Arts and the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Arts and Education Council of St. Louis.
The Missouri Citizens for the Arts awarded The Rep its Arts Award for Advocacy and Woolf was among the first recipients of “The Good Guy Award,” given by the St. Louis Women’s Political Caucus. He garnered many other awards and accolades throughout his career.
Born on Dec. 23, 1945, Woolf fell in love with the theater at an early age and earned a bachelor’s degree in theater and a master’s of fine arts in directing from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and was one of the first recipients of Webster University’s Declaration of Merit.
He spent time in New York City, working on Broadway and directing in off-Broadway theaters. Woolf was on the faculty of The Juilliard School under the legendary John Houseman, and later served as an adjunct faculty member at Webster University, where he taught in Webster University’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts. He also directed for the Conservatory and The New Jewish Theatre, as well as many other theaters around the country. He also served on a number of theater panels, committees and advisory boards, both nationally and locally.
Upon his retirement, The Rep named the Studio performance series after Woolf as a lasting legacy.
“Steve Woolf and The Rep are synonymous. His life and legacy live on as long as we remain true to the excellence he espoused,” said Gwen Middeke, president of The Rep’s board of directors.
He is survived by a brother, Tom Woolf, who lives in Tampa, Florida. A memorial service will be held at a later date.